Malaysia's State Elections: Test for “decent, inclusive Malaysia”

By Clive Kessler, Emeritus Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, at the School of Social Sciences, at the University of New South Wales

Upcoming elections in six Malaysian states will test the success of an Islamist campaign in the Malay heartland to “disparage and delegitimise” Anwar Ibrahim's eight-month-old government and aspirations for inclusive politics, writes Clive Kessler.

On August 12, six Malaysian states will elect new governments.

Normally, state and federal elections are held simultaneously for most states in Malaysia. But the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo have always been on a different timetable; and some peninsular states have held elections as tests of power between the parties since General Election 14 (GE14) in 2018.

When the faltering federal government stood down to face GE15 in 2022, the state governments of six states did not dissolve themselves. So now, five years after they convened following the 2018 elections, their five-year terms are expiring. They must face fresh elections or be automatically terminated by mid-2023.

Elections are to be held in Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Penang. Three last three of these are currently in the hands of the reformist Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, who surprisingly emerged as prime minister from the very fragmented results of GE15 last November.

The other three, in the so-called northern Malay belt or Malay heartlands, are in the hands of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.

PN took shape in 2022 as a consortium that includes the Bersatu party, a breakaway group from the once dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO); but it also has served very much as the vehicle for the Islamic Party PAS to do what it cannot do on its own and in its own name — namely, win widespread and convincing support outside its own core base of conventionally minded rural Malay supporters for its "shariah-minded" agenda.

PN, whose public face is former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, has been the enabler and facilitator of the so-called Islamic “Green Wave” that, as some saw it, swept large parts of the country — at UMNO’s expense — in GE15.

On the surface these are six different state elections; elections in states that each have a distinct political history and configuration, demographic character, and cultural identity.

But that is not the main or real story. Australians will be familiar with the situation — think of the havoc-making Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland — where sectionally minded populist politicians with strong local support use their entrenched state-level power or their state campaigning opportunities to denounce, discredit, destabilise and undermine middle-of-the-road or mildly reformist national-level governments.

A campaign of growing momentum to disparage and delegitimise the Anwar-led federal government is being mounted under PAS auspices from the Malay heartlands in the name of Malay cultural identity and political supremacy and to defend the supposedly imperilled situation of the Islamic faith and its institutions in modern multicultural Malaysia.

The likelihood now — though the campaign does not officially begin until candidates are nominated on July 29 — is that Anwar’s PH forces will hold onto power in Selangor, Penang and perhaps Negeri Sembilan too.

But the PAS-driven populist Islamist forces in the PN coalition are set to win, and make advances, in the Malay heartlands: that is, to hold onto power in Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah while also consolidating their position in adjacent areas of northern Perak, the peninsular [“mainland”] parts of Penang, and in the Malay-belt of northern coastal areas of Selangor. (It is also extending its grip in the states of Perlis and parts of Pahang and Perak, which are not involved in the current elections.)

The focal personality in this current election drama has turned out, somewhat surprisingly, to be the PAS state premier of Kedah, Sanusi Muhammad Nor, who over recent weeks and months has been “upping the ante”, saying the politely unsayable and acting provocatively.

All too late, the “establishment” forces have now tried to restrain him on grounds of his expressions of disrespect for the Malay traditional rulers (“sultans”) and their social and religious standing. But too little and too late.

Meanwhile, ever desperate to be part of the action and unable to sit still on the sidelines as a veteran politician of a past era, the 98-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad has now aligned himself with the PAS-driven forces in PN.

He appeared at a PAS rally, in an emblematic green shirt, alongside the PAS leader, Islamist ideologue Hadi Awang.

Dr M might yet prove acceptable, Hadi Awang declared, claiming the high moral ground, if he were to show contrition for his past errors. Read here “anti-PAS stance” over many decades.

Mahathir was surprisingly defeated by PAS in his local Kedah electorate in the watershed 1969 elections; now, facing the 2023 elections, he has finally and totally capitulated to PAS and its demands. A humiliation.

The once dominant UMNO party is now divided and at the mercy of its encircling adversaries in these polls. A large part of the old UMNO and its followers are aligned with Muhyiddin Yassin and his Bersatu vehicle that PAS is riding on its journey to federal power. The remainder – still the official core of the party – are linked to Anwar and serve as part of his federal government.

But there are two big problems here: for Anwar it is the fact that he is yoked politically to the UMNO leader Zahid Hamidi, who is legally tainted and is hardly popular, to put the matter politely; and for Zahid Hamidi’s UMNO rump, it is that they must support and urge clemency and pardon for the disgraced former PM Najib Razak, now in jail, while increasing their popularity and support base would require them to distance themselves from the convicted Najib.

A lot can happen in the two weeks of campaigning from July 29 to August 12. Much is unclear. But the likeliest outcome and main prospect is for an even more divided nation to emerge after the polling results are counted.

Malaysia looks likely to become a nation of three contrasting political zones: the eastern Malaysia states of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo, that, in their ethnic diversity and complexity, are not dominated by the Malays or by any single ethnic group; the southern peninsular zone, south of Kuala Lumpur plus Penang island, with their multicultural and quite modernised social character; and the ever more assertive Malay-dominant areas to the north of Kuala Lumpur in the north-western and north-eastern corners of the peninsula.

The problem here is that the entire electoral system by design massively and outrageously favours, and underwrites, the power of these so-called heartland Malay areas where PAS thrives — and it is never likely to be changed or reformed.

It thrives on the cultivation and mobilisation of deep-seated, unruly feelings of anger, fear, hatred, and resentment. Of resentful resistance to anything and everything that is not, as these stalled and thwarted elements in Malay society see things, “truly and properly Malay”. And less than rightly Islamic, as they in their own local terms understand the faith and its imperatives.

Against fear, anger, rage and resentment, the political power of reason, reasonability, moderation — and a principled willingness to share the world with others on decently negotiated terms — can be a pretty weak counterforce. And one easy to outbid, marginalise and stigmatise.

The bottom line: These ostensibly state-level elections are set to be conducted as a concerted “squeeze-play” against the federal government and its head, PM Anwar Ibrahim.

That is why they are so fatefully important. This electoral moment may be the last hurrah for the old aspiration toward “a decent, inclusive Malaysia”.

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

This article was first published in the Malay Mail Online on July 25.