PETALING JAYA: Umno’s long-held status as the lynchpin of the former ruling coalition may be hard to regain if a new formal alliance is formed with PAS, despite its wider reach and greater resources.
That position may in fact go to PAS, as the Islamic factor re-asserts itself in Malay politics against a backdrop of the perception that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has sidelined policies in favour of the Malays.
That perception is fuelled by the fact that Umno and PAS, the country’s two largest and oldest Malay-based parties, are now the opposition.
The Zakir Naik episode, where opinions on the Indian preacher appear to be divided along religious lines, is just one example of how Islam has taken on a bigger political role even as government leaders call for a new Malaysia with a more inclusive approach while taking care not to upset the position of Islam.
Seasoned social commentator Chandra Muzaffar agrees that the rise of the Islamic narrative is setting the groundwork for PAS’ dominance in Malay politics, and ultimately in any political coalition.
He said identity politics grows stronger when governments do not perform.
It is also why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its narrative of Hindu nationalism came to power in India.
“Its politics of identity has mass appeal,” Chandra told FMT in a recent interview.
BJP swept to victory in 2014 with the divisive figure of Narendra Modi, standing on a promise of no nonsense and economic revival, trouncing the long ruling Congress Party.
BJP further strengthened its political power in the Indian polls this year.
Chandra said PH’s perceived weaknesses were complicated by the low level of support from Malay-Muslims.
Although there was a critical shift in Malay support for PH during the 2018 election, some 70% Malays voted for either Barisan Nasional or PAS.
Chandra said the opposition, led by Umno and PAS, would be re-energised on the platform of identity politics.
“If the opposition returns (to power), it will be PAS rather than Umno which will be in the driving seat,” he said.
He said the Islamist party, which now rules Terengganu and Kelantan, is more organised and united than Umno.
And when it comes to Islam, which Chandra called a more “powerful identity marker for the Malays than race”, PAS has the upper hand.
Political analyst Azmi Hassan disagreed, saying neither party has an upper hand over the other.
But he said there was no disputing the fact that Malays see religion, namely Islam, as a primary factor in their politics.
As such, he said, they also see both Umno and PAS as defenders of Islam, and ignore the differences between the once sworn enemies.
Azmi expects the force with which Umno and PAS will portray themselves as champions of Islam to affect their splinters PPBM and Amanah.
He said while identity politics is not healthy for Malaysia, it is a reality that politicians find too tempting to resist.
“It makes sense for them to jump on issues of race and religion to win votes.”