Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim Faces the Demons He Helped Unleash 

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim Faces the Demons He Helped Unleash 

After coming to office with a pledge to focus on the economy, Anwar has been dogged by Malay-Muslim culture war controversies.

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim Faces the Demons He Helped Unleash 

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim attends a Ramadan fast-breaking ceremony on the grounds of the Al-Muttaqin Mosque in Kota Samarahan, Malaysia, March 30, 2024.

Credit: X/Anwar Ibrahim

As Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim approaches the midpoint of his second year in office, he finds his work cut out for him. The national currency, the ringgit, was one of Asia’s worst-performing currencies in 2023, having declined 4.3 percent against the U.S. dollar. This year has so far brought no respite: on February 20, the ringgit hit a 26-year low against the dollar. An uncertain external environment has certainly not helped, with the country’s overall trade dropping by 7.3 percent year-on-year last year. Public debt remains relatively high among emerging economies in Asia.

And yet, despite these pressing economic issues, Anwar’s government has found itself constantly sidelined by the politics of culture wars. Over the last few years, public discourse in Malaysia has increasingly revolved around outrage over perceived slights to cultural sensibilities, especially those pertaining to the Malay-Muslim majority. Most recently, Malaysian society has found itself divided by some very inadvisably designed socks.

This latest controversy began on March 13, when photos were posted online of socks bearing the word “Allah” being sold at the outlet of local convenience store chain KK Mart. KK Mart is Malaysia’s second-largest chain of convenience stores, with an estimated 800 branches nationwide and nearly 1 billion ringgit in annual revenue. The socks were later found being sold at several KK Mart outlets.

Photos of the socks went viral online and triggered a backlash from many Malays, particularly given that it occurred during the holy month of Ramadan. Among those who condemned KK Mart included several politicians, as well as Malaysia’s Supreme Ruler or Agong, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, who called upon authorities to investigate the incident and for “stern action” to be taken.

In response, KK Mart apologized for what it called an “oversight” and confirmed it had halted the sale of the offensive accessories. The company Xin Jian Chang, which supplied the socks to KK Mart, also apologized, claiming that the socks were imported from China in packs containing 1,200 pairs with different designs. For all intents and purposes, the sale of the socks did not appear to be a deliberate move by the company to insult the country’s majority religion.

Despite this, certain Malay politicians have seen fit to continue fanning the flames over the issue. Most notably, the Youth Wing of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a major political party and one of the component parties of Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government, called for a public boycott of KK Mart. This call was led by UMNO Youth Chief Dr. Akmal Saleh, who has become one of the public faces of the public campaign against KK Mart.

Akmal received criticism from public figures for his boycott campaign. The Malaysian Chinese Association) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), both Chinese-majority component parties of the unity government, accused Akmal of exacerbating racial tensions in Malaysia through his campaign against KK Mart. It should be noted that KK Mart is a Chinese-owned convenience store chain, and many Malay-Muslims have come to view the “Allah socks” incident as a deliberate and calculated attack by non-Muslims against Islam. In response to these criticisms, Akmal has doubled down on his boycott campaign, even warning the owners of KK Mart to “find another business.” (The fact that plenty of Malays work at KK Mart stores is probably immaterial to him and others who support the boycott.)

On March 26, five executives from KK Mart and Xin Jian Chang were charged with hurting religious feelings. KK’s chair and his wife, who serves as a company director, were charged with deliberately intending to hurt religious feelings. Three officials from Xin Jian Chang were also charged with abetting the alleged crime. All pleaded not guilty to the charges and face a maximum jail term of one year, a fine, or both on conviction.

More worryingly, public outrage against KK Mart has sparked vigilante actions by members of the Malaysian public. Two Malaysian men who had made comments online concerning the controversy which were deemed insulting to Islam were tracked down by vigilantes in real life and intimidated into making confessions about their allegedly “offensive” remarks. Both individuals were immediately arrested by police and charged, with each sentenced to six months in prison. One individual was also fined 12,000 ringgit, while the other was fined 15,000 ringgit.

In addition, in recent weeks there has been a spat of petrol bomb attacks against KK Mart stores. At the time of writing, attacks had been recorded against stores in the states of Perak, Pahang, and Sarawak. Thankfully, no casualties or extensive damage were reported in any of these cases.

These acts of vigilantism and religiously-inspired violence have raised concerns about the rise of mob rule in a country normally characterized by its political stability. They also have recent precedents. In January of this year, a Molotov cocktail was lobbed at the home of DAP Member of Parliament Ngeh Koo Ham, setting a car on fire (no individuals were hurt in the incident). It is believed that Ngeh had been targeted after suggesting non-Muslims be included in a special committee on Shariah law. (He later withdrew these comments.)

These recent attacks can be considered the more violent aspects of a larger trend of Islamization that Malaysia has witnessed over the last few decades. Besides the observable interjection of conservative Islamic mores into the country’s institutions, Islam has been increasingly harnessed for political posturing in the context of competitive politics. This has resulted in often performative religious politics being adopted by Malay politicians in order to attract Malay votes, to the detriment of inter-ethnic relations.

The Islamization of Malaysian politics is not unique; indeed, similar trends have been observed in other Muslim countries. What differentiates the Islamist movement in Malaysia from other global Islamist movements is its heavily ethno-nationalist character. Malaysia’s Islamist movement must be understood within the context of the fragile multi-ethnic nature of Malaysian society. Specifically, attention must be paid to the long-standing tensions between the majority Malay Muslims and the minority Chinese, the latter of which are generally more urbanized and economically dominant (as is the case with most of the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia).

Ultimately, it is this underlying Malay fear of being overrun by their wealthier Chinese neighbors, and to a lesser extent the minority Indians as well, rather than a strict adherence to Islamic doctrine per se, that drives Malaysian Islamism. This underlying fear has seen the political expression of Islam in Malaysia increasingly shift toward a more toxic form of Malay chauvinism which seeks to subordinate non-Muslims. In the worldview of modern Malay Islamists, Malaysia is an inherently Malay and Islamic nation, with no meaningful place for non-Muslims. Indeed, for many non-Muslims in Malaysia, the public boycott campaign and attacks against Chinese-owned KK Mart have prompted deep foreboding.

Ironically for a man who has long portrayed himself to global media as a reformer, it was Anwar’s own entry into Malaysian politics that helped lay the foundations for the Islamization of Malaysia. Seeking to compete with the Islamist-leaning opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia or PAS) for Malay votes, in 1982 then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad invited Anwar, then an Islamist student activist, to join the ruling UMNO government to bolster its own Islamic credentials. Notwithstanding their later falling out in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, Anwar’s legacy was to open the floodgates for Islamist activists to entrench themselves within Malaysia’s institutions of power.

Having finally achieved the position of premiership in November 2022, Anwar must now face the demons he helped unleash. While Anwar has bemoaned the amount of political oxygen that the “Allah socks” controversy has consumed, circumstances have evidently moved beyond the government’s control, with vigilantism, religiously-inspired violence, and mob rule now seemingly becoming a new normal in Malaysian politics. For liberal-minded Muslims and non-Muslims fretful about the future of Malaysian multiculturalism, the lack of leadership shown by Anwar has been hard to stomach.

While Anwar has sought to focus his government’s attention on implementing economic and fiscal reforms, the fallout from the “Allah socks” controversy has raised an arguably higher priority for his administration right now. That of promoting national unity.