Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Malaysia’s king met lawmakers on Wednesday after an inconclusive general election for a majority-backed prime minister in which the rise of Islamists has sparked anxiety in the multi-ethnic nation.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, led Saturday’s vote with 82 parliamentary seats, but fell short of the 112 required for a majority. Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s Malay-based Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance, won 73 seats. A hung parliament has renewed the leadership crisis in Malaysia, which has had three prime ministers since 2018.
The biggest winner was the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, a hard-line ally of Muhyiddin’s bloc, with 49 seats – more than double its 2018 tally. Known as PAS, the party supports Islamic Sharia law, controls three states and is currently the single largest party.
Police have stepped up security as the race for the leadership progresses, with social media posts warning of racial problems if Anwar’s multi-ethnic bloc wins. Malay Muslims make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s population of 33 million, including large Chinese and Indian minorities.
National Police Chief Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani announced on Wednesday that security has been tightened across the country at strategic locations to ensure public safety and public order. The police have previously warned of strict action against social media users who fuel racial and religious sentiments.
A group of civil society and rights organizations said they had detected a concerted attempt on social media to promote Muhyiddin’s bloc and demonize Anwar and one of his Chinese-dominated allies, the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Islamic loyalists have often used DAP to warn Malays of Chinese political dominance if Anwar’s bloc wins.
The group said in a statement that the posts blamed DAP for causing violence in 1969 that killed hundreds of people, mostly Chinese. After the 1969 riots, an affirmative action program was introduced to give Malays privileges in work, housing and education to give them more opportunities to reduce the wealth gap with the business-minded Chinese.
“The posts then evolved into videos featuring guns and weapons and messages warning the Malay majority to beware of DAP and Pakatan Harapan. They also threatened a return of racial unrest,” the group said. Short video app TikTok is said to have zero tolerance for hate speech and any form of violent extremism and will remove content that violates its community guidelines.
King Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah proposed a unity government after the two leaders met on Tuesday, but Muhyiddin rejected the idea. The monarch then summoned all 30 representatives of the alliance led by the third largest bloc, the United Malays National Organization, to his palace on Wednesday.
UMNO’s National Front said it does not support either leader and will remain in opposition. In a meeting late Tuesday, officials reportedly said the association was asking for more time to make a decision.
Anwar’s reformist alliance won the 2018 election, leading to the first regime change since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957. However, the government collapsed after Muhyiddin defected and joined forces with UMNO to form a new government. Muhyiddin’s government was plagued by internal rivalries and he resigned after 17 months. At that time, the king chose the leader of UMNO, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, as prime minister.
Many rural Malays fear they may lose their rights as a result of greater pluralism under Anwar. Fed up with corruption and infighting in UMNO, many opted for Muhyiddin’s bloc in Saturday’s vote.