Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (L) at an event in August 2023. Since November 2022, Anwar has been trying hard to court Malay voters. (Photo: Anwar Ibrahim / Facebook)

Anwar’s Tried and Failed Strategy to Woo Malay Voters


Anwar’s gambit to out-Islamise his Islamist political opponents has failed to gain traction. He should stop offering a “lite” version of his opponents’ Islamist agenda and tout a more progressive and inclusive narrative.

During a recent public talk, the newly appointed Chief Minister of Kelantan, Nassuruddin Daud referred to the two remaining opposition assemblypersons in the state assembly as examples of those who go against the Islamic struggle. The polarising rhetoric set along ethno-religious divide has been gaining in currency since 2018 when Pakatan Harapan (PH) took over the federal government. The sentiments simmered down during the Covid-19 pandemic but picked up momentum again in 2022 in the run-up to the November general election. One notorious example was the speech made by a Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) youth leader in Kedah telling supporters of PH and Barisan Nasional (BN) they would go to hell for voting for the wrong party.

PH has never been popular among large swathes of the Malay electorate, primarily because of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which has been long demonised as anti-Malay and anti-Islam. PH hit its political peak in the 2018 general election when it received about 30 per cent of the Malay vote. This was in no small way helped by having the Malay nationalist party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) as part of the coalition. In the 2022 general elections, PH fared worse, with less than 20 per cent of the Malay vote. BN also saw its long-held position as the party of choice for Malays significantly diminished as the lion’s share of Malay votes went to Perikatan Nasional (PN), the coalition that includes Bersatu and PAS. The just-concluded state elections reaffirmed the fact that Malay voters are switching from BN to PN in droves. The latter swept nearly all Malay-majority seats (146 out of 162). It also made inroads into the PH-controlled states of Penang and Selangor. It maintained its hold on Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu with minimal or no opposition.

Since 2018, the almost exclusively Malay-Islamic opposition has been exploiting ethno-religious issues, seen as the soft underbelly of the multiethnic and multireligious federal government, for political gain. The attacks, based on mainly manufactured sentiment-driven issues and abetted by Mahathir’s reluctance to hand over the prime ministership to Anwar, culminated in the collapse of the PH government in late February 2020 and brought into power the Malay-Islam-centric PN. When PH-BN formed the federal government in 2022, it apparently had learned its lesson from PH’s first stint and seemed more prepared to face the predictable ethno-religious attacks from PN. The Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, downplayed the Chinese-dominated DAP’s presence in the government despite it winning the most seats among all coalition partners. Anwar sought to project an image that the current government is still Malay-Islamic-centric.

Since assuming power in November 2022, Anwar has been trying hard to court Malay voters by showing that his government is more credible and assertive than PN when it comes to protecting Malay and Islamic rights. He vowed that the government would never acknowledge that Malaysia is a secular country nor recognise the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. To burnish its Islamic credentials, the PH government Ministry of Home Affairs sent enforcement officers to raid Swatch shops around the country to seize rainbow-coloured “pride” watches. Regarding the intractable issue of the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, the government settled on the incomprehensible decision that it can only be used in East Malaysia but not West Malaysia. Meanwhile, the 2023 budget saw a sizable increase in allocation for the Malaysian Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM) to the tune of more than RM1.5 billion (US$323.1 million).

As someone who played a pivotal role in mobilising political Islam in the 1970s and later becoming the architect of the Islamisation of the Malaysian government and society in the 1980s and 1990s, Anwar should know that it is futile to “out-Islamise” Islamists.

Anwar also met with popular religious scholars and preachers. One of them is the hard-line Ustaz Abdul Somad, who is currently banned from entering several countries, including Singapore, for his extreme religious views. In a visit to PN-governed Kelantan, Anwar informed the crowd that the government had allocated RM103.86 million (US$22.33 million) to Islamic functionaries and teachers in the state. Barely one month into governing, the Minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Mohd Na’im Mokhtar, announced that the government would continue to advance the controversial RUU355 or the so-called “hudud law” that empowers the shariah courts to mete out harsher punishments. These overtures are meant to endear the government to the Malay electorate. Still, the state election results have unequivocally shown that an overwhelming number of Malay voters prefer to trust PN as the true defender of Malay and Islamic rights. In other words, Anwar’s strategy to “out-Islamise” PN has fallen flat.

As someone who played a pivotal role in mobilising political Islam in the 1970s and later becoming the architect of the Islamisation of the Malaysian government and society in the 1980s and 1990s, Anwar should know that it is futile to “out-Islamise” Islamists. The then BN government, led by Mahathir and Anwar, tried to beat the Islamists at their own game but ended up radically altering the socio-cultural landscape of Malaysia. This only made the country more conservative and ideologically rigid.

It was only recently that Malaysia saw the political success of the Islamists, namely PAS, as many newly enfranchised young Malays, acculturated in conservative religious values, cast their votes for PN. If Anwar wants to win over the Malays, he must stop adopting the “lite” version of Islamist opponents’ strategy and start to offer a clear counter-narrative that is progressive and inclusive. Perhaps the government’s Madani concept can be a good first step in achieving this if articulated clearly and simply. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, foolhardiness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.


Azmil Tayeb is a Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.