How Ethno-Religious Divisions Stymie Anticorruption Reform in Malaysia–and What to Do About It

In 2018, Malaysia surmounted the biggest test of its democracy since gaining independence from Britain in 1963—the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. That change in leadership occurred in the wake of the 1MDB scandal—one of the largest kleptocracy schemes ever uncovered—which implicated former Prime Minister Najib Razak. The repudiation of Najib and his party, UNMO, in the 2018 election was seen by many as a hopeful sign that the Malaysian people were no longer willing to tolerate the systemic corruption that had long been seen as business as usual. To be sure, the leader of the victorious coalition in the 2018 election—nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamed, who had previously served as Prime Minister from 1983 to 2001—was an unlikely champion of anticorruption and good governance reform. Yet in 2018, Mahathir’s victory was cause for hope that there would finally be genuine systemic reform.

Within two years, that hope had all but vanished. Prime Minister Mahathir was forced to resign in the middle of his first term in office and was replaced by UMNO politician Muhyiddin Yassin, who had served as Deputy Prime Minister under Najib. What went wrong? In an earlier post, I explored how a free press and multi-party government may have contributed to the failure of Mahathir’s coalition. But that is not the whole story. Those democratic institutions were susceptible to manipulation because of the deeply embedded ethnic and religious divisions that have been a defining feature of Malaysian politics since independence. By exacerbating racial and religious tensions, UMNO managed to convince key voting blocs that the biggest threat they faced was not corrupt politicians, but rather their neighbors who look and pray differently. In short, the reformist coalition ultimately failed because the Malaysian populace lost sight of their common enemy: the corrupt system of governance robbing them all.

UNMO’s strategy of returning to power—and fragmenting the new government’s reformist coalition—began almost immediately after the election. UNMO positioned itself as the champion of ethnic Malay rights and the guardian of Islam, preying on the fears of the rural, ethnically Malay swing voters who helped deliver the 2018 election for Mahathir and his coalition. In trying to beat back these attacks, Mahathir’s government took various actions to appease Malay nationalists and Islamists (see, for example, here and here), but by doing so, Mahathir weakened loyalties within his own fragile, ethnically-diverse coalition.

Alas, this was just the latest example of how Malaysian politicians are able to protect a corrupt system that enriches the elites by aggravating racial and religious tensions. This bodes poorly for the ability of Malaysia, or other deeply fragmented democracies, to make real progress in reforming their institutions to address systemic corruption and other deeply entrenched governance problems. Voters may loathe corruption—indeed, they may be outraged at the greed of venal politicians—but if voters can be manipulated by seasoned politicians who know how to exploit societal fractures, then what might have looked like a strong reformist coalition can quickly splinter into factions, undermining the trust and cohesion that is essential for a large-scale reform effort. The result, then, is not voter-driven reform, but rather a cycle of scandal, outrage, party change, disillusionment, and regression. Indeed, two years after the cries for anticorruption reform echoed throughout the country, Prime Minister Muhyiddin continues to drop high-profile graft cases levied against supporters while appointing allegedly corrupt political allies as chairmen of government-run corporations.

Although it may not be possible to root out Malaysia’s deeply embedded social distrust, anticorruption advocates may nevertheless be able use UMNO’s distraction tactics against them. Because ethnic divides in Malaysia largely fall along religious lines, the politically driven islamization of Malaysia has furthered racial division in the country. However, the increased focused on religion has also provided imams and other religious figures with more influence as community leaders. Over the last few years, Mahathir’s political rivals were able to galvanize support from preachers in government-owned mosques. But grassroots organizations can try to beat UMNO at their own game by “Islamicizing” their anticorruption message and cultivating the support of imams in spreading a good government message.

Zakat, the third Pillar of Islam, requires Muslims to pay alms to benefit the poor. Designed in part to combat greed, Zakat also encourages Muslims to live honestly. Both goals of Zakat run counter to the embezzlement and corruption that has plagued the Malaysian government for decades. Reformers can thus target their anticorruption message to Islamic preachers, who can then spread that message throughout their communities. By educating religious leaders on the political misinformation campaigns that concoct false threats to Islam, reformists can redirect preachers from an Islam-first message to a more societally beneficial—and religiously relevant—message of the dangers of corruption. Emphasizing the evils of greed, Muslim leaders may thus be able to convince Malay voters to keep anticorruption reform in mind at the ballot box. While such a strategy to combat corruption does little to eradicate the underlying ethno-religious divides, it at least tempers the dominant role those divisions play in elections.

More long-term solutions to the ethnic tension UMNO so readily exploits are undoubtedly needed, but such reform is not possible as long as the government in power has every incentive to maintain existing social divisions. Ensuring that corruption remains at the forefront of Malaysian political discussions may be key to the election—and retention—of a reform-oriented administration. In an effort to avoid the collapse of another anticorruption coalition, advocates can and should attempt to turn UMNO’s messaging of Islamic dominance into a tool for anticorruption reform: Utilizing the UMNO-orchestrated clout that religious leaders have over their communities, preachers can emphasize the need for humility and honesty while condemning the evils of corruption and greed. Value-driven voters will hopefully take the words of their religious leaders to heart, and UMNO may be defeated by the very platform upon which it campaigned.

4 thoughts on “How Ethno-Religious Divisions Stymie Anticorruption Reform in Malaysia–and What to Do About It

  1. I really enjoyed this post – exploring the relationship between corruption and ethnoreligious divides (and highlighting that stoking those divides can exacerbate corrupt politics) is a fascinating way to approach the subject of anticorruption. I’m curious – and this may be reflecting my lack of understanding about Malaysian politics – to what extent anticorruption itself may have become politicized in Malaysia since 2018. If the message is perceived as political, could that prevent grassroots efforts to levy the influence of local imams?


  3. This was great Jennifer! I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Trump and UMNO. Trump’s call to “drain the swamp” and root out corruption, and his subsequent exploitation of racial divisions, have an eery corollary in UMNO. I wonder to what extent UMNO looked at Trump as a sort of guide back to power.

  4. Hi Jennifer, thank you so much for this great post! I absolutely loved the idea of using homegrown anticorruption solutions rooted in the Muslim community’s own religious practices. I think it’s an effective and creative way to meet Muslim Malay voters where they’re at, and I’m left wondering what other interventions in that vein can be used to target voters of other religious backgrounds.

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