Malaysia: Election 2004 – No Room for Debate over Islam and Development


Amrita Malhi

Since the Malaysian general election on 21 May, it has been said that the upset win for the Barisan Nasional alliance in the northern state of Terengganu was a result of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s mild manner, Islamic credentials, and voter acceptance of his message that ‘modern’ Muslims ‘love peace, development and progress’.

Commentators are arguing that voters in Terengganu, for example, have chosen a multi-ethnic, progressive outlook over opposition party PAS’s Malay-Muslim chauvinism, moralism and conservatism. Even in Kelantan, a PAS stronghold, Barisan came within three seats of winning control of the state legislature. In the national parliament, PAS lost twenty of its previous twenty-seven seats.

In a poorly organised election with a number of reported ‘irregularities’ and a particularly short, eight-day campaign period, Barisan has certainly cleaned up. While the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) made gains, winning twelve seats compared with ten in 1999, this election has also been marked by the virtual electoral annihilation of the third major opposition party, KeADILan. Only Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the party head and the wife of jailed former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, retained her parliamentary seat.

The losses suffered by PAS and KeADILan would seem to indicate that voter dissatisfaction with the government has largely disappeared since the tense 1999 election. Not likely!

Many Malaysians remain deeply unhappy with Barisan, openly stating that it is corrupt, manipulative and unaccountable, operating with a ‘born to rule’ mentality. Many of these Malaysians helped nevertheless to elect Barisan with a staggering four-fifths majority. It must therefore be said that the result has less to do with Abdullah’s personality and acceptance of Barisan politics than it has with the widespread perception that ‘There Is No Alternative’.

Barisan itself has worked to create this perception, helped by a sharp global polarisation of opinion in recent years over Islamist politics. Understanding that the main oppositional politics in Malaysia has been Islamism, most notably as espoused by PAS, Barisan has successfully merged arguments about Islam, development, and more recently terrorism, to suit its political ends.

PAS has focused its grass-roots attention on the contradictions of ‘development’, highlighting the poverty of those who have not been enriched by the development process, running financial aid programs, resolving land disputes, and abolishing road tolls. This is the context in which its moralistic prescriptions are heard by rural and urban voters, suggesting that its argument for more egalitarian (and therefore ‘Islamic’) government, rather than ‘tickets to heaven’, has been PAS’s strongest selling point.

In response, Barisan has made an astute political investment in characterising PAS as backward-looking, anti-modern, and opposed to ‘development’ and ‘investment’. It has characterised this opposition as flowing from its ‘fundamentalist’ approach to Islam. The conflation of the two arguments culminated famously in a television advertisement during the 2002 Indera Kayangan by-election campaign in Perlis, which depicted a kneeling, burqa-clad woman being executed by a bearded gunman. The message was ‘PAS = Taliban’.

This strategy, and Barisan’s spin on its own policies as delivering Malaysia into ‘modernity’ through market-driven development and privatisation, has been at the heart of arguments over Islam in the 2004 election campaign. For Barisan, ‘modernist’ Islam emphasises entrepreneurialism and market priorities over all others, and as a result does not seek to enforce strict moral codes. Islam must not be seen to threaten non-Muslims, or international investors. Barisan has succeeded in presenting PAS as reactionary, anti-development, fire-and-brimstone mullahs, while advocating its own rule as the only fix to poverty, unemployment, repression, and a lack of opportunity, which, it argues, characterises life in areas which PAS has led. Thus, much of the argument over Islam throughout the 1990s and recently has been about the market, and its place in driving development.

KeADILan has been another victim of Barisan’s successful silencing of critiques of its market-led, developmentalist politics. KeADILan, incidentally, while associated with PAS through the Alternative Front coalition, has also publicly advocated a ‘modern’ multi-ethnic politics. Now with KeADILan’s near-disappearance from parliament, there has been a significant narrowing of the political space — in terms of access to parliamentary resources and participation in public debates — for criticism of Barisan-style development, regardless of how mild that criticism may be.

For example, KeADILan’s campaign in the Petaling Jaya Selatan constituency, where the party’s Vice-President, Sivarasa Rasiah, ran for office, focused partly on the negative effects on the urban environment of unaccountable development decisions. This type of questioning of the government’s market-driven priorities, ‘Islamist’ in PAS’s case but ‘secular’ in KeADILan’s, is now far less likely to be acknowledged in parliament, except to be dismissed as objections by a tiny opposition. Granted, KeADILan’s published arguments were defensive, which didn’t help.

In PJ Selatan, KeADILan argued in its leaflets that Sivarasa should be elected to provide ‘checks and balances’ against Barisan parliamentary hegemony. Sivarasa even argued that his presence in parliament would in fact assist Abdullah in his fight against corruption. While scrutiny is one role a parliamentary opposition should expect to play, such arguments did not help KeADILan’s criticism of the government. If opposition parties see their role as ‘helping’ the government, then they provide no argument to voters against simply voting for government candidates.

WATCHPOINT: As the composition of the Malaysian parliament does not reflect the actual level of dissatisfaction with the government, how will opposition to Malaysia’s ruling coalition be expressed from now on?


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