Malaysia’s political parties take new hues

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Party strategies are leading Umno and Pas in unexpected directions, observes Maznah Mohamad. Umno’s radical turn is being matched by Pas’ attempts at moderation.

In Malaysia’s current political climate, it is no longer possible to distinguish Islamic radicals from Islamic moderates. Despite official boasting about the country’s diversity and commitment to pluralism, Islam and the government have essentially merged.

Over two decades, the government led by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) has invested enormous resources in building up a network of Islamic institutions.

The government’s initial intention was to deflect radical demands for an extreme version of Islamic governance.

Over time, however, the effort to outdo its critics led Umno to over-Islamicise the state.

Umno’s programme has put syariah law, syariah courts, and an extensive Islamic bureaucracy in place. The number of Islamic laws instituted has quadrupled in just over 10 years.

After Iran or Saudi Arabia, Malaysia’s syariah court system is probably the most extensive in the Muslim world. The accompanying bureaucracy is not only big but also has more bite than the national Parliament.

Islamic laws are based on religious doctrine but codified and passed as statutes by state parliaments. Not much debate attends their enactment, because a fear of heresy keeps most critics from questioning anything deemed Islamic.

While Umno still trumpets its Islamic advocacy, the party is facing difficult choices, particularly as it wishes to maintain foreign investment in an increasingly polarised environment.

For example, Minister for Home Affairs Hishammuddin Hussein recently held a press conference to support Muslims who (had) demonstrated against the construction of a Hindu temple in their neighbourhood.

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The protesters (had) paraded a severed, bloody cow’s head in the street, then spat and stomped on it. This was an offence to Malaysia’s Hindus, who consider the cow a sacred animal.

Just a week earlier, a young mother by the name of Kartika was sentenced by Malaysia’s Syariah Court to six lashes of the cane and fined after she was caught drinking beer at a hotel.

Although the sentence was still in limbo, Hishammuddin publicised his acceptance of the punishment by inviting the official floggers to his office to demonstrate how an Islamic caning is carried out.

They used a chair as a mock target, and left the minister satisfied that Islamic caning can be appropriately used as a punishment for women.

Ironically, Hishammuddin is far from being an Islamic hardliner. The son of Malaysia’s third prime minister and a cousin of the current Prime Minister, he is widely considered to be modern, moderate and cosmopolitan.

The true hardliner is Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the Menteri Besar of Kelantan state and also the spiritual leader of Malaysia’s largest Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

But Nik Aziz opposed the anti-Hindu protest, and went so far as to say that anti-Muslim protesters in Britain were more civilised in their approach.

Hence, it is no longer accurate to think of PAS as a fundamentalist party and Umno as moderate.

Party strategies are leading them in unexpected directions. Umno’s radical turn is being matched by Pas’ attempts at moderation. Pas is aiming for the most unlikely of voters: non-Muslims, who account for 40 per cent of Malaysia’s population and are increasingly alienated from Umno.

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Umno, meanwhile, is intent on dividing the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat, of which Pas is a member. Led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, the alliance has picked up political momentum since making real gains in the last general election.

Concerned by its losses, Umno has staked a claim to be the defender of Islam in Malaysia.

The ‘cow head’ protest, which was led by Umno members, was an example. The formula is simple: portray Islam as being threatened by infidels, and then have Umno ride to the rescue of the besieged Muslim community.

The caning of Kartika, on the other hand, was not an example of political manipulation, and for this reason is perhaps even more worrisome. Her sentence was roundly supported by modernist Muslim intellectuals, who insisted that the punishment was justly applied and cannot be questioned because it had divine sanction.

These are not politicians, but former idealists who are happy that their goal of Islamicising the state is being realised. Most are anti-Umno and support Pas.

As a result, Umno finds itself squeezed between an Islamic lobby that presses for greater ‘Talebanisation’ of the country, and the rising voices of international critics, who cannot be ignored, because the party needs both radical supporters and foreign investors to stay in power.

Balancing these two constituencies is becoming increasingly difficult for Umno.

But the opposition will also be forced to figure out the role of religion in Malaysia, if ever they get an opportunity to form a government. A young Islamic radical, Anwar, used to ask: How does one Islamicise government? Now he has to figure out how to govern one. — The Straits Times

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