How Should Malaysia’s Government Deal With the ‘Green Wave’?

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How Should Malaysia’s Government Deal With the ‘Green Wave’?

The Islamist party PAS is ascendant, but Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s current response to the group risks doing more harm than good.

How Should Malaysia’s Government Deal With the ‘Green Wave’?

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim pictured after attending Friday Prayers at the Kota Damansara Mosque in Kota Damansara, Malaysia, December 22, 2023.

Credit: X/Anwar Ibrahim

Malaysia’s last general election, in November 2022, concluded with a somewhat paradoxical outcome: in addition to electing long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Harapan coalition, it also delivered the Islamist party PAS more federal seats than any other single party in parliament. Since then, some local and international observers in academic, think tank, and media circles have argued that a “green” – or Islamist – wave is now transforming the nation’s politics.

As the argument goes, this “wave” is the result of a backlash against the two-year Pakatan government of 2018-2020, and the way its infighting about the nature and pace of its own reform agenda disappointed both its supporters and opponents, enabling its collapse. Now that Pakatan is back in power, this time with the 1MDB-tainted United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Barisan Nasional further complicating its reform agenda, there is a strong risk that the wave will gain in strength, potentially toppling Pakatan again and even delivering unchecked power to PAS.

The “green wave” argument is debatable, however, and both academic analysts and direct political players like Khairy Jamaluddin and Ong Kian Ming argue that it has been overstated, citing insufficient evidence that a long-lasting political transformation is now taking place. One point these observers raise is that PAS’ rise remains localized in peninsular Malaysia’s northern states, at least for the time being.

Another is that with UMNO’s effective collapse as a credible Malay nationalist party, only PAS is strong enough to claim the votes of its disaffected former voters, who are both upset with UMNO’s corruption and unwilling to back another multiracial government. At this stage, therefore, the swing to PAS should not be over-interpreted as anything more than a short-term expression of voter disappointment.

This debate is ongoing, and complicated by other factors, including rumors of attempts to topple the government that seem to need constant management. Nevertheless, and regardless of which conclusion one prefers, whether the “green wave” is real or exaggerated is an important question. Indeed, how observers answer tends to structure how they recommend the government should respond to the challenge PAS poses. Yet, as Ong points out, misunderstanding the situation can lead to mistakes – just as some of the post-2018 commentary did when it assumed that Malaysia was on the brink of a democratic transition, forcing many observers to backtrack in 2020.

Should the Government Crack Down on PAS?

One such mistake is calling for a government-led crackdown on PAS, as commentator Aizat Shamsuddin did in his Diplomat essay in August. In his essay, Aizat defended the Pakatan government’s decision to prosecute Muhammad Sanusi, the PAS chief minister of Kedah state, for allegedly insulting Malaysia’s royals. It used the nation’s colonial-era Sedition Act, which the Pakatan parties have campaigned to abolish, but which no government to date has dared to revoke.

Aizat is right that Sanusi’s provocative rhetoric is harmful, drawing as it does on historical themes that the government lacks the confidence, not to mention the scholarship, to rebut, such as styling himself as the anticolonial “warrior” Mat Kilau, the subject of a nationalist film released in 2022.

Sanusi has also argued that Kedah should re-absorb Pakatan-led Penang – the island off its coast that Britain annexed from Kedah’s sultan as a naval outpost in 1786, and which is now a separate Malaysian state and an important linchpin in the Malaysian economy. Not content to stay so close to home, he has even compared Penang with Byzantine Constantinople, implying that PAS supporters are like the Ottoman armies that conquered it in 1453, led by Sultan Mehmed II (“the Conqueror”).

Aizat’s position also reflects a more widespread concern that PAS will skillfully use these arguments, and the sheer attractiveness of invented historical traditions to contemporary audiences, to win federal power. It is true that PAS openly discusses sweeping away the nation’s putatively secular institutions, not to mention its constitution, all of which it dismisses as colonial legacies. The party, and a constellation of ideologically friendly NGOs and cultural producers, also refer to Malaysia’s minorities and liberals as residual colonial influences, from which “true” Malaysians – that is, Malay Muslims – must decolonize themselves by suppressing them politically.

In these respects, Aizat’s concerns are reasonable. Where arguments like his falter, however, is where they call the government’s critics, who decry Pakatan’s resort to the Sedition Act, “naïve liberals who fail to grasp the essence of right-wing politics.” There is simply no evidence that cracking down on PAS would lessen the threat it poses to the Pakatan government, and in fact there is plenty to suggest that successive Malaysian governments’ previous attempts at marginalizing it have simply failed. Indeed, one only need look at former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s attempt to contain PAS through the 1990s to see that not only have they not succeeded in forever marginalizing the party, in fact it is now so powerful that Mahathir himself is relying on it to try to topple Pakatan.

Instead, as we would like to argue here, calls to use national institutions against PAS have the potential to deepen the public’s widespread mistrust in these institutions, potentially increasing PAS’ appeal instead of pushing it out of the political mainstream, as advocates for a crackdown hope.

