Months before the collapse of Pakatan Harapan government, social media postings and comments were loaded with phrases that claimed ‘Islam is under the threat’ and ‘Malays are being side-lined’.
These perceptions contributed to the downfall of the PH coalition. Various anti-PH agents have worked to shape Muslim public opinion, justifying the call to establish a ‘Malay-led government without DAP’.
When the PH coalition won power in 2018, PH leaders promoted a notion of ‘new Malaysia’, that encouraged unrealistic hopes and anxieties over a more equal and liberal Malaysia. Others worried about the undermining of a so-called Malay-Muslim agenda. In the end, the PH government failed to manage expectations and contain anxieties, enabling the opposition to use identity politics to attack the PH agenda.
Opposition political parties (especially PAS and UMNO), NGOs (especially ISMA), and preachers (especially Perlis Mufti Dr Mohd Asri and his allies), as well as certain ‘elements of sabotage’ within the PH coalition (especially those from Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Bersatu party) popularised ‘Muslim insecurity’ and ‘Malay anxiety’. By encouraging outrage and raising the alarm over a range of education, and human rights issues, these opposing forces to PH’s barely-read reformist election manifesto created a groundswell against the new government’s moves to recognise the Chinese-language schools’ UEC (high school) certification, the United Nations’ ICERD anti-discrimination convention and its ratification, and ejecting the controversial Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik. These anti-PH forces also targetted the Chinese-dominated DAP, the second biggest party in the PH coalition, and blamed it for allegedly ‘bullying’ Malay Muslims.
The reactions of Malaysia’s non-Malay activists and liberals to such controversies have also reinforced perceptions that ‘Islam is under the threat’. At the same time, moderate Islamist groups such as IKRAM and ABIM are trapped, accused of being ‘liberal’ by the ‘ultra-Islamists’ and as ‘Islamist’ by ‘super-liberals’, disabling the meaningful roles they have played in mediating differences. It was this PH government inability to resolve such contentious issues, together with the power struggle among its political elites, that led to the PH government’s collapse.
Political competition, Malay unity and Muslim majoritarianism
After the 14th general elections (GE14) in 2018 that swept PH to power, the realignment of Malay Muslim politics involved simultaneous processes of fragmentation and cooperation. On one hand, there were multiple levels of power competition, be it inter-coalition (PH versus PAS-UMNO), inter-party (Bersatu vs PKR, PAS vs Amanah), inter-personal (Mahathir vs Anwar), and intra-party (especially within PKR, UMNO and Bersatu).
Supporters in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia celebrate Pakatan Harapan's victory in the 14th General Election - May 10, 2018. Image: Farid Tajuddin, Shutterstock.
UMNO and PAS became closer, after over four decades of hostilities, forming a working coalition in 2019, first under the name of ‘Perpaduan Ummah’ and later renamed as ‘Muafakat Nasional’, and now in 2020 together with Bersatu forming a Malay-led loose coalition called ‘Perikatan Nasional’ that formed government last month. Despite their ideological differences and long-term rivalries, a common identity (being Malay Muslim) and a common enemy (DAP) brought UMNO and PAS closer together.
The more fragmented Malay politics has become, the more the notion of ‘Malay unity’ becomes appealing, the more right-wing exclusivists and opportunists come closer to each other, the more they need a ‘common enemy’ – viewing ‘Chinese DAP’ as the scapegoat. The fragmentation of Malay-based political parties, coupled with the rise of social media influencers, have also given Muslim NGOs and preachers a bigger space to expand and shape Malay Muslim opinions.
Terms such as ‘Malay’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘Bumiputra’ are used interchangeably, even though they have different connotations. They use ‘Islamic’ idioms to mobilise support, but not everyone shares the same Islamic agenda. It is less about ‘growing religious extremism’ or ‘hardline Islamism’ – and more about ‘Muslim majoritarianism’, in which theyargue majority Muslims have to take back governing power from a perceived ‘dominating minority group’. PAS’ recent slogan ‘Islam Memimpin’ (Islam leads) clearly manifests this tendency.
‘Islam is under the threat’
‘Islam is under the threat’ – this is a common warning made by many anti-PH activists and preachers, and there are two groups central to manufacturing and popularising such perceptions. The first is ISMA (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia), and the second is Perlis Mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin (Dr Maza) and his allies. ISMA is a small right-wing Islamist NGO, but it has been smart in using social media platforms to hijack Malay public opinion; for example, through ‘Anti-ICERD’ and ‘Buy Muslim First’ campaigns.
