Parti Islam SeMalaysia made solid gains during Malaysia’s 15th General Election. It banked on candidates who are deemed to be religious and clean. In future, the party that hews to a more public expression of Islam will be able to hold on to the Malay-Muslim voter base.
Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) surprised everyone during Malaysia’s recent 15th General Election. It bagged the most seats in Parliament (49) as part of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. It was pivotal in snatching seats formerly held by Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH). While Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) was the lead party in PN, it only pulled through with 25 seats.
The move of the Malay vote from BN to PN was deemed the result of anger with corruption allegations and sentiment against Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the chairman of BN. The unprecedented voter turnout was a direct outcome of automatic voter registration and Undi18 (which enables voters over the age of 18 to vote).
PAS did well due to its clever use of candidates who are deemed to be religious and above board. A closer look at the constituencies that PAS won indicates that they held on to bastions in northern and eastern Peninsular Malaysia. The ‘green wave’ enjoyed gains westward and southward, such as in Permatang Pauh and Jerlun, and Temerloh and Kuantan in Pahang. PN candidates campaigned under the PAS flag in Kelantan and Terengganu, but under the PN flag elsewhere. Bersatu was the more prominent branding in the south. While 17 of the PAS candidates were first-timers, they were seen as clean, religiously-qualified individuals who are active and recognised on the ground.
Grassroots views provide a more accurate view of voter sentiment. Bersatu’s tagline (Prihatin, Bersih dan Stabil – Concerned, Clean and Stable) and clear social media (TikTok) strategy struck a deft balance between a light-hearted approach and more hardline content. This included the use of PAS’ popular young ustads (religious teachers). In hindsight, these tactics clearly worked.
PAS’ victory can be examined using the lens of religiosity in the public sphere. During my immersion in rural Johor since 2007 and observations of Malay displays of religiosity, I witnessed increasingly conservative Islamic views and behaviour. Chandra Muzaffar highlighted this normalisation of a more ‘visible’ Islam in 1986. Myriad others have commented on the appeal of Arabic garb and phrases, and other markers of rising conservatism. Just as Christianity seems to be the overarching culture of the United States, the practice of Islam in Malaysia today has moved from the private sphere into a very public one.
Other developments corroborate such an assessment. Reality shows such as ‘Imam Idol’ have become popular, and religious sub-narratives weaved into public television daytime melodramas have gained traction with rural communities. The influence of family, especially mothers, on youth votes should also not be underestimated. In GE14, there was already evidence of women quietly insisting on a more ‘religious’ and hence ‘cleaner’ candidate, and actively influencing their families to follow PAS. Voter regret and shock in the face of the PH takeover post-GE14 may have also pushed voters to look for a ‘better’ option.
Just as Christianity seems to be the overarching culture of the United States, the practice of Islam in Malaysia today has moved from the private sphere into a very public one.
The ISEAS 2017 Johor Survey indicated that even in a state where the Sultan enforces a more inclusive approach to religion, there is a strong conservative base that may feel (and subsequently behave and vote) to the contrary. While PAS has not made much headway in Johor, there are many PAS preschools (PASTI), as well as growing numbers of popular Pusat Tahfiz and other centres that guarantee a child’s ability to swiftly memorise and recite the Quran. Islamic revivalism is clearly a whole-of-society shift.
A 2011 Merdeka Centre study of Malaysian Muslim youth found that 72 per cent were conservative in their political views and wanted the Quran to replace the Constitution. This was in contrast to their actual religious practice, however, and was largely due to a lack of understanding of governance and the Constitution. While there have been signs of rising conservatism in public schools, compulsory religious school content has also been highlighted as patriarchal and conservative. Another Merdeka Centre survey of Muslim youth in 2022 showed that even as they desired equal treatment for Malaysians regardless of ethnicity and belief (66 per cent), religion remains their key identity marker (87 per cent) compared to citizenship (56 per cent) and ethnicity (18 per cent).
Aside from religious underpinnings, the swing to PAS and PN was also undeniably due to disgruntlement with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Prior to the election, UMNO President Zahid Hamidi was deemed the most unpopular Malay leader, while Muhyiddin Yassin, the president of Bersatu, was the most popular. Abdul Hadi of PAS was not mentioned in the survey.
These findings provide the context for my observations of rural youth pre-GE15. With Islam as a primary identifier, the observations indicated that Malaysian youth were initially apathetic to GE15. This was due to their frustration with post-Covid economic conditions. Election propaganda focusing on embezzlement and fraud also nurtured a far stronger distaste for corruption (a factor that seemed less irksome in GE14) and sealed their refusal to vote BN. PN’s effective social media campaign, coupled with the youths’ lack of understanding of any prior controversies that the coalition’s politicians may have had, may have pushed the younger voters to vote for PN. Concurrently, there was a distrust of the DAP and PH.
This shift towards a desire for action was tangible during the last week of the election campaign. PAS’ influencer ustads were highly effective and helped the party’s campaign immeasurably. With their ‘clean’ persona, they managed to leverage grassroots machinery which focused on welfare. They also managed to win over the ‘rempits’ or motorcycle youth. For some, it was also a protest vote against BN.
Hindsight does wonders for political analysis and the future is always uncertain. But the party that can speak to this long-standing progression towards a more public practice of Islam and all that it entails will be able to hold the Malay-Muslim base.
Serina Rahman is an Associate Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lecturer at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.