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Malaysia’s ‘green wave’: A threat to the country’s politics and religious restraint?

KUALA LUMPUR: The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is basking in its new-found confidence.

Ahead of six state elections that could take place as early as the end of next month, the party is eager to show that its gains at last November’s general election were no fluke.

It plans to “take over” the state assemblies in Selangor and Negeri Sembilan as part of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition with Malay-based party Bersatu.

“Penang may be harder, but we hope to deny the two-thirds majority,” PAS’ Kuala Kedah division chief, Ahmad Fakhruddin Fakhrurazi, told the programme Insight.

And in Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, the PN state governments are “determined to defend … control with a comfortable majority”.

Thus, banking on religious populism for votes has its limits. And there is a limit to PAS’ political influence, said former Cabinet minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who recently served under the then prime ministers, Muhyiddin Yassin and Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

“(PAS is) doing very well now, … but PAS also knows that if they want to be accepted by the Malaysian public, they have to moderate their views.”

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Citing his time in government when PN was the ruling coalition, he said: “At no point during Cabinet discussions or during the preparation of Cabinet papers did (PAS) insist on … bringing in additional shariah laws, for instance, for criminal offences — which has long been their struggle, or their objective.

“They never mentioned it once.”


PAS was formed in 1951 as a splinter group of Islamists from UMNO. And the idea of defending Islam undeniably remains a part of its politics, which may explain a recent parade staged by its youth wing members in Terengganu.

Men brandishing replica swords and donning mock armour with Islamic sigils marched near a resort as part of a two-day gathering in February. Some Malaysians saw this as political and religious intimidation. PAS, meanwhile, categorised the event as “cosplay”.

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“It reflects PAS’ belief that they’re very strong now: ‘We’re now at the forefront, we can do what we want, and what we want is this Islamic society,’” said Syaza.

Many outside observers, especially in the West, view Islamic conservatism with a certain sense of alarm. And when photos of the PAS march circulated on social media, so did the extremism narrative.

Clearly, modern Malaysia has not come close to the sectarian violence experienced by some of its neighbours.

In 2017, militant groups linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized the Philippine city of Marawi, hoping to establish a caliphate. Over in Indonesia, protests against President Joko Widodo’s victory in 2019 led to violent riots.

Observers such as Ahmad El-Muhammady believe such extremism will not be visited upon Malaysians. “The vast majority of us believe in peaceful co-existence (and) moderation, even though maybe we disagree at a … certain phase during the elections,” said the academic.

As religion plays a more prominent role in society and self, the “negative aspect” as Syaza sees it is that “the emphasis has been wrong, which is more on this outward Islamisation — you know, dressing (and) speaking a certain way, instead of looking at what Islam really is.”


One thing Islam is not is monolithic. And it does find different expressions in Malaysian society, including among the growing number who send their children to religious schools, known as madrasahs.

Amin Khidir chose to enrol his daughters Nawal and Nuha in one so that they “have a balance between academic and religious subjects”. He himself had graduated with a degree in Islamic finance and shariah law from Yarmouk University, Jordan.

Now 34, he is a banker and wants his children to embark on a similar path, at a time when the perception that Islamic schools are not as academically sound as mainstream ones has begun to change in Malaysia.

One young Muslim who actively promotes his faith, through his Jihad in Education programme for schools, is entrepreneur, influencer and hip-hop artiste Ariz Ramli, more popularly known as Caprice and sometimes called Malaysia’s “Bad Boy”.

The 34-year-old also has an International Baccalaureate diploma, “had good grades, was supposed to study in the United States” after high school but ran away from home instead.

“My whole family are government servants, so — when you have a boy who suddenly wants to rap — they were very, very angry,” he said. “Obviously, I think, every kid is rebellious.”

In many ways, he does not fit the mould of a conservative Muslim. But he has even developed an app for improving Quran-reading techniques. On Instagram, he speaks out against injustices suffered by Muslims.

She started attending many Islamic events but “didn’t want to be disturbed or noticed”. That was how she started wearing a niqab (headscarf and veil), which is a sign of piety and modesty for Muslim women.

“I felt I was at peace,” she said. She also withdrew from public life — a self-imposed isolation that lasted for three years.

But for personal reasons, she removed her niqab in 2019 and reverted to modern dress styles. She still faces criticism for having done so, especially on social media.

“I’ve come to a point where I don’t feel anything any more,” she said. “It doesn’t make me less of a Muslim, because (in) the way I bring up my children … religion is always first as well.”

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