From Islamist to Muslim Majoritarianism: The Rise of PAS in GE15

Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) won a lion’s share of parliamentary seats in the 15th General Election (GE15). Credit: REUTERS/Hasnoor Hussain.


Temerloh is a small town and a semi-urban parliamentary seat in Pahang. United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) have respectively won the seat in the previous three general elections, making this Malay-majority mixed area a competitive seat and an indicator of Malay voting preference.

The contest in Temerloh is a microcosm of national politics, reflecting the evolving landscape of coalition politics and voting patterns in Malaysia.

In the 13th General Election (GE13) of 2013, PAS, which contested under the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) banner, wrested the seat from UMNO with the backing of its own supporters and non-Malay voters. In the 14th General Election (GE14) of 2018, Amanah won the seat under the banner of Pakatan Harapan (PH) with the support of overwhelmingly non-Malays and a significant number of anti-UMNO Malay voters, which Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) played an important role in persuading.

In the 15th General Election (GE15) this year, the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, represented by a PAS candidate, captured Temerloh with a substantial majority of more than 5,000 votes. With the campaign slogan “PAS for all”, PAS won the seat with significant non-Malay support in 2013. In contrast, by propagating “Malay Muslim unity”, the party recaptured the seat with overwhelming Malay Muslim votes in 2022.

Fieldwork in Temerloh during the election campaign period showed that there were indications PN could win that seat and many other Malay-majority seats in Peninsular Malaysia. Assuming that most non-Malays will vote for PH, a PH supporter told the author that the coalition would be able to retain the seat if it can command 20% of total Malay votes. However, he was cautiously optimistic, noting that: 1) Bersatu is no longer with PH; 2) PAS has robust grassroots machinery and; 3) some locals perceive Hasbie Muda, Amanah’s candidate, as an outsider.

In contrast, PAS candidate Salamiah Mohd Nor is a local teacher who has been working on the ground. She noted that many locals were unhappy with the UMNO candidate and that there was a split within the UMNO division. She also pointed out that both Amanah’s and Partai Pejuang Tanah Air’s (Pejuang) candidates were outsiders. Acknowledging Pejuang’s candidate Aminuddin Yahya is a national right-wing figure and an Islamist activist, she doubted he could split PAS’s vote base. Indeed, Salamiah won the Temerloh seat handsomely, while Aminuddin Yahya lost his deposit.

Many observers were shocked by PN’s success in securing 73 parliamentary seats, 43 of which alone belong to PAS, making the Islamist party the biggest winner of GE15. In addition, PN had wrested Perlis, rolled over other Malay states and made further inroad into Selangor, Perak, Melaka and Penang.

As indicated earlier, multiple factors contribute to the rise of PN, especially PAS, which some viewed as the “green tsunami.” Since its establishment, PAS has been flexible and pragmatic in its political partnership yet holds firm to its ideology. In GE15, PAS’ success can be attributed to its tapping into anti-UMNO and anti-corruption sentiments, robust support from the grassroots, ideological indoctrination as well as various short-term and long-term factors.

Factors Contributing to PAS’ Success

PN combines Islamist and Malay nationalist elements by drawing from PAS’ and Bersatu’s strength, both of which are attractive to many Malay Muslim voters. In GE15, PN ran a solid and effective campaign with a catchy slogan “PN, the Best” and a motto of “Prihatin, Bersih and Stabil” (Caring, Clean and Stable) that many voters related to.

The choice of such a motto was a strategic one. Prihatin highlights Muhyiddin Yassin’s fatherly image as Abah (Father) which he developed during his premiership. Despite various criticisms, Muhyiddin has quite successfully positioned himself as the prime minister who led Malaysia through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tapping into PH and civil societies’ anti-corruption campaigns, Bersih indicates PN as a cleaner alternative to corrupted UMNO. Stabil, on the other hand, emulates BN’s slogan and addresses the hope of many Malaysians for political stability.

PN’s campaign messages are clear and direct, highlighting UMNO’s tarnished image and Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) problematic reputation among Malay Muslims. PN also ran effective social media campaigns on platforms such as TikTok, Facebook and WhatsApp. On TikTok, PN generated two types of content targeting different segments of young voters. The first aimed to consolidate the support of Islamist-minded youths with direct or indirect hate messages toward “un-Islamic” groups. The second persuaded ordinary youths with fun and easy-going content.

PN and PAS successfully tapped in to the wave of anti-corruption movement (such as Rasuah Busters by Sinar Harian) and Undi18 campaign. Similarly, many PH and PH-leaning non-governmental organizations NGOs) focused on the anti-corruption campaign, hoping that unhappy voters would support PH. Yet, they did not expect many anti-corruption Malay voters to choose PN and PAS as an alternative to BN-UMNO.

PH also spent much time attacking UMNO and corruption, yet was defensive when dealing with PN’s attacks on religious and racialized fronts. Meanwhile, PN strategically positioned itself as a party that is “clean” and able to safeguard the interest of Malay Muslims – PN urged voters to reject both corrupted UMNO and “DAP-led” PH. PAS also deployed Islamic idioms to convey anti-corruption messages while portraying PAS as the best choice for anti-corruption Muslim voters.

Youth Voters and the Underestimation of PAS

There was a huge increase of voter in GE15 due to the automatic voter registration process and the reduced voting age to 18. Many progressive-minded activists campaigned for Undi18, falsely anticipating youth voters to be more moderate if not progressive. Yet, the election results indicated that many first-time Malay youth voters voted for PN.

