A Fiery Mix of Religious Institutions and Politics in Malaysia

‘Jom Ziarah’, an interfaith initiative, provided fodder for the opposition to chastise the current Malaysian government. Together with JAIS and MAIS being sympathetic to the opposition’s narrative, the initiative saw an abrupt end.  Credit: Berita Harian


At the end of February, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim re-tabled budget 2023 after forming a government post-15th General Election (GE15). Since then, members of parliament on both sides of the aisle are supposed to debate and discuss how to improve the budget for the benefit of the nation. Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, almost every speech made by the opposition would circle back to the issue of race and religion. This is expected for a coalition that campaigned on racial and religious sentiments in November 2022. While some might say bringing up identity issues shows there is a striking dearth of ideas by the opposition, more worrying than that is their willingness to gamble Malaysia’s already fragile societal fabric for short-term political mileage.

Out of economic ideas, the opposition started to attack Hannah Yeoh, the Minister of Youth and Sports for an initiative organised by an agency affiliated to the ministry called ‘Jom Ziarah’ or ‘Lets Visit’ in an interfaith effort to bring youth to various houses of worship. Instead of lauding this now-cancelled program to instil tolerance and understanding, the Perikatan Nasional opposition charged the Christian minister for conspiring to evangelise Muslim youth.

Protecting Malaysian Muslims?

Similarly, several state religious institutions are sympathetic to this narrative. From the author’s interviews with Malaysian political analysts, this has prompted speculation of a ‘deep state’ against Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government with supporters of the opposition filling up posts in religious departments. The Selangor Islamic Department (JAIS) reminded Muslims to not visit temples and churches for events and ceremonies. After this reminder, the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) echoed that events deemed to be influencing Muslim youths are prohibited. This is perplexing considering Muslim countries such as the United Arab Emirates are creating a multi-faith complex called the Abrahamic Family House to bridge the gap between the three Abrahamic religions. Malaysia, instead, seems to be moving further to the right represented by dogmatism. Additionally, instilling tolerance and acceptance appear to be lopsided with the focus on non-Muslims.

This is counter to Quranic verse (49:13) detailing how humans are created into different tribes so that we learn from one another. This verse remains relevant for a multi racial country such as Malaysia. However, JAIS’ stance effectively limits Muslims in celebrating important life events of their non-Muslim relatives and friends such as weddings just because they are held in a church or temple. The celebration is of the people, not the religion.

Is there a need for such limitation? Most states in Malaysia already have a law against proselytising of Muslims by other religions. With this law, there is no limitation for Muslims to visit churches and temples such as in Penang. Similarly, the Sultan of Johor and Sultan of Selangor have decreed that there is no issue for Muslims to visit churches and temples without participating in the religious ceremonies. Sadly, such limitation by JAIS and MAIS assumes the fragility of Malaysian Muslims’ faith. Even if such assumption was true, there should be a prioritization to strengthen Islamic knowledge beyond mere rituals.

A Fiery Mix: Religious Institutions and Politics

Offices such as JAIS and MAIS have a unique position in Malaysia. While the Federal Constitution clearly states that Islam is Malaysia’s official religion, the nine hereditary rulers are responsible as the head of Islam in their respective state with the Agong (Monarch) being the head of Islam for other states with no hereditary rulers. Within each state there is an Islamic department that is responsible to implement Islamic rules which is under the purview of the state according to Malaysia’s federal system. This mix of flexibility and bureaucratization have afforded these departments more power over the years to implement a more conservative brand of the religion. However, these departments are not fully autonomous as certain rulers are more vocal in rejecting their directives.

Two potential drivers for religious conservatism for these institutions are 1) the population of Malays in each state and 2) the amount of religious “spotlight” they encounter. According to the 2020 census, Malays make up 60% of the population in Selangor as opposed to 44% in Penang. Being a majority in Selangor leads to a higher need to defend the Malay’s superior position there than in Penang where they have learned to live as a minority. Additionally, Selangor is the most developed state in the country with many international events held in the urban area. Thus, it is more likely to court controversy for allowing certain events to occur, especially under the PH government which has been accused of promoting liberalism. JAIS comes under the spotlight more often than the religious departments of other states.

GE15 also saw what has been called a ‘Green Wave’ with the Perikatan Nasional coalition defeating Pakatan Harapan heavy weights, including in Selangor where PH has governed since 2008. Numerous hypotheses have been offered as insights to this political shift. Some pointed to the inclusion of youth who are 18-20 years of age as voters for the first time. Deemed “politically uneducated”, most youth fell under the spell of TikTok which saw Perikatan Nasional dominating.

But a more sobering observation is the rising conservatism among millennials and Gen-Xers, even among non-practicing Muslims, who saw Islam as “the solution” especially after coming out of a two-year pandemic. Islam provides an easy and quick way towards “salvation” including support of political parties deemed to be Islamic. Through their support of these parties, they were promised heaven. Islam has become an identity marker, especially to middle class Malays.

Similarly, younger generations grew up in a Malaysia that had completed its “Islamization” process starting from the 1980s. Such bureaucratization and institutionalization of Islam have created a more conservative generation that may be less keen to interact with other races or religions. An example of this is how Malaysia’s national school system is dividing the country along ethnic lines. As more Chinese choose Chinese vernacular schools, Malays prefer attending Islamic schools that mushroomed from the Islamization period.

For the political class it means there is no escaping this reality but to face it head on. There are two options for the current unity government: a) stay on the moderate course on the centre-right of the political spectrum, or b) veer further right to win over these more conservative Malays. In the first few months of Anwar Ibrahim’s government, there is no doubt that it is definitely a conservative government which is a reflection of the people. Anwar made the proclamation on live television that his government would not recognize secularism, communism, and the LGBTQ community. In response to a controversial private event that would have been organised during the holy month of Ramadhan, the Minister of Local Government Development, Nga Kor Ming who is an ethnic Chinese, again highlighted the government’s policy not to recognise the LGBTQ community. Collectively, these are aligned with the sensitivities of Malaysians especially the Malays. However, if the unity government panders further to the right, they may be playing catch-up to Perikatan Nasional and would always be viewed as second best. This would be highly favourable particularly to Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), a component of the Perikatan Nasional coalition. Thus, the survivability of the unity government until the 16th general election depends on the government cultivating the centre to fight against polarization and religious tension. At the moment, there appears to be an identity crisis of the unity government such as the Minister of Communications and Digital questioning the previous administration’s inaction over a controversial film called Mentega Terbang when Pakatan Harapan has in the past championed for mutual respect. Hopefully, the government would have made it clearer regarding their overall view on religious and racial issues by June 2023 when six state elections are to be called. If they are a conservative government that is simply working towards reforming the country’s institutions, the people deserve to be able to call a spade a spade. Maybe Malay voters, and other conservative Malaysians, would be more receptive of this Pakatan Harapan and in the process reject polarizing parties.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Syaza Shukri is Associate Professor of political science at the International Islamic University Malaysia. Her research interests are in identity politics, democratisation, and the intersection of both. Her other thoughts are accessible on her Twitter @syazashukri.