Malaysia is under pressure from various corners of the nation, as to what the country should look like in the future.
Great polarisation has created a contemporary dilemma. There is a vision of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’, that is secular, but within the confines of Article 3(1) of the Constitution that states “Islam is the religion of the Federation”. Another vision sees Malaysia as a Malay state where other races with historical connections also reside.
There is a more extreme Ketuanan Melayu-Islam (Malay nationalist Islamic state) view. Finally, there is the three-Malaysia view, where Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak are semi-autonomous from each other, and practice their own cultural, political, and religious outlooks.
There are forces for and against each of the above scenarios.
The formation of two Pakatan Harapan (PH) governments has brought hope there is a real alternative to what can be called a Malay-centric led government.
However, the structure of the constitution, demographics, and the legacy of 60 years of Umno rule are probably better indicators of what Malaysia will look like in the future.
The two PH governments are most probably just a blimp in what is the natural government of Malaysia. These blimps were not caused by popular mandates, but by political infighting between a fractured and now splintered Malay polity, who used Pakatan Harapan for their ends in power plays.
The most likely resolution of the way Malaysia will be governed will be greatly influenced by the factors outlined below. These include demographics, institutions, and the two major political coalitions.
The biggest pressure for maintaining the status quo in governance are the current demographics of Malaysia. There are varying estimates of Malaysian population demographics, and the accuracy of any estimate can be questioned. A recent study by Statista released in April 2023, indicates that Bumiputeras consist of 69.9% of the population, Chinese 22.8%, Indians 6.6%, and others 0.7%.
Other reports claim Malays represent 17.6 million or 57.9% of Malaysia’s population, and thus are the majority grouping within Malaysia’s total population. On the peninsula, Malays are the majority population of each state, with the exception of Penang.
This indicates that within Malaysia’s primary race-based political party system, a Malay centric government should be the natural form of government. Consequently, any non-Malay led government will find it difficult to win any majority in its own right to govern.
In GE15, PH did not win enough seats to govern. It needed Malay-centric representation with influence beyond its 30 MPs to govern. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim must govern as a primarily Malay-centric prime minister, if he is going to stay in power.
Back in GE14, the PH victory required Malay leaders like Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin Yassin to support and campaign for PH. Just as they assisted PH become the government, they also took away power from PH leading to its fall in February 2020.
The odds are very much against any multiracial and secular political grouping winning a general election unless the general political environment of the nation radically changes in the future.
The interpretation of Malaya’s history, and the corresponding constitution written for Malaya, and later Malaysia in 1963 is one that puts power into the hands of the Malay elite.
The British redefined the Malay sultanates into modern territorial states with the Sultans as absolute monarchs. These sovereign monarchs gave up most of their executive powers, when Malaya was formed.
However, the Sultans were granted authority over Malay customs and Islam. They also had some discretion over the selection and appointment of their chief ministers, and hold pre- and post-executive council meetings with their executive councillors.
As Malaya was made up of 11 states, the head of state was selected on rotation from among the nine Malay rulers. Neither Sabah nor Sarawak play any role in the selection, nor can its governor serve as head of state. This means the position of Malaysia’s head of state will always be held by a Malay ruler.
The Agong together with the council of rulers have much discretion over the appointment of judges and other important offices like the attorney-general. The council of rulers now control the Islamic development department (Jakim), which receives around RM 1.5 billion in annual budget allocations. With its new roles in economic planning and censorship, Jakim is a powerful portion of the civil service.
Interestingly, the Malay rulers have the responsibility to protect the guaranteed rights of all Malaysians. Behind this is the power provided in Article 41 of the constitution, which makes the Agong the supreme leader of the armed forces, with a special advisory council.
This generation of rulers have great pride and feelings of responsibility for the legacy and heritage of their forefathers. The sultans will maintain the sovereignty of their respective Malay states, and will do this through their respective responsibilities for Malay culture and Islam. No ruler would ever allow anyone who did not respect this point of view as their chief minister.
This attitude permeates throughout the civil service in what is called the “Malay agenda”. This is a Malay-nationalist view that the interests of Malays, must be at the front of thinking, and decision-making. Any policy directive issued by any government seen as against the “Malay agenda”, would be refused.
The conservatism of the civil service is a major barrier to any government that comes into power and advocates reform against those in the civil service who see these reforms as hurting Malays.
Towards Malay entropy
The unity government could not have been created without the assistance of the Agong. Demographically, Anwar is an accidental prime minister. He holds office at the pleasure of the Agong and other rulers.
But Anwar must show enough creativity as a leader. Within the bounds the establishment can accept, he will convince everyone he is a worthy prime minister. In this case Anwar will become part of the Malay polity, which he wants.
The peninsula part of Malaysia is heading towards a natural Malay-centric rule. The coming state election results will confirm this. Anwar will still lead the federal government and can run his full term. Sabah and Sarawak will move towards much more autonomy. The federal government must be seen as being Malay-centric to have any chance of winning GE16.
This is Anwar’s challenge. Anwar has some latitude to define what Malay-centric can mean, within narrow boundaries. This is why Madani must be more than a slogan.
In this, Anwar is once again a key player in what the future of Malaysia will look like. He must be judged on how effectively he can stem the influence of Ketuanan Melayu-Islam, propagated by PAS, under the present leadership.
If Anwar fails, then Perikatan Nasional will have an opportunity to form a government after GE16. The last line of defence against a Ketuanan Melayu-Islamic government is the moderating potential of Bersatu upon PAS. That makes Muhyiddin the second most important person in Malaysian politics.
Either way, Malaysia will see Malay-centric governments once again. We can already see the concept of “reformasi” riding into the sunset.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.