[News] Expected acceptance and rejection factors for PAS and Umno in peninsula Malaysia in the 15th general election — Azrul Azlan Abdul Rahman

NOVEMBER 18 — In Malaysia, any debate on political Islam would invariably revolve around the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party — PAS). This is primarily due to their Islamist and revivalist aspirations of incorporating Islam into all aspects of society, including politics, law and administration.

PAS planned to implement the Syariah Penal Code II in Kelantan in 1993 and the Syariah Crimes (Hudud and Qisas) in Terengganu in 2002. The Islamic State Document, issued in 2003, defined the party’s vision of an Islamic state regulated by hudud rules. Meanwhile, party chief Abdul Hadi Awang has argued for Islam’s prominent role in Malaysia, a divergence from PAS’ vision of an Islamic state two decades ago.

Recent events in the Malaysian political arena, however, indicate that PAS is no longer the only party supporting political Islam, as United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is seemingly on a similar path. Umno, a long-standing historical opponent, has generally been perceived as championing Malay dominance and nationalism, whilst PAS has nearly always championed Islamism and a strict version of Islam. Nevertheless, in recent years, Umno has preached an increasingly conservative version of Islam, which has potentially resulted in a convergence of both parties’ religious ideas.

PAS and Umno in the political scene: Past to present

PAS was officially founded in 1951 as a spin-off from Umno. Its origins may be traced back to Umno’s early efforts to portray itself as a champion of Islam in the face of doubts about its trustworthiness. As a result, Umno established the first Ulama Congress in 1950, with the goal of providing a forum for Malaysian ulama (religious experts) to debate Muslim issues. This resulted in the formation of an Islamist faction within Umno which was solidified in 1951 during the second Ulama Congress.

In response to Umno leadership’s apparent inability to handle issues concerning Muslim affairs, the ulama inside Umno began to investigate the prospect of founding their own organisation that is more loyal to Islam and Muslims. The Congress passed two resolutions: 1) to re-establish Badan Tertinggi Agama Islam Peringkat Kebangsaan (National Supreme Council for Religious Affairs) and; 2) to form an autonomous association of ulama unconnected with any other political or philanthropic organisation. Thus, the Persatuan Alim Ulama Se-Malaya (All-Malaya Ulama Organisation) was established on 23 August 1951.

The Third Ulama Congress was convened on 23-24 November of the same year, at which time the group changed its name to Persatuan Islam Se-Malaya (Pan-Malay Islamic Organisation). This eventually evolved into PAS, a political party.

While the organisation’s initial objective was to act as a vociferous (albeit weak) lobby for ulama interests, it had already begun to advocate for the establishment of an Islamic state. Despite this, they had no notion what an Islamic state would look like, save that Muslim interests would be safeguarded under Sharia law. As a result, PAS was not a major threat to Umno at the time and ties between the two were not wholly strained.

Malay nationalism became stronger on both Umno and PAS sides by the 1970s. This was in response to the May 1969 riots and the subsequent awareness that Malays were trailing behind in most areas. While the cause of the discrepancy was class, not race, both Umno and PAS projected themselves as the protectors and saviours of the Malay people. As the dominant party, Umno oversaw the national reconciliation effort, establishing a state of emergency and limiting political debate.

Things changed in 1973 when PAS President Asri Muda indicated that the party would collaborate with Umno. In 1974, PAS joined the newly established Barisan Nasional (National Front — BN) coalition, opting for compromise and collaboration. PAS members were awarded prominent cabinet positions, despite the fact that the coalition’s 1974 electoral victory demonstrated that Umno remained the dominant party.

Following a political turmoil in the state of Kelantan, Asri Muda announced the departure of PAS from BN in 1977. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, tensions between Umno and PAS had risen against the backdrop of the Islamic awakening in the Muslim world.

Anwar Ibrahim’s decision to join Umno exacerbated the situation. Anwar’s student organisation, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement — ABIM), was strongly associated with PAS and the Islamist opposition and his choice to join Umno was generally viewed as a betrayal and a trigger for Islamist opposition split.

