GEORGE TOWN — Two years after canceling her last scheduled concert in the country, US pop star Beyoncé announced earlier this month that she would perform in the Malaysian capital in late October. Her 2007 gig was cancelled after PAS – an Islamist party that forms part of the opposition coalition – threatened protests. “We are against Western sexy performances. We don’t think our people need that, “said PAS spokesman Sabki Yusof.
Beyoncé’s about-turn comes despite a raft of piety-tinged controversies in recent weeks, including the shariah law sentencing of a 32 year old woman and an Indonesian national to six lashes for drinking in public. The government did a u-turn of its own, rescinding a ban on Muslims – who make up around 60% of the population – from attending a Black Eyed Peas concert in Kuala Lumpur on September 26. That gig was part of a series of events held around the world to mark the 250 year anniversary of the founding of Irish beer giant Guinness.
While political Islam has recently gained traction and plenty of profile in Malaysia, there is no indication the trend could acquire the violent edge that marks counterparts in the Philippines, southern Thailand and parts of Indonesia.
And there is always the concern that some Malaysians can be radicalised. The man deemed Southeast Asia’s most wanted Islamist terrorist, Noordin Mohammed Top, was a Malaysian national, before meeting his end in a shoot-out with Indonesia’s counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, earlier this month.
But issues of political Islam – somewhere between “Western sexy” on the one hand, and jihadist terror on the other – are expected to weigh on Malaysia’s national discourse.
The opposition PAS and ruling United National Malays Organization (UMNO) – the biggest party in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and long time dominant force in national politics – are now competing in a sort of a shariah-promoting race-to-the bottom while trying to maintain alliances with their wary political allies, including moderate Muslim Malays, Christian Chinese, Hindu Malay-Indians and other secularists.
Malaysia’s last elections, held in March 2008, made history by ending the BN’s two-thirds parliamentary majority, which the coalition had maintained throughout Malaysia’s post-independence history and ensured its dominance over the legislative process. T
he opposition, comprising the Chinese secular Democratic Action Party (DAP), PAS and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Keadilan party, won 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament as well as control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states, including Penang, which the BN coalition lost control of for the first time.
Anwar made a play to get BN parliamentarians representing the Sabah and Sarawak, the two regions of Malaysia that share the island of Borneo with Brunei and Indonesia, to cross over to the opposition,
Anwar’s appeal was made on September 16, 2008, the date marking the anniversary of when the eastern states joined with peninsular Malaya to form Malaysia, in 1963 (Singapore seceded and became an independent country in 1965).
That effort – appealing to the regions’ sense of neglect and distance from the wealthier peninsular Malaysia – came and went without success, and since new Prime Minister Najib Razak took office in April this year, he has tried to claw back some of the lost electoral ground by making some changes to the New Economic Policy (NEP), an affirmative action program aimed to help Malays attain equal footing with more prosperous minority groups, but which many Malaysians feel has long been submerged in cronyism and graft.
Earlier this month Lim Guan Eng, chief minister of Penang and DAP secretary general told the Financial Times: “There is a chance [of the opposition winning a parliamentary majority], but it is not going to be easy. It is probably harder under Najib than under Abdullah [Badawi].”
UMNO has been making efforts to woo Indian and Chinese voters, with rumors circulating that it will try to bypass its traditional ethnic-based partners in BN and set up its own Indian and Chinese wings.
On a similar, if contradictory vein, many believe that UMNO is upping the sectarian ante by taking a page from PAS’ political playbook and demonstrating more forcefully its sharia credentials. That strategy plays on a divide inside PAS between hardliners who want Islam law prioritized and others who see the need to reach out to moderate Muslims – as well as Chinese and Indians – if PAS and the opposition coalition are to have any hope of ultimately displacing the BN at the next elections.
Still, the opposition coalition, known as Pakatan Rakyat (PKR), has been on something of a roll. Former UMNO minister Zaid Ibrahim recently switched sides and past Malaysian Chinese Association (is MCA is main ethnic-Chinese party in the BN) leader Chua Jui Meng also defected. The PKR has taken seven out of eight by-elections held across the country since the 2008 national elections. Most recently, the PAS candidate took Permatang Pasir from the BN, a local constituency in Penang, and attracted significant Malay-Chinese support.
Malay-Chinese are the largest population group in Penang, and while support for PAS is likely just as much a vote against UMNO, PAS has previously acquired non-Malay, non-Muslim support in its own stronghold state Kelantan.
Lena Leong, a politically-unaffiliated Penang-based partner at Zaid Ibrahim’s law firm, said that despite mutual wariness and apparent incompatibility, “PAS and DAP can hold together until the next election.”
While the PKR faces a long and likely twisting road to the next elections, which must be held by 2013 but could be called earlier, UMNO and BN is struggling to make sense of a Malaysia where the new politics involves opinion-forming and issue-driving over the internet, by using alternative news sites and blogs, and bypassing the often-deferential pro-UMNO print newspapers.
Sim Tze Tzin, a Keadilan member of the Penang state legislature and an advisor to opposition leader Anwar, told ATol that “BN and UMNO has not changed, even if its leadership has. Najib’s reforms are cosmetic and there is a lack of real substance.”
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad posted on his blog three weeks ago that the BN was heading for “the rubbish heap of history” unless it upped its game.
An upcoming by-election scheduled for October 11 in Negeri Sembilan will show if Mahathir’s criticisms have stung UMNO into action, as the party squares off against PAS for a vacant state legislature seat.
Najib is currently promoting his “One Malaysia” unifying theme – which PKR claims is derivative of its own commitment to transcending ethnic and religious differences. At the same time, Najib maintains that UMNO is a genuinely Islamic party. Such contradictions, analysts note, echo the opposites-attract composition of the PKR’s political alliance.
Whether these contradictions can be maintained until the next polls, either within BN or across the entire country, remains to be seen. But either way, Malaysia seems to be changing and it is not obvious that UMNO is keeping up.Show