Malaysia

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While the tone and tenor of the
election campaign on the more urbanised, multiracial states of the
west coast reflect the concerns of the urban middle-classes, here on
the northeast coast of Malaysia, another election is being fought
altogether. The leaders of Umno and Pas continue doing what they do
best, which is to assume the holier-than-thou posture beloved by
Islamists and conservatives. Farish Noor reports from Trengganu. 

The merry-go-round is painted in bright
hues of pink, yellow, green and blue; the slides and rides shine in
the sun as the little girl contemplates which of the two plastic
horses to mount first. Her mother sits by the swing in the near
distance, her eye firmly fixed on the pride of five boys and girls
frolicking around the sand pit and climbing ropes. It would appear
like any other children’s playground in any other suburban setting,
save for the fact that the plastic palm trees are there to lend the
place a somewhat exotic, middle-eastern feel to it: Welcome to the
kiddies playground in the Islamic Civilisation theme park, one of the
latest innovations bestowed upon the people of the state of Trengganu
in Malaysia, as part and parcel of the Malaysian government’s
attempt to promote its brand of Islam Hadari (Civilisational Islam).
The banner that hangs in front of the visitors complex carries the
image of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the slogan : “Thank
you for bringing Islamic civilization to Trengganu”. (Though one
would have thought that the Muslims there were already civilized long
before…)

Other attractions to the park include
model replicas of famous mosques from around the world: As one drives
through the main entrance the first sight that greets you is a
replica of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, save that this model is
diminutive in scale and ambition; and that the gilded dome gives the
uncanny impression that it is made of gold-painted plastic instead. I
asked the construction worker how long it will take for the park to
be completed, but he could not understand me as he only spoke
Bengali.

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Right at the end of the park stands the
so-called ‘Crystal mosque’ that is meant to be the main
attraction of the theme park; save that the mosque is not made of
crystal, but rather sheets of glass that line its domes and minarets.
A crowd of Malay women meander around the floating mosque complex and
laze about indifferently. I ask them where they are from and why they
are here. One of them answers me in Kelantanese dialect: “We are
from Kuala Lumpur and heading to Kelantan to vote”. I ask her if
she and her friends are impressed by the crystal mosque. “Its
pretty, like a crystal toy. But it also looks a bit plastic to me. Is
it finished yet?”

It is election season and the flag and
poster war is being fought in earnest: The streets of Besut, Marang,
Kuala Trengganu are lined with hundreds of posters and banners
proclaiming the achievements of the ruling UMNO party and the
leadership of Prime Minister Badawi. Since he came to power in 2004,
Badawi has pushed ahead with his agenda of inculcating the values of
Islam Hadari – said to be an approach to Islam that is moderate,
pluralist and progressive – to win the hearts and minds of Malaysia
’s Malay-Muslim voters in particular.

The state of Trengganu where the
opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is strong is certainly a
key state in the election, and here the election campaign has
returned to the old ways of the past, with both UMNO and PAS claiming
to be more Islamic than the other. The UMNO banners proclaim that
over the past two years alone the UMNO government in Trengganu has
built 62 mosques all over the state. (A boast that has gained the
state government a place in the Malaysian book of records, no less.)

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PAS on the other hand retaliates by
noting that the instances of absolute poverty in Trengganu is higher
now than ever before, and that building mosques will not feed the
stomachs of the people or give them a better future. Right in front
of the main entrance to the Islamic Civilisation theme park, the
Islamists of PAS have erected a banner that reads: “250 Million
Ringgit for a Mosque built for Tourists: What for?”

While the tone and tenor of the
election campaign on the more urbanized, multiracial states of the
West coast reflect the concerns of the urban middle-classes, here on
the northeast coast of Malaysia another election is being fought
altogether. The leaders of UMNO and PAS continue doing what they do
best, which is to assume the holier-than-thou posture beloved by
Islamists and conservatives. UMNO claims that thousands of children
below the age of 8 have read and memorized the Quran in Trengganu
thanks to the efforts of Badawi’s Islam Hadari programme. PAS in
turn responds by noting the cases of drug abuse, violence,
prostitution and casual sex among the young of the state at the same
time. Neither side really talks about the issue of democracy, human
rights or an election campaign that is free, fair and transparent for
all to see.

The few exceptions to the rule seem to
come from the younger leaders of PAS who are more reformist-minded
and policy oriented. In the state capital of Kuala Trengganu the PAS
firebrand Mohammad Sabu goes round the local market and fishing
villages calling for the return of democracy and the right to equal
development: For once, the common slogans of Islam, Shariah and Hudud
laws are not mentioned. But such attempts at injecting some degree of
political education into the campaign are few and far between, and
sadly the election campaign that has been fought in the predominantly
Malay-Muslim states of the Northeast reflect the same parochial
concerns of the 1980s and 1990s, with a more than a little hint of
communitarianism thrown into the bargain.

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One wonders to what extent the campaign
in Trengganu and the other Malay states has really been shaped and
informed by the Civilisational Islam project of Prime Minister
Badawi. Thus far little effort seems to have been made to civilize
the conduct of the campaign, or to introduce ideas and themes that
are really modern and progressive. With only a few days to go before
the votes are cast on 8 March, the Election Commission then announced
that it will drop the idea of using indelible ink to mark the hands
of voters, to ensure that fake votes are not cast. How such
irregularities can be reconciled with the glittering empty mosque in
the vacant theme park is anyone’s guess.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is Senior Fellow at
the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and one of the
founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

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