The Malay-Muslim Politics and Malaysia’s GE15

Figures leading the four-corner fight for Malay-Muslim votes in the upcoming elections. Credit: Reuters.

A Series on Political Islam and GE15 – Part 3: The Malay-Muslim Politics and Malaysia’s GE15

The Four Arenas of Contestation

There are four arenas of contestation in 2018’s GE14 which will serve as our analytical basis for the upcoming GE15. These are Peninsular Malay (peninsular districts with more than 50% Malay population), the Northeast states (i.e. Kelantan and Terengganu), East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and Peninsular Diverse (peninsular districts with less than 50% Malay population).

Notably, Malay-Muslim politics are most prominent in Peninsular Malay and Northeast areas. Although there are also several Muslim constituencies in East Malaysia, their political sentiments are mostly based on state or regional nationalism rather than ethno-religious nationalism.

In GE15, 222 parliamentary seats in Dewan Rakyat (Lower House) are up for grabs, with the polling day set for 19 November 2022. A simple majority of 112 (50% plus one) is needed for any parties or coalition(s) to form the next government.   

Out of the 222 seats, the Malay-Muslim seats in Peninsular Malaysia only comprise of 117 constituencies (53% of the total; 95 seats in Peninsular Malay and 22 seats in the Northeast). This becomes a predicament to any Malay-based parties or coalition(s), apart from deep-seated divisions among the Malay-Muslim vote, lately.

Historically, Barisan Nasional (National Front – BN) leaders were successful at winning elections through gerrymandering and malapportionment. This continued even with the removal of  constitutional restrictions to have a more balance number of voters among constituencies in the 1970s. Consequently, rural constituencies (mostly comprised of Malay-Muslims, Sabahans and Sarawakians) were generally given more weightage and seats during electoral redelination exercises.

These steps were successful in retaining BN’s two-third majority in the parliament throughout 1970s and 1980s. Due to this, rural constituencies were considered as political safe deposit boxes for BN. Moreover, BN had managed to secure many constituencies in the other regions throughout this period with its middle ground “syncretic” politics.

Beginning in the 1980s, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party – PAS), the main competitor to United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) over the Malay electorate, had turned more Islamic and fundamentalist than its nationalist past. The Mahathir-led BN in this decade responded by coopting Islamist Anwar Ibrahim to spearhead BN’s version of Islam, hypothetically based on moderation.

Simultaneously, BN skillfully provoked Democratic Action Party (DAP), its main contender for the non-Muslim electorate in the Peninsular Malaysia, to gravitate more towards the Chinese Malaysian population at the expense of its image to the Malay-Muslims. This was done by questioning the DAP’s “Malaysian Malaysia” ideology.

Fast forward to the 1990s, Mahathir announced an integrationist political vision for Malaysia’s future (popularly known as “Vision 2020”) with the creation of “Bangsa Malaysia” (Malaysian nation) as its upmost agenda. This forward-looking stance, apart from political stability and economic development, enabled BN to garner large support from the non-Muslim electorate.

However, when PAS started gaining traction back in the Northeast in this decade, the number of constituencies in that region were sustained to check PAS’s advances, despite the significant increase in the number of voters there. On the contrary, more seats were created in the Peninsular Diverse in 1990s and early 2000s, while more parliamentary seats were provided to East Malaysia following the BN electoral support and its projection.

Thus, despite the remarkable coordination of the opposition during GE10 in 1999 – with massive Malay frustration against the government – BN was still able to maintain its two-third majority thanks largely to the support of non-Muslim voters throughout the country.

Nevertheless, the weak governance of Abdullah Badawi (Mahathir’s successor) and Islam Hadhari ideology had gradually made BN less popular among the urban voters and the non-Malays, which gave way for the Opposition to make advances in the Peninsular Diverse and Peninsular Malay regions since 2008.

BN lost its two-third majority in the parliament 2008’s GE12 and in GE13 the then-Opposition Pakatan Rakyat (the People’s Alliance) won the popular vote albeit unsuccessful in unseating BN. Several regional states have fallen to the Opposition in this period, mostly in the more urban regions of the West Coast of the Peninsular, despite BN’s reigning popularity in the Peninsular Malay region and East Malaysia. The BN split in 2015 and opposition coordination with the BN defectors in the Peninsular and Sabah, however, had enabled the Opposition to make the historic breakthrough in GE14.

The 2022 Election

In the coming 2022 election, most of the Malay-Muslim seats in the Peninsular will be contested by four main coalitions – the Zahid Hamidi-Ismail Sabri’s BN, Muhyiddin Yassin-Abdul Hadi Awang’s Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance – PN), Anwar Ibrahim-led Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) and Mahathir’s Gerakan Tanah Air (Homeland Movement – GTA). This means there will be at least a four-corner fight in every constituency.