PAS: Really “the Taliban” and JI, or Just Mainstream?

Before we move on to the rest of our argument, we would like to address the idea that PAS is an “extremist” party. Arguments like Aizat’s, that PAS is “extreme,” need contextualization.

Rhetoric that portrays PAS as a violent Islamist movement has circulated for many decades in Malaysia. It works as part of a strategy its opponents use to speak to the public’s fear of losing its freedoms on the one hand, and to argue that the party operates beyond all politically acceptable limits, on the other. To embellish this argument, observers sometimes compare PAS with the Taliban, a practice that has its roots in 1990s Mahathirism, along with other – equally terrifying – movements, like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), whose name Aizat invokes, and which was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings. It also recalls the use of the term “extreme” in justifying the Emergency against Malaya’s communists, and later, in the 1960s, in ending the potential the government perceived for some of these communists to form a united front with PAS. In this sense, branding PAS in this light echoes the tactics both of past Malaysian governments, and of other contemporary practices such as “red-tagging” in the Philippines.

Such rhetoric has strategic merit in one important respect, namely in confirming the threat that important sections of the Malaysian public recognize in PAS. It is entirely true that PAS wishes to permanently – and irrevocably – Islamize Malaysian public life, and its vision of Malaysian national identity is interpreted by many as narrowly Malay and Islamic. This excludes the country’s many diverse minority groups, who constitute around 36 percent of its population, a sizeable minority that has not consented to PAS reconstructing its position in society.

It is also true that any such PAS-led reconstruction would radically limit the freedoms of Malaysian Muslims who do not wish to live under a putative “Islamic State,” which PAS has often advocated establishing. That such Muslims exist should not be in any doubt, precisely because PAS has not been able to compete electorally without the other Perikatan Nasional (PN) parties to soften its image, despite an electoral system that tilts the playing field in favor of Malay Muslim nationalist parties.

At the same time, however, such rhetoric is also too strategic by half, in the sense that it completely overstates how far out of step PAS is with mainstream public opinion in Malaysia. Public opinion surveys show that many Malaysian Muslims hold – or wish to appear to hold – the very same views as PAS. In a recent Pew survey, for example, 86 percent said that they wish to institutionalize sharia law – a number that will certainly frighten many as it aligns “public opinion” with PAS’ political messages. This figure, however, is also the reason painting PAS as “extreme” is a mistake, both in fact, and in terms of political and rhetorical strategy.

To begin with, the fact that it shows such staunch support for sharia law suggests a strong social-desirability bias in survey respondents’ answers, and this bias should signal to observers that PAS’ views are simply not extreme. Indeed, by definition, they cannot be extreme if they are as normalized, and exert such power on respondents, as this result seems to show.

Further, since this “mainstreaming” has not resulted from violent coercion, associations with the Taliban or JI can only derive from exaggerations, which misread the sources from which PAS derives its power. While the other two organizations have used terrorist tactics and armed insurgency to pursue their goals, PAS is instead a serious electoral force with wide-ranging social, political, cultural, and ideological roots, which hopes to take government using a repertoire of “democratic” tactics.

Its supporters consist of a solid section of Malaysia’s voter base, and these voters cannot possibly all be members of “extremist networks.” Further, as these voters read insinuations that conflate them with extremists, they could well read this rhetoric as disinformation, especially when it comes from national institutions like political parties and the media.

Many Islamist-minded Malaysians already see these institutions as “liberal” legacies of colonial rule, and such allegations could reinforce their fears that Malay Muslims are “under threat” from these institutions, along with the multiracial government at their helm. For these reasons, implying that PAS is a terrorist organization, or adjacent to extremist groups, is not only unfounded alarmism, but it will also surely have political ramifications as it speaks to Islamophobic sentiments in Malaysia and among international observers.

Who Are the Other Extremists PAS is Conflated With?

In addition to the Taliban and JI, several attempts have been made to equate the political party PAS with militant groups such as Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines. However, such comparisons are not only equally misleading, but they also lack foundational accuracy.

Citing Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s crackdown on Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), under the guise of COVID-19 management, reveals misconceptions about Indonesia’s approach to Islamist groups such as FPI, the Islamic Community Forum, and the now-dissolved Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, completely ignoring the government’s specific political objectives.

In 2017 and 2018, FPI gained prominence but demonstrated their lack of robust grassroots support in the 2019 election, even after allying with Prabowo Subianto, who sought any opposition to challenge Jokowi. Though Prabowo initially welcomed their anti-Jokowi stance, he later distanced himself from FPI after becoming defense minister, ending their marriage of convenience. Although FPI had earlier used large street protests to sway the Jakarta gubernatorial elections, leading to Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s imprisonment for alleged blasphemy, they displayed their lack of robust grassroots support in the general election.

