Political Islam will shape Malaysia more and more, argues Kok-Hin Ooi.

For more than three decades now, the politicisation of Islam has been gaining momentum and influence in Malaysia. And as society and the state become increasingly Islamised, there is likely to be an increase in political Islam. Muslim-centered politics will play an increasingly important part in Malaysian politics, and the discourse in the public sphere will adopt the language of political Islam.

The future of Malaysia depends then on the type of Islam practiced in society. This is most likely to be the dominant, state-sanctioned political Islam that emerged victorious in its battle for supremacy over other types of political Islam.

Two trends exhibit strong support for this argument. The first is that Muslims are now the most salient political identity in the country.

More and more Malays identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims. In a poll carried out last year, Merdeka Center found that 60 per cent of Malays consider themselves as Muslims first, 27 per cent as Malaysians first, and only a peculiarly low 6 per cent saw themselves as Malays first.

The poll had three identity markers: nationality, religious identity, and ethnicity. The Malays, by far, saw religion as the most important part of their identity (in comparison to smaller ethnic groups like the Chinese and Indians).

Given the highly personalised nature of Malaysian politics (the lack of substantive ideological debate is telling), we can safely conclude that this will translate into political consequences. Issues relating to religion will have greater weight as this trend continues.

As more Malay voters (who are also the majority voters) identify themselves as Muslims first, politicians seeking to canvass their votes will adopt the language of political Islam and pander to the religious aspects of an issue.

This is not a recent or one-off discovery. Merdeka Center, the country’s only independent pollster, has consistently found the same result over a 10-year period. In 2006, 61 per cent of Malays saw themselves as Muslims first, forming 90 per cent of the people who see themselves first and foremost as members of a religious community.

This trend began in the 1980s. Conservatism, political Islam, and Islamism (or some may say Wahhabism) had support from both the political establishment and opposition. In particular, BN leading party UMNO, and PAS (the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party) contributed to the wave of conservatism in their race to “out-Islamise” each other during Dr Mahathir’s 22-year prime ministership (1981-2003).

The signs of a society becoming more conscious and assertive of their religious identity are all there (for example, here, here, here, and here).

The second trend is that non-Malay/non-Muslim votes will decrease in quantity and quality.

The demographic shift suggests that Bumiputeras (a term referring to the Malays and other indigenous groups) will form a larger chunk of the population in one or two generations. The last census in 2010 showed that Bumiputeras made up 67.4 per cent of the population, the Chinese 24.6 per cent, Indians 7.3 per cent, and Lain-lain (or ‘others’) 0.7 per cent.

To put that into perspective, the Chinese share of the population was 38 per cent in 1957. In less than 60 years, the Chinese was halved in terms of percentage share of the population due to low fertility rates.

This demographic shift directly translates into diminished political representation and influence. Out of the 222 parliamentary seats, 166 are in the peninsula, 70 per cent of which are Malay-majority seats. There are only 22 Chinese-majority seats (a mere 13 per cent), while there are only 29 mixed seats. Tellingly, there is no Indian majority seat.

What does this all mean? Combined together, the two trends of growing religious consciousness (more Malays identify themselves as Muslims first) and the demographic shift (Malays will have bigger share of population, while non-Malays’ share will decrease) will result in the diminishing influence of non-Muslim/non-Malay voters both in terms of quantity and quality.

That non-Malay/non-Muslim votes will decrease in quantity is self-explanatory. As their share of the population decreases, so are the number of Chinese-majority seats and mixed seats. Note that these seats are usually where non-Malay/non-Muslim candidates have contested elections and won.

That their votes will decrease in quality is worth explaining. Basically, the value of their votes is less when they no longer play an important role in deciding the victor. A political party or coalition will of course lose all non-Muslim votes if they play the hudud card (which calls for strict punishments under Islamic law). But in an election where most eligible voters are Muslims and the most endearing issue to them is Islamic law, then it is perfectly rational to risk all non-Muslim votes in favour of a guaranteed electoral victory.

In addition, there might come a time when the Chinese population dips below 20 per cent and Chinese-majority or mixed seats fall below a critical mass. It is realistic to assume that the changed political landscape by that time will mean that politicians will be tempted to view this segment of voters as dispensable, instead favouring more Islamic-oriented discourse and voters.

Overall, religion is superseding race and royalty.

This can be seen with the 6 per cent of the population who identify as Malays first. The peculiarity can be explained by way that those who would have normally identified themselves as Malay first have now given priority to their Muslim identity. This shift in priority demarcates a new development.

Politics in Malaysia may be surmised by the three ‘Rs’ – race, religion, and royalty. Increasingly, however, religion has trumped the other two factors.

Race and racial politics may be in decline, but they are given a lifeline when injected with religion. Race by itself resonates less with Malay voters than when they are imbued with religion (mostly) or economics (less these days due to affirmative action and Bumiputera control in the highest-decision making executives).

Thus race is slowly being absorbed, in fact superseded, by religion. Together, they have fused into a psychologically powerful image of religio-ethnic politics.

Politics centred on the royalty had peaked in the pre-independence days when the Left and the British both sought to do away with the royalty. Since then, the debate has been by and large mild with the possible exception of the 1993 constitutional crisis.

This left religion the sole and supreme marker of identity. With the concentration and intensification of Muslim identity, Muslims politics, or political Islam, will be the new frontier of Malaysian politics. The discourse will take the shape, and terms, of political Islam.

These days, even groups who wish to counter the conservative and authoritarian aspects of Islam have to adapt the language of maqasid shariah to appeal to the kinder and more progressive side of Islam.

Political parties who have no desire to partake in this development risk being a regional party. A national party will have to take into account this trend among the Malay voters and the demographic shift. This explains the DAP’s venture into Malay political landscape, and PKR and Amanah’s anxiety with the perceived lack of support from rural Malays. UMNO and PAS are, of course, best positioned to exploit the new politically salient points, albeit in a worrisome and perhaps deadly combination of religion and ethnicity.

History is rarely a linear development. One group can be in power today, brimming with ever-promising hope, and ousted the next year. As things stand however, unless there is a new ideology or tectonic shift in Malaysian society that will shake us to the very core, the future of Malaysia is dictated by and dependent on political Islam.

But which type of political Islam? The kinder one or the draconian one? The conservative and intolerant, or the plural and progressive?

With secularism, liberalism and perhaps even socialism in dire need of revival and new torchbearers, the only groups that are in position to take advantage of these trends are going to respond with a predictably conforming ideology based on political calculation. The contest is now left in the terms of political Islam. The question is, which one?

Kok-Hin Ooi is a research analyst at the Penang Institute.