A woman casts her vote at a polling station during the 15th general election in Bera, Malaysia's Pahang state on November 19, 2022. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

A woman casts her vote at a polling station during the 15th general election in Bera, Malaysia's Pahang state on November 19, 2022. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

Debunking the Myths of Malaysia’s “Green Wave” in GE15


It is time to refresh the popular but inaccurate characterisation of recent Malaysian politics as broadly influenced by Islamisation. The truth is more complex.

In Malaysia’s 1999 general election (GE10), the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) emerged as the largest opposition party, winning 27 parliamentary seats and taking control of the Terengganu state government. The leader of the Opposition was a Malay Member of Parliament (MP), former PAS president, the late Fadzil Noor. This led some commentators to frame the election results “as a rising wave of Islamisation” in the country. Four years later, in the 2004 GE, PAS managed to win only six parliamentary seats, lost control of the Terengganu state government, and came within 3 votes of losing the Kelantan state government.

Even though the circumstances surrounding GE15 in 2022 were very different from those in 1999, there is a need for caution in framing electoral outcomes using all-encompassing terms such as the “Green Wave” narrative that was used to interpret the GE15 outcomes.

The “Green Wave” narrative is inaccurate for the following reasons. First, it ignores the significant gains made by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), from 13 parliament seats in GE14 to 30 seats in GE15, which included seats in many areas such as Tasek Gelugor (Penang), Padang Rengas (Perak), and Masjid Tanah (Melaka) where PAS’ influence was not significant.

Second, it ignores the advantages which PAS enjoyed in using the Perikatan Nasional (PN) banner for its campaign in states outside Kelantan and Terengganu. PAS was able to make inroads into UMNO strongholds such as Kepala Batas in Penang and Pasir Salak in Perak.

Third, it diverts attention from the main reason for the increase in votes for PN: a disastrous collapse in support for UMNO in all states in Peninsular Malaysia, except for Negeri Sembilan and Johor. It was this unhappiness with UMNO and specifically, the leadership of Zahid Hamidi, that enabled PN to benefit from the groundswell of dissatisfaction.

Fourth, this narrative led to the chattering classes attributing the rise in support for PN to the influence of Islamic residential or tahfiz schools rather than other more plausible explanations such as PN’s strategic use of social media, especially TikTok, to reach out to younger voters. While the rise of religious influence over the past decades in Malaysia cannot be denied, there is far less evidence that there is a correlation between this phenomenon and political support for PAS. To attribute the “Green Wave” to the influence of tahfiz schools, which constitute only a tiny fraction (of less than 1 per cent, or about 50,000 out of six million primary and secondary students) of Malaysia’s overall enrolment, is to compound one analytical mistake on top of another.

Fifth, this Peninsular-centric narrative ignores voting patterns in Sabah and Sarawak, which constitute 25 per cent of total parliamentary seats, where PAS and Bersatu failed to make any significant headway in GE15.

The electoral landscape has become much more competitive and electoral outcomes will depend on many factors.

Labelling GE15 as a “Green Wave” leads to many pitfalls. If religious sentiment explained PN’s gains, then the most effective response for the Unity Government (UG) would be to counter this with religious rhetoric and related policies. Mahathir’s 29 September 2001 declaration that Malaysia was already an Islamic state was an example of such a response to PAS’ ascendance post-1999. Second, such a move can lead to ignoring the middle-ground Malays who abandoned UMNO but who may still return to support the party if there were a clearer direction forward. Similarly, it will distract PH from trying to regain support from this group which may have been disillusioned with PH’s attempts to wrestle back control of the federal government, post-Sheraton Move. Third, this plays into a larger Islamophobic narrative. This attitude is prevalent among some segments of the non-Malay community and abroad. This kind of sentiment is particularly unhelpful especially when it comes to understanding the different demands of the increasingly diverse Malay community in Malaysia.

I propose the following counter-narratives. We should acknowledge that the GE15 results were part of a larger trend of increased political competition in Malaysia and the collapse of support for a once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN)-UMNO. While it is unlikely that BN-UMNO will be able to regain its dominance, they remain an important political force, especially if there is internal renewal within the party.

At the same time, we cannot assume that PN will automatically control most of the Malay support or that the DAP will have an automatic stranglehold on the non-Malay vote. The electoral landscape has become much more competitive and electoral outcomes will depend on many factors. In short, religion is an important but not determinative voting issue.

Politicians should emphasise policies and political messaging that appeal to the middle ground, especially among the Malay voters. While race and religion are still important, greater political contestation will lead to more competition in public policy ideas and better delivery of public services.

Consideration must be given to the electoral dynamics in East Malaysia, which are different to that of peninsular Malaysia but equally dynamic, especially in Sabah.

I hope that observers of Malaysian politics discontinue the use of the “Green Wave” narrative, given its inaccuracies and dangers. It is a lazy shorthand that inadequately captures the growing electoral complexities in Malaysia. This would be prudent regardless of the upcoming state elections’ outcomes, including any potential result favouring PN.


Ong Kian Ming is Director of the Philosophy, Politics and Economic (PPE) programme at Taylor’s University, Malaysia and former deputy minister of International Trade and Industry, Malaysia. He was a Senior Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.