A recent Merdeka Center’s survey on Muslim youth has shown the retaining of religious conservatism among Muslim youths, allowing PN to mobilise youth support easily. Hence, while institutional reforms are essential, such initiatives as Undi18 should be accompanied by the cultivation of progressive, if not moderate, social and political values – otherwise, the conservatives or extremists might take advantage of such reforms.

Many urban liberals and non-Muslims perceive PAS as a regional, village and backward party. Such perceptions do not capture PAS recent dynamic. PAS has a strong presence across many states and its leaders are smart in making strategic decisions while holding firm to its ideology. With established religious scholars as its backbone, PAS has no lack of celebrity preachers, Islamist professionals and grassroots members who have been fighting for the party’s causes.

PAS has also penetrated many neighbourhood mosques, religious schools, Islamic studies sessions and university campuses. It runs activities such as Islamic-themed concerts, motor-racing clubs and archery clubs to attract Muslim youth. Furthermore, PAS strategically places candidates to contest in the right seats. For example, a female professional in urban Kapar, a female teacher in semi-urban Temerloh and a local religious preacher in semi-urban Permatang Pauh. All of them have a strong local presence and have been working on the ground. Needless to say that all of them won the seats they contested for. Such a local touch and long-term engagement contribute to PAS’s success.

Conservative and Populist Turn

Last but not least, the conservative and populist turns among Malay Muslims over these few years have also provided fertile ground for the rise of PAS. Since the dominance of UMNO started to wane in 2008, there has been growing visibility of various right-wing religious groups, nationalist organizations, preachers, academicians and opinion leaders who are vocal in defending Malay Muslim rights.

During the first PH administration, right-wing groups such as Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA) actively exploited Malay Muslim insecurity and pumped-up intolerant stance towards various religious, ethnic and sexual minorities. They have continuously accused “Chinese DAP”, kafirs (infidels), communists, liberals, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and related communities (LGBT+) were taking over the country. ISMA also filed lawsuits to challenge the presence of vernacular schools, promoted the “Buy Muslim First” campaign, protested against the ratification of International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and Rome Statute, and objected non-Muslims from using the term “Allah.”

Such right-wing movements have pushed PAS further to the right and taken a racialized exclusivist position. At the same time, moderate Islamists and progressive Muslims have not done enough to counter right-wing attacks and promote alternative discourses. After PAS joined the PN government, some PH’s Muslim supporters have been continuously trolling PAS for not being able to implement Islamic policies such as blanket ban of alcohol and the implementation of Hudud laws. Such trolls amplify the Islamist and conservative voices, ultimately benefiting PAS grounds.

In 2022, Studio Kembara, which ISMA activists run, produced the hit nationalist film Mat Kilau. The film’s key messages are urging Malay Muslims to be united against foreigners, emphasising the role of Islam in Malay identity and indicating that non-Muslims are not suitable to lead Muslim-majority societies. Such populist sentiments also fed into the core campaign strategy employed by PAS and PN throughout GE15 – propagating Malay unity to “reclaim” the country from “external” and “un-Islamic” influences.

A posting on the PAS’s official Facebook page urged Malay Muslims to learn lessons from the film Mat Kilau – it accused PH of undermining the Malay Muslim agenda and suggested that PN was the best choice in defending Malay Muslim rights. There was also a TikTok video with a message “Those who vote for PH, should rewatch Mat Kilau.” While ISMA activists produced Mat Kilau, PAS was the biggest beneficiary of the film’s popularity in the GE15. In other words, while far-right groups such as ISMA failed to gain electoral support, their activism has shaped socio-political discourses and provided fertile ground for the rise of PAS.


In contrast to the slogan of “PAS for all” when it was with PR, the party had recently taken a more exclusivist position with an emphasis on “Islamic leadership” and “Malay unity.” Perhaps analysts should not see PAS as merely an Islamist party; instead, it is a party that combines both elements of Islamism and Malay nationalism, hence a “Malay-Islamist” party.

With its recent partnerships with Malay nationalist party (UMNO via Muafakat Nasional [MN]) and now with Bersatu (via PN), PAS has attracted sizeable Islamist and Malay nationalist voters, as well as some ordinary Malay voters who are angry with UMNO but do not trust the perceived “DAP-led” PH. While PAS’s long-term ideological indoctrination and grassroots building are crucial, the rise of PAS as the biggest party in parliament today does not necessarily mean that more Malaysian Muslims are supporting PAS’s Islamist agenda. Instead, it reflects how PAS and other right-wing groups have successfully propagated the sentiments of “Malay Muslim insecurity.” Hence, the challenge ahead is not only about the growth of Islamism, but also the rise of right-wing Malay Muslim majoritarianism. Of course, these two trends are not mutually exclusive; instead, they complement each other. To overcome such challenges, institutional reforms must come together with the reforms of social and political values among Malaysian, especially the youth.

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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  • Dr. Hew Wai Weng is a research fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (IKMAS, UKM). His research interests include the intersections between ethnicity, religiosity, class and politics in Malaysia and Indonesia. He writes about Chinese Muslim identities, Hui migration, social media and Islamic preaching, and urban middle-class Muslim aspirations in Malaysia and Indonesia.