Since the fall of the Barisan Nasional government in 2018, much has been discussed about Malay unity. This culminated in Muafakat Nasional, an alliance between Umno and PAS, and then Perikatan Nasional, with both PAS and Bersatu. The PN marriage appears resilient, with both political partners sharing a common enemy: the Madani government.

In the past six years, Malay society has posed the question of ideological and political fracturing, particularly on issues of race and religion. When Tun Mahathir left Bersatu to form a far-right Malay coalition, Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA), many accused the former premier of splintering Malay unity.

But what is the basis for the perceived Malay unity?

A brief history of Malay ideological diversity

In the contemporary political imagination, the only time Malay society united was in 1946 when Umno banded together against the then-British colonial government’s plans to instate the Malayan Union and the conditions that came with it. Mainstream history has hailed Umno as the major political ideology for Malays, particularly in Peninsular Malaysia. However, the constant emphasis on this narrative eclipses a history of ideological and political diversity within the Malay society. In truth, Malay political ideology has historically been complex.

Pre-Malayan Independence, there were leftist political organisations such as Kesatuan Melayu Muda and Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya, or Islamic parties such as Parti Hizbul Muslimin, which PAS later succeeded. These organisations lost out to Umno, who had the support of the Malay elites and the British administration at the time. With its partners in the Alliance, Umno became the ruling government when Malayan Independence was accorded in 1957. Did this mean that Umno necessarily represented Malay society’s political and ideological aspirations back then? This may not be necessarily true. It just so happened that Umno was given the initial political support needed to plant itself in a seat of power.

In subsequent decades, Umno enjoyed political hegemony. It reinforced Malay support by implementing Bumiputera-centric policies through the New Economic Policy (NEP) after the May 13th racial riots. The Alliance, or at this point, Barisan Nasional, was also known for stifling its political opponents, most notably through the consistent use of the now-repealed Internal Security Act (ISA). During Tun Mahathir’s first premiership, authoritarian measures were the norm to curb dissent. One may have heard of the 1985 Memali massacre in Kedah or the banning of the Al-Arqam sect in Kampung Sungai Penchala.

Up until the 90s, Malay political ideology ran on the track of either nationalism, as represented by Umno, or Islamism, as demonstrated by PAS. While progressive or leftist Malay ideology existed, it did not gain strong traction in Malay society, at least until the Reformasi spark of the late 90s.

Image source: Wikipedia

Post-Reformasi Malay politics

After Reformasi in 1999, the Malay political landscape diverged into clearer lines. Naturally, Umno, as a political behemoth, required opponents of equal strength to take it down. Here, Islamist PAS and then-progressive Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) formed an alliance through Pakatan Rakyat. While Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) was a one-off member of this alliance, leftist ideology has low currency among Malaysians—so they have always been largely ignored in contemporary Malay politics.

The Malay political landscape and representation split further up to and after the 14th General Elections. Islamists have now splintered into conservative PAS and progressive Amanah. Bersatu, comprised of former Umno members, battle for the same constituents as the decades-old nationalist party. Meanwhile, PKR remains attached to its urban Malay supporters. In the 15th General Elections, an ISMA-linked political party, BERJASA, tested the waters and attempted to mainstream hardline nationalist-Islamist sentiment but were unsuccessful.

What does contemporary Malay politics tell us? Malay ideology is not static, and Malay society is not a monolith. Malays are not neatly boxed into PAS, Umno or PKR—despite these big parties dominating the political scene. The domination of these parties in the Malay political landscape speaks more to our democratic and electoral structures than it does about Malay political ideology.

Malays as an “imagined community”

The brief history of the Malay ideological landscape is important because of the current calls for “Malay unity” by multiple sections of Malay society. There is this belief that if the major Malay political parties, specifically Umno and PAS, united based on Alif-Ba-Ta (or Agama, Bangsa and Tanah Air), then the problems plaguing Malay-Muslim society can be easily resolved through the force of strength, whether political, legal or physical otherwise. In his recent visit to Malaysia earlier this year, Turkish political scientist Ahmet Kuru reflected on the dangerous merging of nationalism and Islamism, once antagonistic ideologies that have recently formed a political partnership.

The lamenting of a splintered Malay society is embedded in the idea of an “imagined community” or a single-minded belief that all Malays are a monolith; that they believe, think, and move the same. Much of this is attributed to Umno’s decades of political hegemony that sold the idea that Malay society needed a strong, single political entity to ensure their mainstay in Malaysia’s political fabric—that there was one path to maintain Malay power, and that was through Umno.

It isn’t unthinkable, then, that the defeat of Umno in 2018 threw Malay society into disarray and necessitated the political alliance between Islamists and nationalists we saw in Muafakat and, subsequently, Perikatan Nasional. Simply said, this alliance was formed not only out of convenience but also anxiety. If Umno, the decades-old “uniting Malay force,” could be taken down, then what about Malay political power in general? It is this anxiety that agitates and drives recent calls for “Malay unity”.

Unfortunately, this perception of a Malay monolith is often shared by the non-Malay community, who see Malay politics as a binary between Umno, PAS or a combination of both. The danger behind this belief of a Malay-Muslim polity is that it disregards the complexity and diversity of Malay political ideology. It forces Malay society to choose between Islamism, nationalism or worse—both. When in fact, as history has demonstrated, Malays have historically been politically and ideologically diverse.

Today’s political landscape hints at this, with the different Malay political parties attempting to convince sections of the Malay demographic to connect to their ideals. However, Malaysia’s existing democratic and electoral system stands in the way of broadening this diversity: an electoral system that rewards a “winner takes all” approach. Therefore, the desire for a Malay-Muslim polity—a united and strong Malay society, is the logical consequence of the system.

If we are to diversify Malay politics beyond Islamism and nationalism, then a restructuring of our democratic and electoral system is necessary. This will benefit not only the Malays but also Malaysian society at large. If a nationalist-Islamist Malay society can be “imagined” by interested parties who seek to shape Malayness in that mould—then Malayness can equally be re-imagined into a polity that is more inclusive and accepting of a multicultural identity that fits into the broader Malaysian identity.

This article has been published in Malaysiakini.