The ‘Green Wave’ has been used to describe the significant electoral gains made by Perikatan Nasional (PN, The National Alliance) in Malaysia’s 15th General Elections in November 2022 and the recent state elections in August 2023. It is an elusive term, not least due to the political motives behind its employment. In this article, we will argue that the Green Wave does not suggest a product of Islamisation per se, but, rather, the culmination of a right-wing majoritarian moment composed of Malay nationalist and Islamist forces.
Differentiating Majoritarianism and Islamisation
At this point, it is worth revisiting some of the differences between right-wing Malay Muslim majoritarianism as a political force and Islamisation as a socio-cultural process. To be sure, both are multifaceted processes intersecting in many ways. Discerning such differences helps avoid the trap of thinking that more Islamisation alone will, by default, lead to a larger ‘green wave’. We argue that there are four differences.
First, the making of this right-wing Malay Muslim majoritarianism cannot be separated from the broader right-wing turn of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Whereas PAS had its radical phase in the 1980s, the current more exclusivist PAS is actually a turn away from its ‘Islam for all’ phase when it was with the Pakatan Rakyat (PR, People’s Alliance) coalition. A number of precipitating events led to such a shift, including the death of the influential figure of Tok Guru Nik Aziz and the exodus of the so-called ‘Erdogan’ faction that formed the party of Amanah.
Second, while signalling growing religious observance, the increasing demand for a halal economy is still a relatively inclusive process. For example, many non-Malays and non-Muslims are key pushers of the halal market. The right-wing majoritarian turn only happened in recent years with campaigns like ‘Buy Muslims First’, which has a latent exclusivist element with its non-Muslim boycotting undertones. What these right-wing actors seek is not just the moral purification of the economy but also Muslim dominance in it. This emphasis on dominance extends to political campaigns championing Muslim candidates only in Muslim-majority areas, and Muslim votes for ‘Islam-friendly’ Muslim candidates only. Such developments further challenge Malaysia’s political status quo, which is accustomed to ethnic-based parties but never to the total exclusion of minority representation.
Third, the Islamisation experienced in Malaysia does not solely follow the Arabisation route that entails significant deculturalisation from local aesthetics and customs. In recent years, self-identified champions of Islam, including PAS, have adorned traditional Malay attire more, and have made the tanjak (the traditional Malay headgear) a symbol of Malay-Muslim identity. Further boosting the popularity of the tanjak is the popular film Mat Kilau, which has a clear exclusivist message in an ethnoreligious garb (see below). Unlike what some more laudatory accounts of syncretic religion say, the integration of religion with local cultures need not always produce moderation. However, the meaning of Malay culture is always in contestation. A recent event called Keretapi Sarong has shown that its celebration can unite people from all walks of life instead of being another vessel for ethnocultural nativism.
Fourth, even as calls for pan-Muslim solidarity were often made, Malaysia’s right-wing majoritarianism has sometimes sidestepped the usual bogeyman of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP, also a euphemism for anti-Chinese rhetoric), sexual minorities, and the liberals. In several instances, the disdain of PN-linked or PN-supporting right-wing actors was also directed at the Rohingyas and traders of Arab origins. This arguably shows that nativism is more pronounced than Islamism in driving right-wing mobilisation.
Our point is not that decades of conservative Islamisation has not played a role in sustaining such a political economy that makes fostering organic and tolerant multiculturalism a challenging task. But this right-wing turn in Malay nationalist and Islamist sentiments is a product of complicated origins. Factors of class, religiosity, and race are all within this potent mix.
The ‘Pull’ of the Green Wave
Within this context, the term ‘Green Wave’ is helpful for us to understand how Malay-Muslim majoritarianism operates as a socio-political force. The ‘wave’ metaphor is particularly useful because it shows how this political force, sustained by actors within and outside of PN, swept or papered over a fragmented and uneven Malay Muslim constituency. In other words, the wave has both a pulling and pooling effect. It attracts votes but also aggregates them across a spectrum of Malay voters.
The ‘pulling’ stems from the fact that the ‘Islam under threat’ discourse propagated by many right-wing actors has resonance with a variety of majoritarian insecurity sentiments. For those who experience a situation of post-Covid economic precarity, the message signals non-Muslim domination of the economy (using the ‘non-Muslim’ signifier helps sidestep the near-half non-Malaysian equity ownership that is often wrongly attributed to the Malaysian Chinese). Right-wing activists also smartly tapped into the economic insecurity among Malay youth, working class and urban poor communities.
For those more prone to moral panics, the inclusion of the secular DAP and its liberal supporters in government means the risk of Malaysia becoming more liberal and secular socially. For those lamenting that a group of secular, immoral, and detached elites have dominated the upper echelons of society, the reduction of Malay-Muslim political representation following the collapse of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-dominated government means further obstacles to the ascendancy of a new and arguably more pious Malay urban middle-class.
It is important to note that while there are material conditions that facilitate these sentiments, these insecurities are not directly reflective of a complicated reality where the Malay empowerment agenda is still ongoing and has enjoyed some success. For example, according to a paper, by 2020, Bumiputeras (the majority of whom are Malays) account for “66% of all employed Malaysians, but 68% of professionals”. A potted landscape where neither celebratory nor conspiratorial version of the Malay empowerment story is entirely accurate means there is a need for political entrepreneurs to manufacture such insecurities (especially on social media), something we will discuss in a separate article.
