Pakatan Harapan chairman, Anwar Ibrahim

Pakatan Harapan chairman, Anwar Ibrahim, prays at the Masjid Jamek Kampung Mengkuang Semarak in November 2022. (Photo: Anwar Ibrahim / Facebook)

Identity Politics Might Undermine Malay/Muslim Unity


Three broad coalitions are gunning for the Malay/ Muslim vote in Malaysia’s general election. The question is whether voters still regard the issues of race and religion as important.

Race and religion have always been politicised in Malaysia. During the 2018 election (GE 14) campaign, they were downplayed, but the focus was on corruption, abuse of power, and the 1MDB scandal. They made a comeback the following year, in the lead-up to Muhyiddin Yassin’s appointment as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister in March 2020. In GE 15, the issues of race and religion will continue to dominate, but with somewhat different outcomes.

No one racial or religious group has governed Malaysia single-handedly without allying with other parties. Barisan Nasional (BN), an enlarged version of the Alliance Party, is led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) representing the Malays, Chinese and Indians respectively.

For decades, UMNO has played the race and religious card to keep itself in power. Besides portraying itself as the protector of Malays (most of whom are also Muslims), it makes a bogeyman out of the DAP by characterising it as “anti-Malay”. It also ensures that the BN coalition model survives which guarantees Malay dominance with minority representation.

In this election, UMNO’s biggest test is managing the rural-urban divide within the Malays. The last election showed that urban Malays are generally inclined to support the pro-reform Parti Keadilan Rakyat, as in Selangor and Perak. UMNO’s support base remains with rural Malay voters, and less so from Malays in urban seats. Playing the race and religious card alone does not guarantee that UMNO can win over the hearts of urban Malays.

The use of the race and religion card has fluctuated in recent years, depending on political expediency. In the 2018 election, political parties did not leverage race and religion as much since the discourse was focused on the 1MDB scandal. UMNO’s campaign was defensive, because the scandal undermined UMNO’s credibility as the Malays’ protector. Pakatan Harapan’s (PH’s) naming of Mahathir as its prime minister candidate was instrumental in downplaying UMNO’s racial and religious credentials since the veteran is synonymous with the Malay struggle. Malays remember his role in developing the country and uplifting a lot of Malays during his 22-year stint as prime minister (1981-2003). The Malays also laud him to be the voice for the Islamic world: for speaking up for Palestine and Bosnia, being anti-West, and anti-Israel.

In the lead-up to the Sheraton Move in February 2020, race and religion made a comeback. Between 2019 and 2020, PH suffered back-to-back losses in several by-elections, the heaviest in Tanjung Piai, Johor. In response, UMNO, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and PAS leaders forged a coalition under Muhyiddin Yassin in the name of protecting Malay/Muslim interests. Mahathir did not join this pact. After becoming the ninth prime minister in August 2021, Ismail Sabri Yaacob tried to change the narrative to the more inclusive Keluarga Malaysia (Malaysia Family). Yet, his government was made up of the same MPs who supported Muhyiddin’s Malay/Muslim cause.

It could well be that the electorate may not consider identity politics important, and prioritise bread and butter issues. For the segments who still regard race and religion as important, they would have to decide which of the three represents their interests.

With new coalitions contesting in GE 15, will the politics of race and religion re-surface? There is a basis to think so. With UMNO bigwig and former premier Najib Razak in jail for corruption, UMNO’s rivals have been stripped of ammunition to discredit the party.

As it stands, UMNO’s traditional rival, the Islamic party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), is unable to challenge UMNO’s Malay/ Muslim supremacy except in Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah. UMNO also successfully portrays itself as a more progressive Muslim brother than PAS. In times when UMNO’s support declined, it reached out to PAS by promising to strengthen shariah in the country. After its defeat in GE 14, UMNO signed a pact with PAS through Muafakat Nasional (MN). The pact is informally suspended for now but a re-emergence of the two Malay/ Muslim parties in the pact might occur if UMNO does poorly in GE 15.

Like in the previous elections, the question is not whether race and religion issues will surface, but how. GE 15 will witness BN, Perikatan Nasional (PN), and Mahathir’s Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) battling for Malay support. If placed on the spectrum, Mahathir’s GTA seems to be the furthest to the right as the coalition does not include any non-Malay parties. PN is between BN and GTA. PN component parties Bersatu and PAS represent the Malay/Muslim stewardship, while Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia is the multi-racial component. BN remains the most multiracial coalition of the three.

The fact that three Malay-based coalitions are battling each other may neutralise the Malay voter base. The Tanjung Piai scenario where UMNO played the race card will not be repeated in GE 15, since none of the three coalitions can claim to be the sole protector of Malay interests. On the other hand, PH is their sole ideological rival, and its support base includes those disinterested in identity politics. Unlike in 2018, PH has pivoted into a fully-fledged multiracial struggle since it no longer has Bersatu — an all-Malay party — in its fold. Its prime minister candidate Anwar Ibrahim has rejected advances by Mahathir for collaboration and insisted PH parties underscore principles and not pragmatic politics.

As for the Malay-based coalitions, BN (especially UMNO) will tap into its history of struggle to develop Malaysia, upholding Malay supremacy, and play up PH’s perceived failure during its 22 months of ruling Malaysia. PN will likely embellish its ability to unite nationalist and conservative Malays, and argue that UMNO failed in the MN experiment. PN will also take a swipe at UMNO’s poor record in battling corruption. GTA will likely harp on Mahathir’s influence, his role in developing Malaysia and uplifting a lot of Malay/Muslims. Nevertheless, his influence is arguably declining by the day, with some Malaysians thinking that he did not seize the opportunity to reform Malaysia when he was the prime minister of the PH government, and now he must make way for younger leaders.

It could well be that the electorate may not consider identity politics to be important, and prioritise bread and butter issues. For Malay voters who still regard race and religion as important, they would have to decide which of the three represents their interests. At any rate, the Malay/Muslim vote looks likely to be split in three directions.


Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.