As for IS, since 2017, following the fall of its so-called Caliphate in the southern Philippines, this organization has seen a substantial decline in its sway over Southeast Asian militant groups. Although IS reportedly claimed last month’s Sunday Mass bombing in Marawi, in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines, it is imperative that we recognize the incident was the product of local conflict rather than the overarching agenda of IS Central. Even as the geopolitical landscape has changed and threats have shifted, a heightened suspicion persists against those not subscribing to the state’s endorsed interpretation of Islam.

For these reasons, drawing false parallels between PAS and such groups risks manufacturing consent to suppress legitimate criticism. It is essential to consider the specific political objectives that animate groups and the backdrop against which they operate, rather than broadly labelling them “extremist” based on their “Islamist” façade. While PAS may echo some other Islamist groups in championing “Islamic values” and the idea of an “Islamic” state, the parallels end there. Despite isolated incidents like the 1985 Memali Incident, PAS has not demonstrated violent propensities, nor even the capacity for violence. Assuming a direct progression from extreme beliefs to extreme actions oversimplifies differences. Mahathir’s administration’s efforts to link PAS with militant groups during the late 1990s and early 2000s not only lacked substantial evidence but also underscored PAS’s distinct divergence from the state’s interpretation of Islam. This divergence, along with the electoral constituency PAS used it to mobilize, was Mahathir’s primary target.

Understanding these political stakes and maintaining a clear distinction between PAS and movements like the Taliban, IS, and JI is essential. Moreover, describing a political party’s voter base as consisting of “extremist networks” is irresponsible fearmongering and divisive. Carelessly using such a potent term without corroboration can lead to unintended negative consequences. Here, the definition of terrorism and extremism seems to be associated with challenging the existing state order rather than strictly focusing on acts of violence. Misinterpreting these definitions can incorrectly label groups or individuals as terrorist threats, jeopardizing the checks and balances within a state.

The Dangers of Authoritarian Tactics in a Low-Growth Environment

Once the “extremist threat” rhetoric is stripped back, along with comparisons with sundry militants and terrorists, the basic concern informing calls for authoritarian measures is that the Pakatan-led government might collapse, unable to manage its internal contradictions and external pressures. After all, the slightest public hint that Pakatan has a reform program could trigger PAS-led mobilizations, just as it triggered UMNO-led mobilizations in 2020. If such mobilizations were to succeed in toppling the government, they would effectively help PAS to capture Malaysia’s authoritarian infrastructure, which it might not hesitate to wield against Pakatan.

Instead of taking such risks, Pakatan is hoping to stimulate economic growth and restructure the economy in the hope that a rising economic tide will create stakeholders from PAS voters. This approach recalls the 1990s success formula developed by Barisan – of delivering economic growth and addressing economic insecurity, while stamping on “distractions” such as racial and religious disharmony using repressive tools like the Sedition Act. Yet this was Mahathir’s formula, and if Pakatan continues in this vein, it opens itself up to criticism that it is no better than Mahathir, fostering more disillusionment.

Nor does Pakatan enjoy the economic conditions Mahathir did in the 1990s, when he delivered a period of growth, broad economic distribution, and social reconstruction in a combination sufficient to keep most people on-board as stakeholders most of the time. This “success” formula is why 1990s nostalgia has such a purchase with millennial voters, just as talk of the 1960s seems to appeal to their boomer uncles.

Yet the middle-class Barisan Nasional built has been on its knees since the pandemic, and without Mahathir-era growth to soften attitudes towards authoritarian rule, weaponizing tools like the Sedition Act poses significant risks. The act of securitizing specific communities or political groups can exacerbate tensions, leading to potential unforeseen challenges. Today, the focus might be on PAS, but tomorrow it could shift to the socialist party, and then to another entity, in a slippery slope of political maneuvering. Given Malaysia’s political record, and public fatigue with such maneuvering, repeating the Sanusi Sedition Act precedent is worth avoiding.


Pakatan’s actions reveal that as much as it wants to win over Malay Muslim voters, it does not have much spirit for a cultural and political fight for the mainstream sensibility. Perhaps another Barisan-era lesson Pakatan should keep in mind is that governments can invest in their own narratives of the nation’s history, present and future. Recall Mahathir’s efforts in creating an national historiography that was pro-growth, pro-capitalism, and that held up decades of UMNO rule as the pinnacle of Malay Muslim achievement, rivalled only by pre-colonial Melaka.

This alignment allowed Mahathir to claim to that PAS was not “modern” – not something Pakatan can do now that PAS dominates the latest social media channels, leaving Pakatan’s Gen X bloggers in the realm of ancient history. Indeed, Pakatan cannot reboot the 1990s UMNO formula, it will have to invent its own.

So, what is Anwar’s and Pakatan’s story of the nation? What does it have to keep its base mobilized, while also seeking to win Malay Muslim voters who might give pious answers to Pew surveys, but who also harbor serious concerns that PAS would ruin their lives, along with those of their non-Muslim friends, colleagues, and neighbors?

It cannot rely on securitizing these very voters, as crackdown advocates seem to prefer. The blowback from such an approach would be greater than it can contain.