Green Wave as the ‘Pooling’ of Malay-Muslim Votes
Given the cacophony of interests that can potentially respond to this ‘Islam under threat’ master narrative, the true achievement of the Green Wave lies in its pooling effect: those responding to the messaging (not all have come from PN actors) deciding to vote for PN in swathes instead of choosing UMNO or simply abstaining.
This convergence is bolstered by three factors. First, PN enjoys the advantage of being a well-coordinated electoral alliance between a Malay nationalist (Bersatu) and Islamist party (conversely, UMNO, despite cosying up to PAS before the 14th General Elections, decided to go for a three-way fight arrangement). Seat allocation, the most contentious issue for any electoral coalition gunning for the same constituency, does not appear to be an issue, despite some quarrels between Bersatu and PAS. In the elections, the coalition was also nimble enough to allow the use of the PAS logo in Kelantan and Terengganu while keeping to the PN logo in other states.
Second, PN’s effective use of culture war issues, which is euphemistically called 3R issues in Malaysia (race, religion, and royalty), has a pooling effect, too. Through advancing anti-liberal, anti-minority (especially gender and sexual minorities), anti-pluralist takes on social issues, culture war issues bridge the Islamist-nationalist divide to create a larger conservative majoritarian bloc that enables the ‘Green Wave’ to happen. The saliency of culture war issues in energising conservative majoritarian mobilisation can be seen from the fact that it not only works in places where religion is still a potent force like India and Turkey, but also in a highly secularised setting such as China.
One example of a culture war issue is the uproar against a Ministry of Youth and Sports-supported programme under the Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional (PH-BN) unity government that allegedly brought Muslims to visit churches, which led to a police investigation and the Ministry ultimately abandoning the programme. PN figures have accused it of being a Christianisation agenda, a wild accusation former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin also reportedly made during the elections. But pushbacks also came from the wider public too, including influencers and populist preachers who ended up legitimising PN’s anti-multicultural stances without directly endorsing the parties.
Another cultural moment is the release of the aforementioned Mat Kilau, which emerged as the highest-grossing film in Malaysian history. Despite its problematic ethnic stereotyping and historical revisionism, the right-wing-produced film gained mass appeal as a silat action epic (a popular genre in its own right). Its jingoistic tones also fulfil an anti-colonial fantasy that began as a bourgeoisie discourse but has since trickled down to everyday political discourses. The film’s depiction of Mat Kilau as simultaneously a Malay nationalist and Islamic heroic figure is vital to this pooling effect. Unsurprisingly, the film was quickly capitalised by politicians who sought to unite the Malay votes on their end. The downside is that, like the film, the Green Wave’s call for Malay-Muslim unity is built on this divisive rhetoric on the need to confront the ‘enemies’ of Islam.
Third, the pooling effect also came from the ‘Sanusi’ effect, referring to the PAS Menteri Besar of Kedah Sanusi Md Nor, who has gained immense popularity as a straight-talking ‘man-of-the-people’ populist, much like former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Sanusi was so popular to the point that Kedah was the only state that had a higher turnout during the recent state elections; a testament to Sanusi’s mobilising capacity.
Whereas his abrasive style does not earn him universal admiration, he does exert a pooling effect, in that, like former US President Donald Trump, he manages to clinch cross-class support from the Malay-Muslim vote base. The confrontation with the elites gave him the populist credentials; but being an Islamist party leader who outlawed gambling shops in his state and demanded Penang’s return to Kedah to reverse a colonial legacy earned him lots of fans amongst the Malay middle-classes too, given a substantial part of this demography yearns for a more ‘Islamic’ government and an abject removal of any traces of (secular) colonialism. Indeed, PN was so convinced of Sanusi’s popularity amongst the Malay ground that they appointed him the national election director (with many calling him panglima perang, war general) for the state elections. He was also featured heavily in early campaigns in the more urbanised Selangor (see this video that was watched 150,000 times), until he became a liability for allegedly insulting the Sultan of Selangor.
The Future of the ‘Green Wave’?
Understanding its pulling and pooling effects helps us locate the ‘Green Wave’ in a particular historical moment in Malaysia’s changing political scene. The pull factors speak to a situation of high economic, cultural, and political uncertainties; a situation that is not without global parallels. On a sociological level, what helps channel these anxieties in the direction of ethnoreligious majoritarianism is a confluence of multiple factors. Malaysian society is more connected and exposed than ever thanks to social media; more ‘Islamised’ than ever due to decades of Islamisation; and freer than ever to go against the elites and the establishment due to the opening of the democratic space (which also means non-majoritarian opinions can easily be drowned or bullied out of existence in the name of majority rule). The pool factor reflects a potential reconsolidation of the Malay votes following the gradual decline and potential “death” of UMNO since 2008, a countereffect of the West Malaysian non-Malay votes concentrating in PH. The longevity of this wave, to our minds, depends on the interplay between these pull and pool factors. The former relates to the structural, institutional, and even regulatory conditions that sustain right-wing discourses in its toxic identitarian terms; the latter hinges on PN’s continued internal coherence and electoral prowess.