Following Anwar’s departure, numerous other ABIM leaders, notably Abdul Hadi Awang, left the movement to join PAS. Although both Anwar and Hadi Awang began in the same movement, their political trajectories diverged, as did their perspectives on Islam, politics, law and economics. The admission of these ABIM figures into PAS transformed the party into a more radical faction.

Both Umno and PAS strove to compete each other as being more Islamic during this time period. This was worsened by Abdul Hadi Awang’s Amanat Haji Hadi speech, in which he declared that working with Umno was equivalent to being a non-believer. This marked the start of a kafir-mengkafir (accusing others as infidels) era in which both groups accused the other of being an infidel. This era ended when Umno’s worldview has became more conservative and revivalist.

When Mahathir Mohamad initially became prime minister in the early 1980s, the roots of a renaissance were planted. During this period of revival, there was a desire to Islamise different elements of society, such as educational institutions, government organisations and financial institutions. The Islamisation agenda was further solidified during Abdullah Badawi’s tenure when there was a conservative backlash from Islamist groups to his vision of Islam Hadhari (Civilisational Islam).

Conservative voices gained further traction when Najib Razak showed his willingness to work with PAS during his tenure as prime minister (2009-2018). This was most evident in 2016 when he expressed his support for Abdul Hadi Awang’s move to introduce the Syariah Bill Act 355, which would facilitate the implementation of harsher penalties under the Syariah Courts Act 1965.

Umno-PAS alignment was finally achieved in 2019 when both parties agreed to sign a National Consensus Charter to formalise their political cooperation. This paved the way for the official formation of Muafakat Nasional (National Consensus — MN), the formal political alliance between the two parties.

However, cracks in the Umno-PAS pact emerged under MN. This is exemplified in recent state elections in Malacca (2021) and Johor (2022), whereby Umno and PAS competed under separate banners: Umno competed under its traditional BN banner, while PAS allied with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous United Party — Bersatu) as part of Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance — PN). Umno has since gave PAS an ultimatum to leave PN which has been ignored by Bersatu. Before GE15, due on 19 November 2022, Umno and PAS are unlikely to reconcile, making MN’s future untenable unless major compromises are made.

Acceptance factors for PAS in peninsula Malaysia in GE15

The primary factor for voters to support PAS is their confidence in the Islamic agenda championed by PAS. The party is synonymous with bringing Islamic values to its political effort. The party continues to champion slogans such as Membangun Bersama Islam (Developing with Islam) to display their commitment to incorporating Islam into the Malaysian administration by taking Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu as the role model of success.

The party’s leaders also demonstrate commitment to the Islamic agenda and calls for integrity in administration. Because of that, PAS voters hope these agendas would come to realisation. They are not hesitant to vote for PAS because they see that the party is firm with its Islamic principle in ensuring justice to all citizens regardless of race and religion.

Another factor driving voters to PAS is that its leaders are perceived to be clean with no involvements of bribery or malpractice. They have a clean record compared to other party leaders. Although PAS was accused of receiving RM90 million from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which stained the party’s image, they managed to prove their innocence. It has been reported that the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) is still investigating the case, implying that PAS is innocent until proven guilty.

Voters also feel that PAS strongly advocates Islam and the Malay race. Conversely, they view Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope — PH) as too weak and indifferent to do the same. They also feel that PH leaders are too submissive to Democratic Action Party (DAP), a party that, in their view, is trying to abolish the special rights of the Malays and undermine Islam.

PAS voters take Kelantan as a role model because PAS has won that state in every GE since GE8 in 1990. This success made PAS the favourite party for voters on the East Coast of peninsular Malaysia. Voters in Terengganu followed suit by choosing PAS as the state government in GE10 held in 1999. Unlike Kelantan, power oscilated between BN and PAS in subsequent elections. Recently, PAS successfully won against BN here in GE14 with a simple majority.

PAS also won against BN in Kedah in GE12. Though their influence on the West Coast voters is less robust than those on the East Coast, some voters in the former still favour the party, attracted by its political performance in Kelantan all these years.

Apart from that, social media also plays a crucial role in influencing society. For example, religious figures such as Ustaz Azhar Idrus often praise PAS in their religious talk, as well as to campaigning in support of PAS on the ground. Ustaz Azhar Idrus even encouraged the people to have faith in the leadership of Islamic intellectuals and claimed that PAS is the only party led by religious celebrities.

