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'Green wave': Is Malaysia heading towards renewed Islamisation or de-Islamisation?

On the 'green wave' phenomenon and the rise of PAS in recent elections.

Marzuki Mohamad
11 minute read

Coming to Singapore to speak about the "green wave", I remember watching a video of Singapore Presidential candidate, Tan Kin Lian, making remarks about his wife wearing green while accompanying him to his visit in a Malay area. He said that green is the colour that his Malay Muslim friends like and that is why his wife was wearing green on that day. Perhaps, his remark reflects the perceived Malay "green wave" sweeping across Malaysia in the recent elections.

Well, I am a Malay, a Muslim and my favourite colour is blue.

On a more serious note, what is the "green wave"?

In the aftermath of the 15th general election, analysts, political pundits and politicians were perplexed by the impressive performance of Perikatan Nasional (PN) which won 74 parliamentary seats. The Islamist party PAS, a component party of PN, won 43 seats and emerged as the single largest party in the Dewan Rakyat.

It is in this context that those who are wary of the rise of PAS post-GE15 coined the word "green wave". DAP stalwart, Lim Kit Siang, attributed the sudden rise of PAS to "the creation of the toxic politics of lies, fear, hate, race and religion, and the unexpected result of the lowering of the voting age to 18, adding 1.4 million new votes to the electoral roll". Lim lamented, will the "green tide" phenomenon turn Malaysia into a complete Islamic state by the 17th general election?

Oh Ei Sun, from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, attributed the resurgence of the "green wave" to "the rise in Malay ethno-centricity as well as a worldwide revival in political Islam".

The Singapore-based Channel NewsAsia ran a special documentary on Malaysia’s "green wave". The documentary which features interviews with prominent Malaysian scholars and politicians poses the question of whether religious populism in Malaysia means a turn towards right-wing politics – and towards the cynical aspects of identity politics.

However, Mohamed Azmin Ali, PN information chief, brushed aside the so-called "green wave" phenomenon associated with PN as merely "a scare tactic being used to keep ethnic Chinese voters from supporting the political coalition".

Former youth and sports minister and visiting senior Fellow at ISEAS, Khairy Jamaluddin, in his recent commentary in Fulcrum, dismissed the rise of an extremist "green wave’ in Malaysia. He described the Malays' growing support for PN as a wave of discontent in the Malay community due to the country’s lack of economic direction and "the perceived hypocrisy of the present administration, which talks about eradicating corruption and upholding good governance but accommodates a tainted Umno leadership". According to him, what we see emerging from the recent elections in Malaysia is less a "green wave" than a tsunami of discontent.

From these observations, we can discern that there are two ends of the spectrum in the discourse about the perceived "green wave" in Malaysia. On the one hand, there are those who believe that there is a rising trend toward far-right Islamisation in Malaysia due to the growing Malay support for PN, or more specifically PAS, in recent elections. On the other, there are those who see it as nothing more than a growing discontent among the Malay electorate toward the current administration due to its failures to address pressing economic issues, particularly the rising cost of living, and the Malay distrust toward Pakatan Harapan (PH).

My take on the "green wave" is two-fold.

First, if it is about the Islamist party PAS making further inroads in elections, yes there is a real green wave.

Second, if it is about the Malays turning to espousing far-right Islamist political values and practices, and the country heading toward full-fledged Islamisation, no there is no such "green wave". Let me explain why.

The rise of PAS

First, let me turn to the growing support for PAS in the recent elections. If one cares to study the electoral performance of PAS in previous elections, the answer to its spectacular performance in GE15 and the 2023 state elections can be found in its ability to maximise its electoral gains by forming coalitions with more moderate political parties, not through the maximisation of its Islamist political ideals and persuasions.

I used to tell my PAS friends that at the height of PAS’ hardline Islamist politics in the 1980s through to the 1990s, PAS could only make an electoral breakthrough in the Malay heartland state of Kelantan. It wrestled control of the state from Barisan Nasional (BN) in the 1990 general election and has managed to retain its power in the state until now.

However, the party remained a rural Malay heartland-based party until it formed a coalition with Parti Keadilan Nasional (Keadilan) and DAP in the 1999 general election.

Taking advantage of the Malay revolt against BN due to the sacking and jailing of Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 and the reformasi movement which followed, PAS began to make significant inroads outside of Kelantan in the 1999 general election by gaining power in Terengganu and winning a significant number of seats in Perlis, Kedah, Perak, Selangor and Pahang.

The opposition Barisan Alternatif comprising Keadilan, PAS and DAP won a total of 113 state assembly seats, 98 of which went to PAS, 11 to DAP and four to Keadilan. Out of 42 parliamentary seats won by Barisan Alternatif, 27 seats went to PAS, 10 to DAP and five to Keadilan. Riding on the wave of Malay sympathy for Anwar in the 1999 general election and relying on a network of loyal diehard grassroots supporters, PAS emerged as the biggest winner while Anwar’s own party Keadilan was the biggest loser.

It was the Malay discontent towards BN and not PAS’ Islamist politics that swept the party to victory outside its home-based Malay heartland states in the 1999 general election. The election campaign was dominated by allegations about BN’s cronyism, nepotism and the mistreatment and humiliation of Anwar, not PAS’ Islamic state agenda. The non-traditional PAS supporters who voted for PAS in the election were motivated by their discontent towards BN, not the creation of a full-fledged Islamic state.

However, PAS made a tactical miscalculation in the aftermath of the 1999 general election. Perhaps bolstered by its electoral victory, the party released its Islamic State Document, which caused DAP to sever ties with PAS and abandon Barisan Alternatif. Consequently, in the 2004 general election, PAS managed to retain only seven out of the 27 parliamentary seats that it won in the 1999 general election, it lost Terengganu to BN, and it retained its power in Kelantan by a razor-thin majority of one seat in the state assembly.

History repeats itself at GE15. Prior to becoming part of the federal government under PN in March 2020, PAS was an opposition political party holding only 18 parliamentary seats and the ruling party in Kelantan and Terengganu. As part of a "deal" in the formation of the PN government in the state of Kedah, the position of menteri besar, which was previously held by Bersatu, was surrendered to PAS.

So, by GE15, PAS was part of the Bersatu-led PN government and later the Umno-led "Keluarga Malaysia" government, the incumbent party in 18 parliamentary seats mainly in the Malay heartland states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, and the ruling party in the three states.

In the run-up to GE15 in November 2022, PAS decided to end its cooperation with Umno in Muafakat Nasional and opted for cooperation with Bersatu in PN. This decision provided an opportunity for PAS to benefit from the popularity and good will of PN’s government among the Malay electorate and kept it away from the kleptocratic image of Umno, which became the main source of Malay discontent towards BN.

Like the 1999 general election, it was not the "green wave" of a far-right Islamic state agenda that swept PAS to electoral victory in the 43 parliamentary seats. It was the wave of PN’s popularity and good will coupled with the Malay discontent towards BN and their distrust of PH that helped PAS make an impressive electoral gain.

This contention is supported by our pre-election survey data. In our election tracking survey concluded on Nov 18, 2022, former prime minister and PN chairman Muhyiddin Yassin’s approval rating among the Malays stood at 70%, which is the highest among the Malay leaders. Former prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s approval rating among the Malays stood at 57%, Abdul Hadi Awang 51%, Anwar Ibrahim 32% and Zahid 12%.

Muhyiddin, who was fondly called by the Malays as "abah" or father, was remembered by the Malays as a father figure who helped them during the most difficult of times. His "prihatin" or caring economic policy during the outbreak of Covid-19 helped millions of households bring food to the table and businesses to stay afloat. The "abah factor" was the most salient point in PN’s election campaign narrative that gravitated the Malay support towards the coalition. And PAS emerged as the biggest beneficiary of this campaign narrative.

So, yes, if "green wave" refers to PAS' impressive electoral gains in GE15, there is such a wave. But the wave is not predicated on the party’s Islamic state agenda. It is the wave of PN’s good will, which PAS is part of.

Having said this, I must say that PAS' incorruptible image and its network of diehard and loyal grassroots party supporters, which proves to be an effective source of election workers, also significantly contributed to the party’s electoral gain.

Are the Malays becoming far-right?

Now, let me turn to the second question of whether the Malays, by virtue of their growing support for PN, are turning to espousing far-right Islamist political values and practices. My answer is no.

Let me explain why.

I argued in a March 2023 ISEAS Perspective article on GE15 which I co-authored with Ben that ethnicity remains the key factor in Malaysian voters’ preferences. The Malays’ strong support for PN is a mirror effect of the massive Chinese support for PH. In Malaysia’s ethnic politics, it always takes two to tango.

Our studies also revealed that there is no significant difference in the voting behaviour of Malay youth and the older generation. Ethnicity, not age or gender, remains the dominant marker of identity politics in Malaysia. And for the Malays, religion is always closely intertwined with ethnicity.

And this is not something new. The Chinese abhorrence of a Malay dominant party and the Malays’ distrust of a Chinese chauvinist party has been a dominant marker in Malaysian politics for decades. The collapse of Malaysia’s consociationalism in the late 1960s was mainly due to this mutual abhorrence and distrust.

So, the same ethnic marker was at work in GE15. As Umno has lost its status as the "Malay protector", the Malays shifted their support to Bersaru and PAS in PN. On the other hand, the Chinese support remained solid for DAP and its coalition partners in PH.

Therefore, there is no reason for analysts, political pundits, and politicians to single out a new phenomenon called "green wave" attributed to the rise of a backward, far-right Islamist resurgence among the Malays, which is the result of the so-called "creation of the toxic politics of lies, fear, hate, race and religion".

