Parliament building, Malaysia. Research article: Anwar Ibrahim's long walk back to power."In the immediate future, the Malaysian polity is highly polarised with no middle ground". [Malaysian Parliament photo: Alamy]

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]


The 15th general elections elections saw the remarkable comeback for Anwar Ibrahim. From the time he was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998, it took 24 years before he ascended to Malaysia’s highest office. Along the way, he was found guilty of sodomy under controversial circumstances, served two jail terms, was beaten up by the deputy police chief in jail, and received a royal pardon. Although strictly speaking, he did not win GE15, he was able to cobble together a coalition post-election and the palace gave him the opportunity to form a governing coalition.

The most surprising thing of course was the kingmaker. UMNO [United Malays National Organisation], despite only holding 30 seats, exercised that role. For reasons outlined above, it decided that its best option was to support an Anwar administration. This was a remarkable turnaround as UMNO was the main political adversary of Anwar for the past quarter of a century.

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The other important issue arising from GE15 is the role of the King and the Malay rulers. Malaysia inherited the British Westminster system of government where the constitutional monarchy is strictly a non-political institution. The royals were forced to decide which candidate it thought could command the confidence of Parliament in 2020 and 2022. When none of the political coalitions could claim a clear majority, the King and the Malay rulers were forced to pick the winner in both cases. While the royalists in Malaysia will immediately claim this was always the inherent role of the Malay rulers as a constitutional safeguard, in reality, this has the potential to undermine the democratic norms in the long run. This may create a norm under which all deadlocked election results will, in future, be decided by the palace, rather than through the holding of fresh elections or through forcing the political class to come up with a solution. Relying on the palace will damage the principle that election outcomes should carry weight and political legitimacy; the polity will conclude, and not unreasonably, that when no clear winners emerge in any election, intervention by the monarchy will be the inevitable way forward and that the governments established thus will be beholden to the palace.

This fear, not spoken about in public because of fears about the use of sedition laws, is far more widespread than is popularly imagined. Six of Malaysia’s states will hold state-level elections in 2023 and there could be the real possibility of the respective state rulers being called upon to intervene. Even if there is a clear winner in the polls, it is not inconceivable that the ruler may try to influence the selection of the menteri-besar (chief minister) of the state.

Going forward, the Malaysian political environment has now profoundly changed. Prior to GE15, conventional wisdom was that PAS [Parti Islam Malaysia], and the conservative Islamic bloc were largely confined to the Malay heartland states (Terengganu, Kelantan, Perlis, Kedah). This may no longer be the case. In terms of actual votes, PAS made significant gains in states like Penang, Pahang, Perak and Selangor. A rather simplistic way of summarising this phenomenon is to say PAS is now the dominant political force among the Malays in the entire northern half of the Malay peninsula. This will have profound political consequences for a multi-racial country like Malaysia.

The question then is: is GE15 a permanent realignment of Malay votes from Malay nationalism, espoused by UMNO and PPBM, to an Islamic worldview as advocated by PAS? The answer to that question will be answered in 2023 when six peninsular Malaysian states will be holding their state elections. If PAS can repeat their GE15 electoral success in these states, then we are probably going to see a permanent realignment of the Malay/Muslim vote, towards a more conservative Malaysia. If PAS is unable to duplicate its performance, then what we saw in GE15 can be seen as an isolated occurrence.

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In the opinion of the present author, the march of political Islam may be unstoppable in Malaysia. PAS, with its Ketuanan Melayu Islam (Malay Islam Supremacy) ideology, is now the party of choice among the rural Malays in Peninsular Malaysia. While they may not reject the current political system wholesale or wholeheartedly, it is clear they want more Islamic elements inserted into the political system. In other words, Ketuanan Melayu Islam is Malay identity politics. The challenge for the new multiracial administration of Anwar is to show that the current system can meet the needs of everyone, including the rural conservative Malay population. If the new administration adopts more Islamic stances to appease the conservative Malays, it will only start the slippery process whose logical conclusion inevitably will be that Malaysia becomes a de facto Islamic state. That would be a tragedy for a country that has always prided itself as a modern, progressive Muslim-majority country.

In the immediate future, the Malaysian polity is highly polarised with no middle ground. The two biggest parties are PAS with 43 seats and DAP [Democratic Action Party] with 40 seats. They are on the absolute opposite sides when it comes to their respective ideologies and vision for the country. PAS wants an Islamic state based on Ketuanan Melayu Islam while DAP wants a secular, liberal Malaysia based on a multiracial and multireligious polity. There is no middle ground between these two extremes. This is the Malaysian tragedy that has come out of GE15.

James Chin is the Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, Australia.