ANALYSIS: Islam and Identity Politics in Malaysia and Indonesia

ANALYSIS: Islam and Identity Politics in Malaysia and Indonesia
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Politicians in Malaysia must tread a careful line when stoking religious fervor, Meredith Weiss argues.

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By Meredith Weiss

Malaysia and Indonesia are very different countries in a number of ways. But the presence of sizeable and mostly non-Muslim ethnic Chinese populations is one thing they have in common, as well as the use of racial and religious sentiments to influence voting preferences among the Muslim majority.

In a way, the role of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (best known as Ahok) in Jakarta is analogous to that of Democratic Action Party (DAP) in Malaysia. In 2017’s Jakarta gubernatorial election, opposition to Ahok (being a Chinese Christian) and outrage over his alleged insulting of Islam became a unifying factor among various Muslim groups that usually go against each other, culminating in the enormous rallies of late 2016 held in the name of “defending Islam.”

Similarly, Malaysia’s Chinese-majority DAP has been consistently portrayed as a threat to Malay political power in order to unify Malay Muslims with different political orientations, be they towards the Islamist PAS, the Malay nationalist United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) or right-wing NGOs like Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (ISMA).

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In this May 7, 2018 photo, students walk beside election campaign flags from different political parties in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Both Ahok and DAP have been associated with intervention of foreign powers, the threat of “Christianization” and the takeover of political power by ethnic Chinese. Such manipulation of religious and racial issues is one of the key reasons leading to the defeat of Ahok in Jakarta.

My observation of the election campaign this GE14 suggests that such strategies might not be working effectively for the ruling government in Malaysia, for a few reasons. This is not to suggest that Malaysian Muslims are more tolerant or inclusive than Indonesian Muslims; instead, it’s because certain social conditions, political arrangements, and electoral strategies have prevented the explosion of racial and religious sentiments this Malaysian election.

First, demographically speaking, there’s a much higher percentage of non-Muslim voters in Malaysia, as compared to in Jakarta or Indonesia overall. The use of exclusionary racial and religious issues would only further consolidate the support of non-Muslims towards the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. Malaysian political actors must take into account the preferences of non-Muslims in a way that some Indonesian candidates don’t.

Malaysian political actors must take into account the preferences of non-Muslims in a way that some Indonesian candidates don’t.

Second, unlike Ahok’s campaign team in Jakarta, Pakatan Harapan is flexible enough to co-opt segments of conservative-yet-not-exclusivist Malay Muslims, including both Malay nationalists (e.g. Mahathir Mohamad and his Bersatu party) and moderate Islamists (e.g. Amanah and Islamic organisations such as Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia).

In order not to dissatisfy conservative Muslim voters, Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has at the same time not clearly opposed the bill proposed by PAS President Hadi Awang to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 to empower the Islamic courts. By giving just enough ground to the Islamist legislative agenda, Pakatan might be able to win over the support of anti-Najib UMNO supporters and anti-Hadi PAS supporters.

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Supporters of Malaysia's opposition Alliance Of Hope attend an election campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 6, 2018.

Third, there is speculation about the deals between some UMNO and PAS leaders, and the possibility of a UMNO-PAS united government. At first glance, such an arrangement could bring together both Malay nationalists and Islamists to fight for a so-called Malay Muslim agenda. Yet, in reality, it might have already backfired.

Some non-Islamist UMNO members are unhappy with the party’s take on certain religious issues. Likewise, many determinedly anti-UMNO PAS members are uneasy with the perceived warming relations between the PAS and UMNO leaderships. As I observed in a few ceramah (political speeches) in Bangi and Shah Alam, many PAS supporters are confused: while they are still attending PAS campaigns, they say they might vote for Pakatan on the election day. Instead of consolidating the Malay Muslim support, the perceived UMNO-PAS alignment might be leading to a swing of support of both parties’ members to Pakatan.

Indeed, while Tun Mahathir’s entry into Pakatan Haparan is meant to prompt a “Malay Tsunami” (the swing of UMNO supporters towards Pakatan), the nomination of Nik Omar, the eldest son of well-respected PAS figure Tok Guru Nik Abdul Aziz, as a Pakatan candidate in Kelantan might similarly lead to an ”Islamic Tsunami” (i.e. the shift of PAS supporters towards Pakatan).

A few months ago, a PAS strategist has anticipated such an “Islamic tsunami”, suggesting there will be more pious Muslims give their votes to the Islamist party. However, as recent developments hinted, there might be a reverse “Islamic tsunami” as some PAS supporters consider voting for Pakatan. The endorsement of Nik Omar might further stimulate such sentiments among PAS supporters.

