BANGKOK - A new political alliance between Malaysia's two largest Malay Muslim parties is rousing fears the move could further stall the government's progressive agenda and raise already simmering racial and religious tensions in the country.
Ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups known as Bumiputra make up nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 31.8 million people, with Chinese and Indians accounting for 21% and 6%, respectively. The country's Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus make up roughly the same mix.
The ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition drew heavily on Chinese and Indian votes to pull off a shock election defeat last year of Barisan Nasional, the political juggernaut that had ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1957.
'Power should be with us'
UMNO, the driving force behind Barisan, formalized an alliance with the Islamist PAS party on Saturday in a bid to win back power and reverse course on policies they say are eroding the constitutional privileges of the country's majority Malays and Muslims.
"As the majority of this country, we should form the government. The power should be with us," PAS spokesman Kamaruzaman Mohamad told VOA in explaining the reason for the alliance.
"If we want to defend the rights of Islam, the rights of Bahasa Melayu [the Malay language], the special rights of the Bumiputra and Malay, we have to be united so that we can [raise] our voice, we can show our strength, so that this government will not abuse these special rights."
Kamaruzaman dismissed speculation of any coming communal discord.
"We are Muslim and non-Muslim. We are living together harmoniously with no bad incident," he said, insisting the alliance would not change that.
"We are not going to abuse any right of any religion or any race. That is ... clearly stated in the Constitution. So there is no issue that we are going to spark any racial tension."
Adib Zalkapli, a Malaysia-based director of Bower Group Asia, a consultancy, said the parties would continue, however, to play on the country's entrenched ethnoreligious fault lines to woo voters.
"That is their founding principles, if you like. They got together on the basis of Malay unity and Muslim unity, and claims ... by the party operators that Malay Muslims are being marginalized by the new government. So you can expect more of this racial rhetoric from the new alliance," he told VOA.
UMNO and PAS had been flirting with a pact for some time. Since Pakatan's surprise victory last year, they have handed the ruling coalition a series of defeats in three consecutive by-elections by running a single, joint candidate in each.
Eyes on next election
Adib said UMNO's move to make the alliance official signaled that the party was banking on Malay Muslim votes over those of the more diverse Barisan coalition, which it still fronts, to win the next general election, due by 2023.
But he is skeptical it will work, noting that Malaysia has never had a monoethnic coalition running the government in its history.
What the new allies can do, Adib said, is hold back Pakatan's more progressive policy plans and move it to the right.
They have been at it already.
The parties stirred up fears of lost privileges among Malays to pressure the new government into abandoning election pledges to sign a U.N. convention on racial discrimination and to ratify the Rome Statute, which would have seen Malaysia join the International Criminal Court. Pakatan's efforts to repeal an anti-fake-news law also were shot down in the Senate, which the opposition controls.
The string of defeats and U-turns has hurt the new government. Opinion polling by the Merdeka Center, a research group, shows its approval rating plunging from 79% just after the general election to 39% in March.
An UMNO-PAS alliance "may not be able to win power, but it could potentially force the government to adopt some of its ideology or its political ambition," Adib said. "In the case of PAS, the Islamist party, the party has obviously sharia ambition. So the danger is that this alliance will be able to force the government parties to dance to their tune."
'Klang Valley narrative'
Others think the fears of rising tensions are more perception than reality.
Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who heads the National University of Malaysia's Institute of Ethnic Studies, called it the "Klang Valley narrative," so named for the area around Kuala Lumpur, the capital, where the country's professionals and NGOs are concentrated.
"They read what is on the ground based on what they do. If they see a traffic jam, they think [it] is also a racial and ethnic traffic jam," said Shamsul, who thinks class concerns now mostly trump racial or religious ones, noting that Malaysia has not had any race riots since the late 1960s.
He recently wrapped up a two-year, government-funded study on Malaysia's race relations that found an encouraging amount of ethnic intermingling and a prevailing attitude of inclusion.
"So I always say there's a lot of tongue wagging in this country, but not parang waving," Shamsul said, referring to a local machete-like cutting tool.