The last factor spurring votes for PAS is the lack of alternatives for a party which champion Islam-based agenda. PAS stands out for propagating the Islamic agenda and defending the rights of Malays. In addition, Parti Amanah Negara (National Trust Party — Amanah) where Islam plays a central role, is seen to be drowning in light of current issues.

In numerous issues that are close to the people, the leaders of Amanah do not come forward to champion them. Their voices are also not strong in social and mainstream media. Besides, Amanah has not gained the trust and confidence of the Malay voters. This is evident when Amanah won only one seat in the Johor State Election 2022.

Meanwhile, even though Umno is known for its Malay advocacies, the party rarely fights aggressively for Islamic agenda. Instead, revivalists attempt to promote Islamic perspectives in all aspects of social and political life. In 2001, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed that Malaysia was already an Islamic state. However, the criteria he adopted in making such a declaration did not include the implementation of hudud laws. Rather, he placed more emphasis on the Islamisation of institutions, the bureaucracy and policies. Because of the limited choice, voters choose PAS because at least the party would always advocate for Islam and the Malays in the future.

Umno, a long-standing historical opponent, has generally been perceived as championing Malay dominance and nationalism, whilst PAS has nearly always championed Islamism and a strict version of Islam.— Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Factors underlying Umno’s confidence in GE15

As for Umno, they are confident of winning GE15 based on two factors. Firstly, the low percentage of voter turnouts. This factor gives advantages to BN because they have a more substantial presence at the grassroots levels than PH and PN each does. By limiting overseas votes, voters at grassroots would greatly favour Umno.

For comparison, during GE14 in 2018, the percentage of voter turnouts was high at 83.4 per cent. As a result, PH managed to overthrow BN which had ruled the country for more than 60 years. BN lost because the number of swing voters outnumbered their base supporters. The percentage of voter turnouts in the upcoming election is expected to be low because flood is forecasted to hit most parts of the peninsular. In addition, with GE15 slated for 19 November 2022, most Malaysians who live in other states and abroad will be reluctant to come back to vote. Without such reluctance to travel, the high turnout will drown out the votes of grassroots supporters supporting Umno.

The second factor is the emergence of new parties in the upcoming election, such as Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Homeland Fighters’ Party — Pejuang), Ikatan Demokratik Malaysia (Malaysian United Democratic Alliance — Muda) and Parti Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian Nation Party — PBM) and Parti Warisan (Heritage Party — WARISAN). The emergence of these parties will further fragment votes of parties competing against Umno. This is particularly in light of how Umno won in recent contests when placed in a three-cornered fight against PH and PN. For example, in the Melaka state election, BN obtained 39 per cent of the total vote while PH and PN-PAS obtained 36 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively. Both votes for PH and PN-PAS together amounted to 61 per cent. In the contest for Dewan Undangan Negeri (State Legislative Assembly — DUN) Tanjung Bidara (Melaka), Ab Rauf Yusoh would not have won had votes for PH and PN not been split up. Results showed that Rauf garnered 3,559 votes, Mas Ermieyati Samsudin (PN) garnered 3,195 votes and Zainal Hassan garnered 489 votes.

PH and PN currently share the same objective: to prevent Umno from returning to power. Many political leaders from PH and PN claim that GE15 is a strategy for BN to restore power to the “court’s” cluster. Several consecutive state elections were held to uplift the spirit of BN’s grassroots to support its campaign in regaining Putrajaya, which they lost in 2018. In GE15, BN continues to exploit this fracture between opposition parties as a strategy to return to power.

Rejection factors for PAS in peninsula Malaysia in GE15

Before GE14, PAS was alleged to have received a fund related to 1MDB worth RM90 million. The fund was given because PAS had given their support to BN. This allegation has a significant impact in causing voters to reject PAS because up to that point, PAS was considered clean. These included voters who even opposed leaders from Umno and PH who were charged with bribery. The situation was exercebated when the article was republished after PAS had pulled out of the defamation suit against Sarawak Report.