Leaders in PAS and Amanah alike have been relying on the aura of the late Nik Aziz in their election campaigns, given his status as a popular religious figure. Nik Omar’s surprise move to endorse Pakatan has given strong religious credentials to the opposition, especially Amanah. Not only will it have a great impact in Kelantan, but might also play an influential role in convincing more PAS supporters in other states to defect to Pakatan.

Fourth, in Jakarta some political strategists, observers and media have framed the hotly-contested gubernatorial election as a battle between tolerance and intolerance, or between the pluralist Pancasila ideology and narrow Islamism. In Malaysia, while UMNO and PAS have consistently played up racial and religious issues, leaders in Pakatan Harapan have been careful for not falling into such a trap of divisive identity politics.

Instead, Pakatan Harapan focuses on issues such the cost of living, corruption and good governance. This does not mean that Pakatan leaders are not appropriating ethnic and religious issues in their campaigns, but they do so in a less exclusivist way. By doing so, the opposition alliance might be able to capture Muslim supporters regardless of their religious ideologies and affiliations.

Fifth is the transference of “anti-Chinese” sentiment from Malaysian Chinese on to the People's Republic of China. ISMA, PAS and Pakatan parties (especially Mahathir’s Bersatu) have been attacking UMNO and Prime Minister Najib Razak for “selling out” Malaysia to China, amid a sharp increase of Chinese investment and development projects in Malaysia.

The key difference is ISMA often links “anti-China” with “anti-DAP” rhetoric, while the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) appears to be “anti-China” but “pro-DAP”. In a few ceramah I attended, Malay leaders from Pakatan Harapan repeatedly conveyed the message that Malaysians, regardless of their ethnicities, should be united to end the kleptocracy and to save Malaysia from China’s intervention. By doing so, they make a clear difference between Chinese nationals from China and Chinese Malaysians.

PAS and Pakatan parties (especially Mahathir’s Bersatu) have been attacking UMNO and Prime Minister Najib Razak for 'selling out' Malaysia to China, amid a sharp increase of Chinese investment and development projects in Malaysia.

Such a configuration is different from what happened during the Jakarta election, where we saw the overlapping usage of asing (foreign Chinese-nationals) and aseng (a derogatory term for ethnic Chinese in Indonesia). Such asing-aseng interchangeability puts Ahok, Chinese Indonesians, and China into the same box. In contrast, in Malaysia, the rhetoric of “anti-China” yet “working with Chinese Malaysians” has prevented the spread of “anti-Chinese” sentiments among Malay Muslims.

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People wear t-shirt with writings that read 'Replace the President in 2019' during rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sunday, May 6, 2018.

Last but not least, the appointment of Mahathir Mohamad as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate and the use of PKR’s flag as a common logo for Pakatan Harapan are strategic moves to counter the purported perception that the DAP, Chinese or Christians are taking over the political power.

Such electoral arrangements do sustain certain forms of racialization and indeed Pakatan Harapan is far from being a progressive front. Having said that, such comprises might be necessary in order to prevent further fragmentation of Malaysian society.

How much change, beyond Najib's ousting, does a Mahathir-led coalition represent? Or does an emboldened, victorious Najib mean political rebirths are redundant?

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AP / TPG
Supporters of former Malaysian strongman Mahathir Mohamad wait as rain pours during an election campaign, with an image of Prime Minister Najib Razak on screen, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In sum, the variety of cross-cutting divisions within the Malay community – between Islamism and Malay ethnonationalism, along class lines, and attitudes towards the place of other ethnic groups – present delicate balancing acts for Malaysian Muslim politicians that are comparatively absent in the Indonesian case. That said, while most Malay Muslims in Malaysia are not outright racists nor narrow Islamists, there is both a sense of insecurity and a quest for things “Islamic” among them.

What constitutes such insecurity and “Islamic”-ness, as well as how they are manifested deserves further attention. Even if there is a change of the federal government, a total departure from Islamism and Bumiputraism is unlikely in Malaysian politics. This election appears to be a battle between mirror images: a Mahathir–Anwar-Nik Aziz (represented here by Nik Omar) coalition versus another partnership of Najib Razak and Hadi Awang – all former enemies turned allies, with Islamists and Malay nationalists in both camps.

That said, while most Malay Muslims in Malaysia are not outright racists nor narrow Islamists, there is both a sense of insecurity and a quest for things 'Islamic' among them.

In the scramble between at least five political parties and many other NGOs for the loyalty of Malay voters, we are witnessing a corresponding diversification and transformation of religious discourses and ethnic politics. Whatever happens, the centrality of Malay Muslim thought and preferences in setting the terms of political contestation in Malaysia will only be confirmed on May 9.

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This article was first published at New Mandala – a specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs based at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The original can be found here.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston