Unravelling of an uneasy alliance

MALAYSIA'S most powerful opposition coalition to date, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), appears headed for oblivion. The three-party alliance, which just two years ago won more votes in the general election than the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, has been torn apart by a rift between its secular member, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Things have come to a head with the admission that the coalition would not function formally any more. This followed the DAP's pronouncement that the coalition had ceased to exist following PAS' motion at its party congress earlier this month to sever ties with the DAP. While the troubles of PR are vexing for Malaysians who want to see a viable opposition, what is more worrying is what this falling out of the political partners indicates: the rise of Islamic conservatism.

PR was always a fragile alliance, given that it brought together bedfellows who were opposed ideologically, particularly the Islamist PAS and the secular DAP. However, when pragmatism had prevailed, PR had gone from strength to strength, winning 37 per cent of parliamentary seats in 2008 and 40 per cent of the seats in the 2013 general election. Things began to unravel when PAS saw its share of seats shrink in 2013 and started to reassert its Islamic agenda and push for hudud - the Islamic penal code - in PAS-ruled Kelantan state. This was the start of the rift between the DAP and PAS which worsened this month after the PAS leadership was captured by conservatives. The motion against the DAP was prompted by the party cutting its ties with PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang over his insistence on hudud.

But PAS' increasing conservatism is itself a reflection of the rise of Islamic conservatism in Malaysian society and the Islamisation of Malaysian politics. These trends began in the 1980s and have accelerated since 2008, ironically after PR's successes at the general elections. The ruling Malay-based Umno turned more conservative to vie with PAS for the Muslim vote, particularly of rural Muslims. At the same time, among some Malays, there emerged a sense of Islam being under siege. Hence the willingness to countenance tougher Islamic laws, seen as a reaction to Malaysian society becoming more plural as it becomes more urbanised.

Identity politics, stemming from ethnic insecurity, is not restricted to any religious group, but it poses questions about the future of Malaysia as a moderate Muslim state. In a multiracial society, all the communities ideally should be confident enough to make concessions and adjustments so that the political compact coheres. Malaysia's well-wishers would hope that its politicians find a way back to a future of ethnic inclusiveness, the legacy of its founding fathers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Unravelling of an uneasy alliance'. Subscribe