Malaysia has long been portrayed as a peaceful mosaic of cultures and a fascinating example of Arab, South, and Southeast Asian creolism, as shown in the work of historian Sumit K. Mandal. However, the combination of nearly 90 years of racial stratification under British imperial rule and 60 years of policies aimed at promoting Malay supremacy with controversial and politically-abused race-based economic policies have constantly pulled Malaysia away from a democratic path. The legal complexities of the country’s bicephalic judicial system, which mixes Islamic and Civil law, and the political use of religion have further intensified tensions between parties and communities of faith.
Malaysian society is highly permeable to religious controversies, reinforced by systematic abuses of freedom of religion and recurrent questions about the legal nature of the Malaysian state, whether Islamic or secular. For some, the limitations on how one can profess, practice, and propagate one’s religion seems to fluctuate with the seasons and with the mood of the religious authorities – the Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, or JAKIM. The limits to religious practice pertain not only to non-Muslims but also to Muslims following different sects and/or schools of thought (Madhab) from the official Sunni Shafei. This means that Shia, and Sunni Hanafi and Hambali Muslims, and particularly Baha’i and Ahmadis, are frequently labeled as “deviant” and persecuted on these grounds.
In a context where religion is highly politicized, each election sets the stage for politicians on each side of the political, racial, and religious divide to stir up controversies against “the others.” And elections are coming, threatening to unleash the worst of what Malaysia has to offer. Many hoped that the government formed by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in November would finally fulfill Malaysia’s democratic ambition, given that his agenda is solidly anchored in social justice and racial equality. However, the political alliance of Anwar with the conservative Malay and former ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the relentless pressure of the popular Malay-centric opposition coalition (Perikatan Nasional, or PN) have narrowed Anwar’s scope for reform. With no less than six state elections due to be held before next month – Kedah, Kelantan, Terrenganu, Penang, Negeri Sembilan, and Selangor – religion and morality are likely to become prominent themes in Malaysian politics over the coming weeks. Religion, and more specifically Islam, is already at the forefront of social media trolling and the toxic spread of Manichean and simplistic narratives and “alternative facts” targeting Anwar’s government.
Malaysia has a slight Muslim majority (about 60 percent), most of which is Malay, coexisting with a large Christian minority, in addition to Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and other Chinese spiritualities. Since independence in 1957, Article 11 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution has provided freedom of religion to all its citizens. However, Article 3, which states that Islam is the religion of the Federation, combined with Article 160, which defines Islam as a marker of Malay identity, have been for decades at the heart of religious controversies. Despite the Malaysian Bar Council’s reaffirmation of the secular nature of the Malaysian state, religious controversies remain frequent and represent an effective tool of political mobilization. The question of freedom of religion has therefore created two increasingly polarized opposing camps: Muslim conservatives, on the one hand, and Muslim liberals and non-Muslims, on the other.
Following the relative opening of public space at the end of the Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad era (1982-2003), Abdullah Badawi’s years in office (2003-2009) saw religious controversies flare up, sparked by the growing prominence of Islamic conservatism in civil society and the government’s empowerment of religious authorities. The Article 11 coalition of NGOs defended several famous apostasy cases in which Muslims renounced Islam, including that of Lina Joy (born Azlina Jailani), and organized large demonstrations to expose the growing Islamization of Malaysian society. This is a phenomenon more recently described as a process of “greening,” in reference to the color of Islam, which is also the color of the Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS), which made significant gains at last year’s general election.
In another case, the traditional use of the term “Allah” by Malaysian Bornean Christians came into question in 2008 when the Christian newspaper Herald was banned for using the word. This issue was brought back into the spotlight in 2021, when the High Court ruled on a 2008 case involving Jill Ireland, a Christian from Sarawak, who had educational CDs confiscated on the grounds that their title contained the word “Allah.” The court ruled that the confiscation and the enabling directive of the Minister of Home Affairs was unconstitutional, based on Article 11 of the Constitution.
The decision of Anwar’s government not to appeal the ruling has fueled fear on all sides of the religious and political spectrum. In fact, in each of these controversies what is perceived as an attack on Islam is understood as a challenge to Malay supremacy and the Malays’ fear of losing political power, while for non-Malays and liberal Muslims, these same controversies are perceived as reflecting a slow tightening of political and civil rights, and individual freedoms.
Anwar became prime minister in November thanks to his alliance with the former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), led by UMNO. This unprecedented alliance has resulted in an ideological and political schism. Anwar’s coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), led by the Keadilan party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PKR) has been built on the foundation of the 1998 democratic reform movement “Reformasi.” Keadilan is a multi-ethnic party promoting social justice and racial equality, while UMNO has been historically at the forefront of Malay ethno-nationalist rhetoric inseparable from Islam – very much the antithesis of Keadilan.
Together the coalition holds 82 seats. The opposition, PN, includes two main parties: Bersatu, a party that mirrors UMNO’s agenda, and the Islamist Party PAS, which together hold 74 seats. After the recent government decision not to appeal the ruling in the Jill Ireland v. Kementerian Dalam Negeri (Ministry of Home Affairs) case, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin explained to this author that the issue is highly politicized and will be used at the upcoming election. “The decision is rushed, Anwar is not being sensitive,” he said of the decision. “People are very unhappy, and so is the Sultan. This is ‘God sent’ for the election, even if the problem goes far beyond [the] election.”
As Anwar attempts to find a balance between his liberal and non-Malay support and his ambition to (re-)conquer Malay voters while also preserving the support of his vital partner UMNO, his political position looks increasingly untenable. The political schizophrenia of Anwar’s government on religion and morality has also led to unexpected decisions jeopardizing freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and LGBTQ rights, which have in turn fractured Anwar’s once-iconic reformist image.
In January of this year, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) banned the film “Mentega Terbang,” more than three years after its first screening, and initiated investigations of the filmmaker and producers for religious provocations. This confirmed the complexities of the Anwar government’s relationship with the state administration. The movie, which tells the story of a Muslim teenager confronting the death of her mother who decides to explore the texts of other religions to grasp the truth about the afterlife, was said by religious conservatives to turn children away from the Muslim faith.
Anwar’s religio-populist game has continued, with his recent proposal to amend the Sharia Courts Act to raise the court’s maximum sentencing limits. Along with his administration’s positioning on LGBTQ rights, there is now a risk that his coalition will fall apart due to internal opposition from the non-Malay parties.
Forced compromises are dangerously altering the government’s international image and undermining Anwar’s traditional bases of support. However, for many, Anwar’s compromises are still a better option than the alternative: an opposition super-Malay front. Meanwhile, Anwar’s political gesticulations are unlikely to convince Malay conservatives of his legitimacy as prime minister and as a Muslim leader. In their eyes, Anwar, the former Islamist Youth leader of the 1980s who was coopted by Mahathir in 1982, and then dismissed and imprisoned for corruption and sex crimes in 1998, has long betrayed their cause.
Anwar’s attempt to rehabilitate his image will likely be in vain; his gestures toward Malay ethnonationalists and Islamists will never be enough for the conservative crowds, though they are certainly too much for the non-Malays and liberal Muslims that make up his traditional base of support. The Malaysian leader is now in an extremely difficult position and the coming state elections will only add to the pressure. While a change of government is not foreordained, the inroads that the opposition is expected to make will increase the risks and undermine Anwar’s political fortunes further, casting a shadow over the future of Malaysia’s democracy.