Outspoken Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri, popularly known as Dr Maza, is one of Malaysia’s most influential Muslim preachers, with more than one million Facebook followers. He appeals to many pious, educated, and urban middle class Muslims, including those who have been supporters of the PH coalition. He had been perceived as being pro-PH before GE14. He was one of the few religious figures who openly disagreed with PAS’s proposed enactment of RUU 355, a bill seen as a leeway for the implementation of Hudud or Islamic penal law. At the time, such a stance was invaluable support for PH’s Islamist party Amanah, because it had been labelled by PAS leaders as ‘anti-Islam’ for not openly supporting the bill.
However, after PH won power in 2018, Dr Maza’s relationship with PH turned sour over issues such as the new government’s Hindu temple relocation in Subang near Kuala Lumpur, and the controversies over India-national preacher Dr Zakir Naik. The presence of Zakir Naik has been a contentious issue in Malaysia, where his supporters allege he has been criminalised by the Indian government but his opponents argue he is a divisive figure that polarising Malaysian society with racist and discriminatory rhetoric against Malaysian minorities.
In early August 2019 at a PAS-organised talk in Kota Bahru, Dr Zakir Naik responded to calls for his deportation by accusing his Malaysian Chinese critics to ‘go back’ first as they were the ‘old guests’ of the country. After that, a few DAP lawmakers, especially outspoken Penang Deputy Chief Minister P.Ramasamy, have openly criticised Zakir Naik and urged the government to deport him. By mid-August last year, Zakir Naik and his family member were stopped from speaking publicly at a two-day Muslim camp in Perlis, an event hosted by the Perlis Mufti.
Preacher Zakir Naik speaks at event held in Nilai, Malaysia - January 10, 2019. Image: Hazreen Mohd, Shutterstock.
Such calls to deport or silence Zakir Naik provoked a strong backlash from popular preachers closely associated with him, including Mohd Asri, Rozaime Ramli, Firdaus Wong, and Zamri Vinoth. These preachers disputed allegations that Zakir Naik was a ‘terrorist’, and instead they claimed he was a victim of India’s right-wing Hindu government. Even though PAS and ISMA do not entirely share the same religious viewpoints with this group of preachers, they have rallied behind Zakir Naik in the name of ‘defending Islam’. Some Bersatu leaders have also defended Zakir Naik.
Firdaus Wong, a Chinese Muslim preacher and a protégé of Zakir Naik, is one of the most outspoken preachers in ‘defending Islam’. On 29 April 2019, he posted online a polemic entitled ‘Islam diancam?’ (Islam is being threated?), alleging that Islam in Malaysia was threatened by some Hindu extremists, and that the PH government had failed to protect Islam from being insulted. This Facebook post received more than 12,000 likes and 8,100 shares. On the same day, Dr Maza shared Firdaus’s post and added that “political reality has made Muslims being bullied” (Facebook, DrMAZA.com, 29 April 2019). His response was widely reported in the Malay daily newspapers, including Sinar Harian.
The arrest of alleged LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) supporters in Ocotber 2019, which included a few elected Malaysian Indian DAP leaders, is a key turning point. A few days before the LTTE arrests, preachers such as Firdaus Wong promoted and offered ‘evidence’ and photos on their social media platforms to ‘prove’ that a few Hindu DAP leaders supported the LTTE, a ‘terrorist’ group. A Facebook page called ‘Pusat Kajian Ancaman Pengganas & Misionari di Malaysia’ (Research Center for Threats of Terrorists and Missionaries in Malaysia) has been set up for similar purposes of making the case against such alleged supporters of the LTTE in Malaysia. Coincidence or not, the Malaysian police then arrested some of these alleged LTTE supporters.
About a week after the so-called LTTE arrests, the Home Ministry announced that it had banned former DAP activist Hew Kuan Yau's comic book titled Belt and Road Initiative for Win-Winism. The ministry statements alleged that the book tries to “promote communism and socialism ideologies”. The PH government Home Minister was Muhyiddin Yassin from Bersatu, who is now the new Prime Minister leading the PN coalition. Many see these two incidents as a possible plot to discredit DAP, and to further shape opinions and perceptions that DAP is linked to ‘terrorists’ and ‘communists’, as well as being ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘anti-Islam’.
Amid the controversy over these two incidents was a live-streaming Facebook interview hosted by Zamri Vinoth, in which Dr Maza alleged that “some” PH non-Muslim leaders, especially those from DAP, had changed their attitude towards Muslims after winning federal power and frequently issued statements hostile to the Muslim community. He also accused the PH component party Amanah of remaining silent despite such alleged hostility, and that Amanah’s leaders were “very loyal to DAP”. Dr Maza however maintained his good relationships with Bersatu leaders.
Just a few days before the sudden February-March political coup, then Attorney-General Tommy Thomas announced the decision to discontinue prosecution proceedings against the alleged LTTE supporters. While DAP leaders welcomed the announcement, some Bersatu leaders expressed their discontent. Then Home Minister (and senior Bersatu leader) Muhyiddin Yassin said the Attorney-General had no power under the law to interfere in the matters of the Home Minister.Unsurprisingly, Firdaus Wong, as well as PAS and ISMA activists, criticised the A-G’s dropping of the case and said the decision to discontinue was ‘proof’ that ‘DAP and non-Muslims are dominating the PH government’. According to them, in order to ‘defend Islam’, there was an urgency in establishing ‘a government without DAP’.
Malaysian Finance Minister, and member of DAP, Lim Guan Eng in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia - September 10, 2019. Image: msyaraafiq, Shutterstock.
On 21 February 2020, just two days before the so-called ‘Sheraton Move’ meeting of dissenters that led to the PH government collapse, Dr Maza wrote on his Facebook page that “AG has made us worry about our national security. Let us pray that a change will happen soon to save our country”. On 23 February 2020, he posted: “… to defend our constitution, the status of Islam, national security, interreligious and ethnic harmony, as well as to hinder betrayal of the identity of the country, a brave change should happen…”.
Since then, Malaysian politics has gone through a sequence of dramatic events, decisions, and power games, ending up with the former Home Minister and Bersatu leader Muhyiddin Yassin as the new Prime Minister last month. Dr Maza congratulated Muhyiddin, specifically alleging that “…most people want a country without DAP, which has been always causing tensions with Muslim…” (Facebook, DrMAZA.com, 29 March 2019). A few days later, he posted across social media a photo of him dining with Muhyiddin Yassin. While there is no evidence of Dr Maza taking a direct role in the collapse of the PH government, he has been instrumental in manufacturing the ‘Muslim insecurity’ that justified the call to establish ‘a government without DAP’.
Who speaks for Malay Muslims?
As the political uncertainty and the competition for Malay Muslim voters persists, popular preachers and Muslim NGOs will continue to position themselves as influencers and claim they are speaking on behalf of Muslim interests. This trend shares similarities with Indonesian politics, in which conservative preachers such as Ustaz Abdul Somad and Felix Siauw, and exclusivist groups such as Front Pembela Islam and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, have been playing a growing, significant role in influencing Muslim political opinions.
By referring to ‘majoritarianism’ in this article, I am not implying that most Malaysian Muslims share particular political opinions, but rather to consider how certain activists publicly and actively claim the political stance of representing the majority, and that their views should therefore prevail. According to those activists, the majority’s (Malay Muslims) dominance is somehow under threat and thus it is a duty to take back government power from an allegedly dominating minority (knonw as ‘DAP Chinese’).
Social media platforms are used intensively to manipulate Muslim public opinions and to perpetuate racialised discourses, often to the exclusion of traditional news media or online news portals. Such social media propaganda does not intend to reflect the reality, but instead aims to create perceptions to shape the reality, sometimes distorting the voices of majority Muslims through fear-mongering, and misrepresenting the lives of everyday Muslims. In this age of social media and ethno-religious majoritarianism, perhaps it is important for us to reflect on questions such as: who speaks for Malay Muslims? Who claims to represent Muslim opinions? Why are exclusivist voices louder than those of so-called moderates? And how do different Malay Muslims reclaim their voices?
Hew Wai Weng is a research fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (IKMAS, UKM). Wai Weng researches the intersections between ethnicity, religiosity, class and politics in Malaysia and Indonesia. He writes about Chinese Muslim identities, Hui migration patterns, and urban middle class Muslim aspirations in Malaysia and Indonesia. Previously a visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin, he is the author of ‘Chinese Ways of Being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia’ (NIAS Press, 2018).
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