Malaysia’s fourteenth general elections are looming. This time, almost unprecedentedly, they will see the two great Malay political parties — the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) — working implicitly as allies, not rivals.
The fate of Malaysian politics, despite the nation’s ethnic diversity, is decided by the political competition between these two Malay political parties that compete for Malay votes.
This truth is ever more pronounced as Malay demographic predominance continues to increase due to high Malay birth rates, immigration of Indonesians and others who become ‘Malays’ in political terms, and the emigration of many middle-class non-Malays discouraged by growing Malay power and Islamist domination of Malaysian life. Malay domination is also entrenched by gross electoral ‘malapportionment’ — non-Malay voters tend to be corralled within very large urban electorates, while Malays in the rural heartlands generally vote in much smaller constituencies.
For decades, with a brief and failed truce in the 1970s, UMNO and PAS have been implacable adversaries, bitter rivals for Malay votes and the ability to set the Malay and national agenda. In general, UMNO has sought to be more moderate and conciliatory towards non-Malays while heading the Malay-dominated governing coalitions — first the Alliance Party until 1969 and the Barisan Nasional (BN) since then. PAS has always sought to promote a more assertively Islamic, and in recent times Islamist, agenda with appeals to the religious idealism and the political insecurity of the nation’s Malay voters. PAS has never come to national power through elections. But it has sought to use elections to mobilise the mass Malay vote against UMNO and undermine UMNO’s political credibility and authority.
This great rivalry has deep historical roots. Modern Malay national politics evolved in the early twentieth century in three forms. The first was the Islamic ‘reformist’, grounded in the scattered institutions of traditional Malay Islamic education. Then came the Malay national-populist, a movement of Malay schoolteachers, writers and academics, in tone left-wing and regionally pan-Malay. And finally the elite movement of the old state sultanate circles, educated at prestigious English-language schools and gradually recruited into the British colonial administration.
By the time PAS was formed and began to contest UMNO for Malay leadership, their opposition expressed the continuing split between these three pre-World War II Malay political styles. UMNO represented the projection of the old Malay administrative elite into modern politics in the pursuit of state power. PAS embodied an often uneasy alliance full of unresolved tensions between the Islamist and the radical Malay populist forms of Malay nationalism. This has been the basic structure of post-independence Malay politics — a contest between these two parties, as inheritors, champions and renovators of those core political traditions.
In Malaysia’s most notable elections, including 1969, 1999, 2008 and 2013, the political authority and room to manoeuvre of UMNO was severely curtailed by PAS’s success in depriving UMNO of as much as one-half of the overall Malay vote. For its part, PAS has been happy to wage a long-term struggle, using its political leverage over UMNO to incrementally make UMNO its hostage and ensure it would forever find itself pressured to adopt PAS-congenial and Islam-promoting policies. This underlying dynamic has produced the increasing and, over recent years, radical de-secularisation of Malay society and Malaysian politics.
In the elections of 2008 and 2013, UMNO alienated BN’s old non-Malay supporters with increasingly strident assertions of Malay supremacy and found itself facing a ‘popular front’ opposition — from PAS, the largely non-Malay supported Democratic Action Party and Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party that appealed to some younger Malay professionals and educated non-Malays.
Since 2008, UMNO’s central political aim has been to break that popular front alliance by stigmatising the Democratic Action Party as anti-Malay and anti-Islam, by denouncing the People’s Justice Party as a party led by a moral reprobate and by berating PAS for its refusal to be a ‘proper’ Islamic party and its betrayal of Islam.
In the aftermath of the thirteenth election, that goal was accomplished. PAS broke from the opposition, purged its leadership of coalitionists and entered into an increasingly comfortable entente with UMNO. Long rivals, the two main Malay political parties are now ‘complicit partners’. UMNO has struck a deal with PAS — UMNO gets PAS’s Malay support, if the UMNO-led government runs PAS-congenial ‘sharia-minded’ policies.
UMNO knows the score — it can rule for ever, so long as PAS wants it to and lets it do so. UMNO is driven by fear of the electoral power PAS can wield against UMNO. PAS knows that too. That is the basis of how both sides now work — sometimes together, sometimes not, but always in concert. This situation is congenial to PAS and very acceptable to UMNO.
Malaysia’s politics are now fatefully transformed. Through their complicit partnership, the old adversarial PAS of the bitterly contested 1960s has now entered a new Malay government duopoly. The UMNO–PAS consortium sees the PAS not just reborn and strengthened but, in a very serious policy and political sense, in control.
Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at UNSW.
This article is part of an East Asia Forum special feature series published on 17 December 2017.