TCS Daily

Islamism's Malaysian Setback

By Yang Razali Kassim - May 18, 2004 12:00 AM

The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition's resounding victory in the Malaysian general election on 21 March 2004 has given a strong mandate to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, five months after succeeding Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the post. It has also strengthened the new premier's position as leader of UMNO -- and therefore the repository of Malay political power, which in the Malaysian context, is the ultimate in politics.

UMNO, the main party in the BN coalition, is therefore expected to easily confirm Abdullah as president come this year's party election, which is to be held in September. This affirmation is crucial for him if he is to embark on his role as leader and unifier of the greater UMNO family. The UMNO Malays have been deeply split since the dismissal and disgracing of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, which led to the reverses suffered by UMNO and BN in the 1999 general election. The 21 March electoral victory suggests that this split is being healed.

But Abdullah may also go beyond UMNO and try to achieve two larger nation-building goals. The first is the wider Malay/Muslim community, which may mean even extending peace overtures to the Islamic opposition party, PAS -- the party he massively defeated. The second would be the nation at large, especially the Chinese and Indians, who clearly have demonstrated a willingness to rally around him. If Abdullah can complete the re-unification of UMNO, forge some kind of accommodation or compromise with PAS and rally the country together to achieve his electoral agenda of a nation of excellence and glory, he would easily stamp his own imprint on the post-Mahathir era.

Secularism's Victory Over Political Islam?

A significant outcome of the 2004 election was the re-ordering of the political landscape that was already being altered by the growing influence of Islam in politics and society. With the massive defeat of PAS, some say, the Islamic party's expansion may have been rolled back. What is clear however is that PAS has been displaced as leader of the opposition, thus returning the secular, Chinese-based DAP, to its previous role -- one it played so stridently from the 1960s through the 1980s. Will this bring back the communal divide of old, in which mainly ethnic Chinese interests competed openly with Malay political power? Eager to remake itself, the DAP has portrayed the changed political equation more in post-Sept 11 terms: the election result, it claims, marks the rise of secular politics to halt the advance of political Islam in a plural Malaysian society. Such a triumphalist view, however, may be an over-simplification.

Despite its defeat, PAS is far from crippled. The election was but a temporary setback in its long struggle to achieve an Islamic state through the ballot box. Indeed, notwithstanding the loss of many seats to UMNO and control of the key oil-rich state of Terengganu, PAS chalked a slight rise in its share of the popular vote from 15 percent in 1999 to 15.8 percent this year. This underscores its core support, and a certain resilience, in the Malay heartlands. Besides, while UMNO may have captured 55 percent of the votes in the Malay-majority states, up from 43 percent in 1999, the fact is that 45 percent remains loyal to PAS. If PAS is quick to learn its lessons and remakes itself to become more acceptable to the general population, it will bounce back as a legitimate party in a system that is largely democratic. The question is whether it can indeed reform, and under what type of leadership.

So, "political" Islam will continue to be on the ascendancy in Malaysia -- only it will be the UMNO version. Instead of an Islamic state as an end goal, there is "Islamic governance" -- Islam Hadhari -- which emphasizes the universal principles of Islam, such as justice, equality and fair play, and less its form, legal trappings and political structure. In short, it is "progressive Islam" that emphasizes development, knowledge and plurality. But PAS also claims that its agenda encompasses Islamic governance. Its president Hadi Awang, in an interview with IDSS, calls it "Hadharah Islamiyah" that comes complete with syariah law. So, it is not that PAS' doctrine is devoid of the same universal substance, or of being anti-development, or anti-modern. Otherwise it would not have been able to attract professionals in increasing numbers, and now also Chinese supporters. But the truth is, largely due to its literal and formalist approach to the issue of the Islamic state, PAS lost the public relations battle to the more sophisticated UMNO and BN, with the help of the partisan media and a nervous non-Malay community post-Sept 11.

But the huge mandate for Abdullah can also be seen as an endorsement of UMNO's Islam Hadhari platform by the multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. What this means is that a more Islamic society is increasingly being accepted in Malaysia -- both on the ground and in the corridors of power. But it will be a society that non-Malays and non-Muslims are more at ease with, led by an essentially Malay nationalist party that has become increasingly Islam-conscious as well, yet progressive and open to all. If this is what the majority wants, then Abdullah has to deliver, or lose the crucial Malay vote again come the next general election. With the demographic trend showing the Malays, who are mostly Muslims, increasing in numbers while the non-Malays declining, no Malaysian leader can afford to ignore this fact. But the long-term picture is one in which the Muslims and non-Muslims live in mutual accommodation.

If Abdullah succeeds in advancing his Islam Hadhari program and is not seen as merely using it to win votes, UMNO will be further strengthened. In the long-term, UMNO in the Badawi era will be a more effective moderating influence on the Malays and engender the growth of an inclusive Malay/Muslim majority. PAS, for its part, will be forced to reform or remake itself to remain relevant. This is not impossible as the party does have a history of pragmatic adaptation. In a sense, PAS can say it has not totally lost. If its goal was more Islamic governance than an Islamic state, then PAS has achieved this in the form of a more Islam-conscious UMNO, albeit one that blends Islam with assabiyah or (Malay) nationalism. Nonetheless, because UMNO is the more dominant, it will be the one that sets the tone and texture of Islam in Malaysia, not PAS. This in turn will have a spill-over influence on the type of Islam that will evolve in the Southeast Asian region, and in the larger Muslim world, because of Malaysia's stature as one of the most developed Muslim economies in the world.

Impact on UMNO

Notwithstanding the huge electoral mandate, Abdullah knows very well that this is still no guarantee the Malays will always be solidly with him. UMNO's history over the last two decades has been marked by a paradox: The party is most vulnerable to a power struggle when it is strongest after securing stunning electoral successes. The party suffered a big split in 1987, five years after the strong electoral victory of 1982, when the leadership of then-Premier Mahathir was unsuccessfully challenged by Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. The second major split in 1998, which followed the sacking of Anwar, took place three years after a general election in which the UMNO-led BN again swept handsomely back to power. Although Anwar was removed for what was described as his personal misdemeanors, a key underlying issue that also played a part was the threat of a challenge from him against Mahathir's leadership of UMNO.

Abdullah, as the new party leader, is determined to prevent another major power struggle, and to that end, has urged members not to seek any contest for the presidency and deputy presidency this year. A non-contest over the deputy presidency will mean that Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak will easily be appointed as the party's number-two. But elections to the next key positions -- the three vice-presidential posts -- will be difficult to avoid as the incumbents are moving on. One of the seats will have to be vacated by Najib while another may be vacated by Muhammad Taib, who is likely to be appointed as UMNO secretary-general. Whoever the leaders who may emerge to contest, the mood in the party now is to close ranks, avoid bruising splits and rally around Abdullah as the new prime minister and party leader.

Impact on PAS

The election was also a major test for Hadi Awang, who took over the PAS presidency upon the death of his predecessor. His party's massive loss does not, however, mean that he would be forced out as president. This is simply not how PAS is run. Indeed, if the electoral setback is to force PAS to reform itself, the man in the best position to lead the reform, ironically, will be Hadi himself. The real Hadi, according to party officials from the reformist wing, is not the radical fundamentalist the media has made him out to be, but a pragmatist who has shown a readiness to be more open and inclusive to advance the party's cause. It is under his watch that a Chinese wing called the PAS Supporters Club has emerged, led by a Western-trained financial consultant and self-professed Christian, Alex Ong. Despite the massive defeat, support for PAS among the east coast Chinese has actually grown, partly due to this fledgling club. Hadi is likely to use the party's defeat to argue with the conservative wing led by the ulamas, or clerics, for change and reform in the party. Indeed, the polls results will give more room to the professionals and reformists, many of whom significantly, were routed at the election. As PAS is likely to be around for a long time to come, it is wiser not to have a simplistic or stereotyped understanding of it.

By confirming its pre-eminence, the ethnically-inclusive BN coalition has overcome a serious threat to its viability caused by the damaging 1998 split within its main component, UMNO. The Malay revolt in that year had almost eroded the party's position as the epicentre of political power. Had UMNO failed to win back the lost ground at the March 21 polls, the party's central role within the BN could have come under serious question. As it turned out, the election made this academic and Malaysia is back to its status quo. But it does not mean that the undercurrents of change have stopped flowing in this crucial phase of transition. The Badawi era has begun dramatically despite many having mistakenly believed that it would be not be as eventful or as colorful as the Mahathir years. It remains to be seen what surprises could emerge as this new phase in Malaysia's post-Independence politics marches to the next general election due by 2009.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS), Singapore.


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