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“We are seeing the rise of political Islam”

After this week’s break-up of Malaysia’s three-party opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, Southeast Asia Globe spoke with James Chin, director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania, Australia, about the future of Malaysian politics

What is the significance of the Pakatan Rakyat disbanding for Malaysian politics?
It shows that, yet again, an opposition alliance to challenge the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition will not be sustainable if they do not win power after several general elections. The Pakatan Rakyat (PR) fought three general elections in 2004, 2008 and 2013 and they were not able to dislodge BN from power.

James Chin
James Chin

The previous opposition alliance, the Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah (APU) coalition, also collapsed after failing to win power in two general elections in the 1990s.
This means that if you want to establish an opposition alliance, make sure you win power within a short time or your coalition members may decide there is no reason to hang around in a losing team.
What impact do you think this will have for Malaysian democracy?
I think we will see a realignment of Malaysian politics and the increasing role of Islam in Malaysian politics. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) – [one of the parties that made up the Pakatan Rakyat coalition] – blamed the lack of support from the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP) for its push for Islamic penal law, hudud, to be adopted as Malaysian law as one of the key reasons why it cannot work with them.
I think it is clear that the division in Malaysian politics will now be between Muslims versus non-Muslims rather than Malays versus non-Malays. I am not saying that we are seeing the death of ethnic politics in Malaysia but we are seeing the rise of political Islam, which will take over the ethnic divide.
What worries me is that PAS and UMNO – the Islamic party in power – are increasing promoting a brand of intolerant Malay Sunni Islam political supremacy ideology. Both sides appear to believe in this. Under this ideology, Islam and the Malay race are one and the same. Non-Malays and non-Muslims cannot be accepted as full Malaysian with equal political rights under this ideology. Thus democracy, as widely understood in the West, is not possible in Malaysia.
How much of a factor did Anwar Ibrahim’s imprisonment have to play in the collapse of the coalition?
None as far as I can tell. But the fact that he is in prison meant that he was not able to speak directly to the leaders of DAP and PAS when their relationship broke down. I believe that it would have been much harder for PR to brake up if Anwar was still around as the de-facto chief. PR would probably have broken up but perhaps at a slower pace.
With many commenting that Najib Razak is in a difficult position among his party members, do you think Pakatan Rakyat’s collapse will re-strengthen his administration?
Najib is the biggest winner in the collapse of PR; he can now ignore the opposition and concentrate on his fight with [his own party].
And what do you think will the future of the Malaysian opposition?
The terrible thing about the collapse of PR is that it will deter Muslim-based parties from joining a coalition with non-Muslim parties. Muslim-based parties in Malaysia will think that Malay voters will reject them if they jump in bed with non-Muslim parties.
What we really need in Malaysia is a Muslim-based party that believes in secularism. I suspect this may be impossible in the present political climate.
The future of the opposition is not bright for the next general election. DAP will, most likely, win the urban Chinese seats but it is stuck there – it cannot expand outside the urban areas. PKR will win some urban and semi-urban Malay majority seats and it will be stuck there as well. The big number of seats in the rural areas will fall into either UMNO or PAS hands.
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