What about the almost 100% Chinese support for PH? What kind of wave is it? What is the colour of the wave? Is it not the result of "the creation of the toxic politics of lies, fear, hate, race and religion", too?

I think we must be fair and objective in our analysis. It is unreasonable to apply different academic and moral standards to the same phenomenon.

I reiterate my view that the Malays’ growing support for PN now is mainly due to Umno losing its status as the "Malay protector". It is not attributable to any kind of new Islamic resurgence taking place among the Malay-majority community. It is the continuation of the same old phenomenon, not a new one.

Is Malaysia moving towards full-fledged Islamisation?

Now, the next question is whether the Malaysian state is moving toward full-fledged Islamisation. My answer is no. In fact, it has taken a gradual turn toward de-Islamisation and secularisation.

Let me explain why.

The Islamisation race in Malaysia lost its steam several decades ago. It was the in-thing during the first premiership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad. There was the Inculcation of Islamic Values Policy in public administration and the setting up of various Islamic institutions including Islamic universities, Islamic banks, takaful and Islamic finance. The expansion of the Islamic Religious Development Department and other shariah institutions also occurred during Mahathir’s premiership. All these were partly direct responses to the Islamisation race between Umno and PAS in the contest for Malay votes.

In the post-Mahathir era, political parties across the political divide formed national coalitions with multiracial and secular parties to gain broad support across ethnic groups. As such, the two main Malay political parties were compelled to show not only who was more Islamic, but also who was more moderate among them. The Islamisation race gradually turned into the race for moderation and multiculturalism.

With the change of government to PH in 2018 and 2022, we are seeing the withering away of the Islamisation policy in Malaysia. Islamisation is not the policy of PH. What is happening now is in fact a gradual turn toward de-Islamisation and secularization, the process of which started much earlier.

Profound changes in this direction can be observed in civil society and state institutions. Since the late 1990s, there has been mounting pressure from the civil society to do away with Islamic laws and institutions which they deem archaic and inconsistent with what they believe is the secular nature of the Federal Constitution.

Previously, their attempt to challenge the constitutionality of those laws in court was not successful. However, in tandem with the change of government in 2018, there have been changes in the judiciary, too. Judges with the more liberal judicial attitudes were elevated to the superior courts and handed down decisions which were more favourable to the secular groups.

On March 10, 2021, a Court of Appeal judge who sat as a High Court judge allowed a Christian woman to use the word "Allah" on grounds that, among others, it was her constitutional right to do so. This decision was heavily criticised by the Muslim conservatives who maintained that the word "Allah" can only be used by Muslims. The PN government immediately filed an appeal against the decision. However, the appeal was subsequently withdrawn by the PH government.

On Feb 25, 2021, the Federal Court unanimously declared that a Selangor state law provision which made unnatural sex a shariah offence was invalid and inconsistent with the Federal Constitution. Following this case, a female Muslim lawyer is now challenging the constitutionality of 20 shariah offences in Kelantan which she argues are unconstitutional.

Muslim lawyers’ groups are also wary of recent developments in the judicial attitude of Malaysia’s apex court which adopted the Basic Structure Doctrine (BSD) in Malaysia. This doctrine gives wide powers to judges to strike down any law or amendment to the Federal Constitution which the judges think is contrary to the BSD. 

Former chief justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad criticised the adoption of this doctrine by the Malaysian court as it amounted to judges giving themselves the power to rewrite or amend the constitution or the law. This, he said, was akin to a "dictatorship of the judges".

Interestingly, Singapore judges rejected BSD on the grounds that it is an alien doctrine not suitable to be adopted by Singapore courts.

What if the Malaysian judges who adopted BSD decide that secularism forms the basic structure of the Malaysian Federal Constitution? Will the court strike down all Islamic laws on this ground and turn Malaysia into a full-fledged secular state, not through the legislative process but through adjudication? In India, where the BSD originates, secularism is identified as the basic structure of the Indian constitution.

It all depends on the judicial attitude of the judges appointed or elevated to the superior courts. A senior lawyer who applied for the post of judicial commissioner related to me that he faced a hard time convincing a member of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) who interviewed him that the Malaysian Federal Constitution is not secular. The JAC member disagreed with him, and he did not get the job.

While analysts, political pundits and politicians are busy with the perceived "green wave" and wary of the so-called renewed tendency toward far-rightism and Islamisation in Malaysia, they overlook the profound changes taking place in civil society and the state institutions, which point toward de-Islamisation and the secularisation of the Malaysian state. On this note, I believe that the perceived threat of a "green wave" has been over-emphasised, both in the media and the academic discourse.

Marzuki Mohamad is an associate professor at the Department of Political Science, International Islamic University Malaysia and the former principal private secretary to the eighth prime minister of Malaysia, Muhyiddin Yassin.

This paper was presented as part of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute Seminar Series "Malaysia’s 'Perceived' Green Wave: The Electorate and Youth Behaviour" on Sept 12, 2023. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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