The Rise and Rise of Malaysia’s Nationalist Right-Wing

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Rise and Rise of Malaysia’s Nationalist Right-Wing

This month’s state elections saw broad electoral gains for the Malay nationalist PN coalition, the result of years of far-right rhetoric and organizing.

The Rise and Rise of Malaysia’s Nationalist Right-Wing

Supporters of Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) gather on the election nomination day outside an nomination center in Langkawi, Malaysia, on April 28, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File

In Malaysia’s six state elections earlier this month, the right-wing Malay-Muslim coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN), maintained the substantial momentum that it gained at the general election in November 2022. The polls saw PN’s influence solidify across the Malay-majority states, bolstering its control in Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah, while also making inroads into Pakatan Harapan (PH)-controlled states along the west coast, including Selangor and Penang.

This trend highlights two things. The first is the growing support for Malay-Muslim hegemonic politics, particularly attributed to the Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS)’s predominant influence within the PN coalition. The second is the PH coalition’s inability to maintain the Malay support that it secured at the 2018 general election, despite forging an alliance with a seasoned Malay nationalist party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and introducing various incentives to secure Malay votes. This raises substantial questions about the seemingly undefeatable influence of right-wing forces spearheaded by PAS, and whether effective strategies exist to tackle the dangerous impact on Malaysia’s multi-racial and religious society.

PAS’ Strategies and Influence

PAS’ current dominance in Malaysian politics, especially in the peninsular region, stems from decades of consistent indoctrination and mobilization efforts. The party endured 22 years of UMNO-led rival political suppression under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad from 1981 to 2003, followed by its ascension to power in multiple peninsular states and a stint in the federal government from 2020 to 2022. This has bolstered its resilience, leading to an accumulation of political legitimacy, extensive networks, and financial resources.

The party’s traditional strategies involve infiltrating conservative grassroots networks and engaging with youth. Utilizing their “markaz” or operational bases and mosques in constituencies under their control, PAS actively spreads daily political messages and arranges communal activities that foster social capital around shared religio-political values among followers and family members. Moreover, PAS invests in young talent through its parallel school system and student networks in Malaysia and abroad in order to preserve its legacy.

As an Islamist party, PAS enforces loyalty among its members and their households by manipulating the theological doctrine of al-Wala’ wa al-Bara’, which fosters unwavering allegiance to its clerics-led leadership, a notion known as wilayatul faqih. This doctrine, inspired by the 1979 Iranian Shia revolution, veils the party’s leadership with a religious infallibility that is not shared by the leaders of other political parties.

This also enables PAS’ central leadership to suppress internal dissent, exemplified by the case of Ridzwan Abu Bakar, who faced public ostracism for challenging the party’s religious corruption at the party’s annual conference in 2015. The leadership of PAS purged the party’s “professional fraction” in the same year, resulting in the formation of the splinter party, the National Trust Party (AMANAH) within the PH coalition, which seeks to be a moderate alternative to PAS.

In more recent times, the internet has played a pivotal role in disseminating PN and PAS propaganda. Pro-PN messaging, extending across both offline and digital platforms with the normalization of combative language and symbols, has attained a wider reach and more organic engagement in contrast to pro-PH messaging. In the August 12 state elections, influential religious preachers like Abdullah Khairi and Azhar Idrus, as well as notorious vigilante group leaders like Azhar Mohamad and Yusuf Azmi, all of whom benefit from patronage relationships with the PAS leadership, openly urged Muslims to vote for the PN coalition and cautioned them against voting for the “enemy” of Islam.

Meanwhile, during political rallies, youth supporters were seen riding on horseback proudly waving PAS and PN flags as well as “al-Liwa” and “al-Rayaah” banners, reminiscent of those waved by the Prophet Muhammad during the conquests of the seventh century. Other followers also expressed their overzealous support using vehicles like lorries, trucks, bikes adorned with cardboard tank replicas, and even boats at sea.

These scenes were condensed into bite-sized clips, often accompanied by religious songs invoking jihad, to captivate attention and evoke emotive responses to a wider online audience across platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and various chat applications.

These strategies have effectively enhanced the party’s appeal as the last bastion of the Malay-Muslim population following UMNO’s decline. This has extended across various Malay-Muslim demographics, beyond the rural conservative communities that have traditionally supported PAS, including celebrities, male bikers’ groups, and white-collar professionals from semi-urban and urban areas. PAS now serves as a platform for them to express their resentment against perceived liberal and non-Malay enemies, while also providing a means to compensate their religious convictions through perceived religious contributions, whether morally or financially.

A Challenging Outlook

Malaysians and the government are grappling with a significant challenge in sustaining social cohesion. Since PH first came to power in 2018, right-wing networks have multiplied beyond PAS to include political parties, NGOs, and academia – even some forces within the PH-UMNO coalition itself – to adopt a more aggressive stance to protect Malay-Muslim privileges from perceived threats. This includes a push for a government led by exclusive Malay-Muslim leadership, as reflected in the governments formed in Terengganu and Kelantan after this month’s state elections, and a public sphere molded by Malay-Muslim norms.

In this context, the likelihood grows of right-wing forces igniting the conservative Malay majority’s anger and mobilizing them via political rallies and clashes, especially so given PN’s recent electoral successes. By knowingly exploiting issues linked to race and religion, this political pressure will obstruct good policy reforms and disrupt the functions of democratic institutions. This parallels a previous pattern that resulted in the unprecedented downfall of the PH government in 2020.

It is thus important for the authorities to take punitive measures against dangerous movements and figures like the prominent Kedah-based PAS leader Sanusi Md Nor, whose divisive rhetoric has fueled polarization and radicalization. Such measures will convey a resounding message to both leaders and fanatical supporters of right-wing networks that commit or encourage extremist behavior, even when cloaked in ethno-religious language, will not be tolerated.

In the long term, it is imperative to empower a diverse Malaysian support base, encompassing ethnic, religious, and youth populations across both peninsular and East Malaysia, with inclusive education initiatives via Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s “Malaysia Madani” or “Civil Malaysia” framework. The aim of this endeavor should provide a cohesive narrative that unites all Malaysians and reduces religio-political polarization. Even the PH administration’s socioeconomic incentives that have focused on the Malay-Muslim population have not been able to neutralize the right-wing dominance.

However, this initiative requires more time and widespread dissemination to generate meaningful positive impacts, particularly in reshaping perspectives. Otherwise, it risks being discredited by right-wing forces as a “liberalization” project, as seen in previous national Islamic projects aimed at promoting interreligious harmony like former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s “Islam Hadhari” or ” Civilizational Islam,” initiative from 2004 to 2009 and former Minister of Religious Affairs Mujahid Rawa’s “Rahmatan lil Alamin” or “Mercy to All” initiative from 2019 to 2020.

In realizing this vision, PH should harness its key non-Malay allies, such as the predominantly ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, and empower moderate to progressive Malay networks like AMANAH and rights-based NGOs to redouble their engagements with diverse communities. Additionally, PH can leverage its transnational networks with moderate Muslim scholars, particularly those from Indonesia, to support each other in promoting pluralistic values.