Another rejection factor against PAS is the rumour that PAS is working to join forces with Umno. There is skepticism that such cooperation can last because both parties have different goals and directions. PAS and Umno appear apprehensive over working together. The latest development proves that the cooperation is temporary because PAS chose to work with Bersatu in PN rather than with Umno in BN in the upcoming GE15.

The next factor is the people’s mistrust in PAS’s ability to govern the country because it has only ruled over a few states and with limited experiences at the federal level. Additionally, states governed by PAS have received negative perception such as being “religiously conservative”, not progressive and incompatible with the rest of Malaysia.

PAS was also considered too extreme in advocating for Islamic agenda. While other parties hold a moderate position on the issue of the practice of Islam, PAS takes a radical approach by labelling such as tidak beriman, tidak bermoral (faithless, immoral) to people or parties who do not share the same principle. Because of that, voters, especially non-Muslims, are unlikely to vote for them. They feel that PAS is not attuned to the country’s multiracial and multireligious nature. Additionally, PAS’ exclusive campaign for an Islamic agenda aids the perception that the party is only interested in religious affairs.

Another rejection factor is that PAS has used Islam as a form of excuse. In politics, it is common for politicians to use any excuse, be it reasonable or not, to escape from accountability. However, voters feel that PAS are much more prone to use Islam as an escape from involvement in current affairs. Voters feel that PAS is toying with the religion. They feel PAS is trying to fool them by associating religion with every matter.

The last rejection factor is that PAS is more prone to castigating its opponents and critics. PAS has a tendency to condemn people with opposing views. For example, Sik PAS Youth chief Shahiful Nasir’s stated in his speech on 10 November 2022 that voters would “go to hell” if they voted for BN or PH instead of PN in GE15.

Rejection factors for Umno in peninsula Malaysia in GE15

One of the factors for voters to reject Umno is the persistence to remove Umno from the government. However, such a call may not be as loud as in 2018 when Umno shockingly lost elections on both federal and state levels, such as Johor, Perak, Melaka, Negri Sembilan, Kedah, and Sabah.

Voters then believed that Umno had to be removed to change the governance so that the country’s macroeconomic and microeconomic structures could be fixed. This was because Umno had been in power for too long a time and its leaders had siphoned off the people’s wealth, practising cronyism and nepotism, being resistant to criticism, and exemplifying greed and narcissism. With a change of power in Putrajaya, it is hoped the new administration can safeguard the people’s interests and prioritise the nation’s development.

Another factor is the pessimism in Umno’s current ability to address the on-going economic recession and rising living cost. In addition, Malaysia’s debt has been increasing since Umno returned to power in 2021. This is against the people’s desire that the government create an economic environment that is stable, encourage competition and ensuring subsidies. They also wish that the government care for their welfare and assist them according to the target groups with different priorities, such as the youth, the adults, the elderly, the retired, the minorities, the Bottom 40 per cent (B40), the Middle 40 per cent (M40) and the Top 20 per cent (T20) groups. People feel that Umno has failed to deal with the above economic issues, especially in the new normal.

Apart from that, the rejection of Umno in GE15 is also instigated by the suspicion over the probability of Umno President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi becoming prime minister. This suspicion is fuelled by the recent axing of incumbent Umno MPs aligned to caretaker prime minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob from contesting under Umno banner. Although this suspicion is denied by Ismail and Zahid himself, it has circulated extensively on social media that there is a slogan that says one vote for Umno is one vote for Zahid.


The days of Umno and PAS officials publicly arguing over their allegiance to Islam are long gone. Umno sought to foster Malay identity with Islam as one of its cornerstones, whilst PAS valued Islam over Malay identity. Lately, Islamists and Malay nationalists have converged, although their convergence pivots towards the former. Observers used to know where their leaders stood on many religious matters through such public exchanges. This is no longer the case; alliances are now formed and conflicts are mostly based on political motives. PAS and Umno need to work harder and need to change their style in campaigning to capture the hearts of voters by becoming more moderate, exercising restraint in all matters and being open to accept the majority decision in a political alliance with other political parties.

* This is a series on political Islam and GE15

Read Part 1: Islamists vs Islamists in GE15

Read Part 2: The Malay-Muslim Politics and Malaysia’s GE15

* This article was first published here.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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