However, the deep-seated elite division and hyper-fragmentation of limited number of Malay-Muslim constituencies in Peninsular Malaysia naturally pushed the parties, including the religious conservative elements in PN (particularly Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia [Malaysian United Indigenous Party – Besatu]) and GTA (particularly Parti Pejuang Tanah Air [Homeland Fighters’ Party – Pejuang]), to be more inclusive not only to Sabahans and Sarawakians but also to non-Muslims.

Its implication can be seen in the recently launched coalition manifestos, which are not distinct from one another. These manifestos are largely focused on elevating the material well-being of the population through good governance and upholding the tenets of the constitution, albeit in varying degrees.

The PN manifesto, for example, while highlighting the importance of the position of Islam as the official religion of the federation, does not intend to change the status quo by introducing more Islamization, hudud bill, or transforming Malaysia into an Islamic state as per PAS’ politics in 1980s and 1990s. This is despite PAS being one of the components of the PN coalition.

Additionally, lessons from Mahathir’s syncretic politics, coordination with non-Muslim parties as well as the importance of Sabah and Sarawak votes seem to have provisionally downplayed the Malay-Muslim politics among PN, GTA and BN, all of which are Malay-dominated coalitions.

The GTA coalition is arguably the weakest contender, with the only possibility of winning around three or less constituencies, particularly in Kedah. Without any support from a larger and more established coalition, GTA has a feeble grip on society and must rely solely on the personae of its candidates such as Mahathir in Langkawi and his son Mukhriz in Jerlun.

In Northeast’s Terengganu, fierce fighting is expected particularly among PN and BN candidates, with a possibility for PH to capture a few seats. The electoral contests in Terengganu are always heated, whereby the state government and Dewan Undangan Negeri (State Legislative Assembly – DUN) change hands many times between PAS and BN since the 1955 election.

As both parties are equally strong and well-rooted in Terengganu, addressing critical issues are important to help fence-sitters make their decisions. In GE14, for example, Najib Razak’s corruption scandals saw the state swung to PAS, which it lost to BN in GE13.

This time around, both PN and BN are wracked with major issues but UMNO is seen to have more potential to improve its number of seats in the state despite PAS’ association with Bersatu. On the same reasoning, PAS (through PN) is seen to have the advantage of being the largest winner in Kelantan, albeit with less popular vote and the potential for BN to wrest some seats.

For the 95 constituencies in the Peninsular Malay regions, BN is expected to improve its share of seats (42.1% in GE14), potentially closing the gap with PH (which secured 54.7% of the seats in GE14). Meanwhile, PN is anticipated to win several seats particularly in constituencies where the Malay-Muslims are the supermajority.

Nonetheless, several factors would shape the overall results of the coming election. These are the voter turnout, the sentiment of new and young voters, and candidates’ credibility.

For example, low voter turnout would be a boon to BN. This is because BN’s opposition are mostly out-stationed voters. The voting trend of new and young voters, which consist of around 25% of the total registered voters, is still uncharted as many did not turn out to vote in the recently held Melaka and Johor state elections.

Simultaneously, due to the constant party-hopping and changes of alliances since early 2020, party-identification among voters has been significantly reduced while voters gravitate towards candidates’ credibility and personae instead. In the other words, Malaysia’s GE15 is expected to be less in ideological battle like in GE 14, but more on contestants’ performance, though those from stronger parties would have an added advantage.    

Anwar Ibrahim, for instance, is contesting in a risky constituency in Tambun (Perak), which is an unavoidable move for PH in more Malay-Muslim seat in his coalition bid to Putrajaya. BN is betting for the popular Khairy Jamaluddin in Sungai Buloh, an urban Malay-Muslim constituency of Selangor, in their effort to steal several seats in the PH stronghold.


In conclusion, the current situation of political fragmentation in Malaysia has affected the Malay-Muslim politics the most, indicatively with the less salient rhetoric of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) even among the right-wing coalitions like the GTA and the PN. In contrast, coalitions are projecting a more inclusive vision of Malaysia’s political integration, moderation and inter-ethnic accommodation. This is because all the main Malay-Muslim parties are now, provisionally, gunning for Putrajaya, whereby the support from non-Muslims and the people of Sabah and Sarawak is more than crucial.

Part 1: Islamists vs Islamists in GE15

Part 2: Expected Acceptance and Rejection Factors for PAS and UMNO in Peninsula Malaysia in the 15th General Election

Part 4:The Sustainability of the Next Islamic Initiative in Malaysia

Part 5: Mediatised Religion in Malaysia: Islamization by Trolling?

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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