Malaysia: dirty gossip, dirty politics – The Irrawaddy

Malaysia’s one-party system threatens to come apart due to class and religious divisions

Malaysia PM Najib Razak writes a note wishing the Thai king well while attending the ASEAN summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, in October 2009 (Simon Roughneen)

GEORGE TOWN — Church burnings, pigs’ heads left outside mosques, cows’ heads paraded in protest at a Hindu temple relocation site, canings for Malay Muslims caught drinking alcohol and having extramarital sex — these are some of the lurid headline-grabbers to come out of Malaysia in recent months.

Elections in 2008 saw the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), lose its dominant two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since Malaysian independence.

An opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party made significant gains, and in September 2008 seemed to be on the brink of persuading government MPs from Sabah and Sarawak to cross the house and vote against the BN.

That did not happen, however, and while the opposition has won a number of significant by-election victories at national and local levels, it has not been able to launch a final push to dethrone the UMNO-led BN.

Ethnic and religious controversies have revealed divisions in the opposition, which features the Islamist Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS) and the secular Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), alongside Anwar’s party, which portrays itself as inclusive and open to all creeds and ethnic groups.

The courts stoked an ongoing “Allah controversy” by ruling that Christians are permitted to use the word “Allah” to refer to God. Some Malays claim that the word is reserved exclusively for Muslims, while Malaysian Christians say that the word pre-dates the founding of Islam and has been used by Christians in what is now Malaysia for centuries. Arabic-speaking Christians in the Gulf and Middle East countries still use the word, as do Christians in neighboring Indonesia.

The ruling prompted over a dozen arson attacks on Christian churches and, in turn, the pig heads were left outside several mosques.The PAS line was to accept the court ruling, which the government has appealed in any case, and to condemn the arson attacks on Christian churches that took place afterward. However, a senior PAS lawmaker has come out against what he deems his party’s soft line on the issue, revealing a potential split within the PAS and within the opposition more generally.

In Penang, an opposition stronghold, ppeared to know all the details of the various cases, and all claimed to be agnostic or atheist. “We would be better off without any religious differences,” said Lim, the most vocal of the group.

The differences nonetheless exist and are widening. UMNO is seeking to outdo PAS in its apparent devotion to Sharia norms, and the impact of this race toward orthodoxy affects a large portion of the population.

Malays, who make up around 60 percent of the population, and are by definition Muslims under Malaysia’s dual legal system, are subject to Sharia law in personal matters such as inheritance, marriage and of course apostasy.

Muslims are not allowed to convert to another faith, and a landmark case in 2007 involving a woman who converted from Islam to Christianity saw the country’s secular civil courts transfer the case to its sharia counterpart, ruling that it—the secular court—had no jurisdiction. The woman’s conversion was not recognized.

On New Year’s Day, Malaysia’s Islamic morality police arrested 52 unmarried Muslim couples in budget hotels—mainly students and young factory workers. In February, three women were caned for having extramarital sex. Some Malaysians view the arrests and punishments as politicized, a non-partisan version of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s six year jail sentence on what many view as politicized and trumped-up charges of corruption and sodomy.

Since February, the country has been subjected to another round of accusations against Anwar, labelled “Sodomy II” by the press. In what the opposition sees as another politically motivated trial, the key prosecution witness Saiful Bukhari, a former junior Anwar aide, stunned the court and added to the salaciousness by testifying that Anwar had asked him if he could engage in sodomy with him.

Anwar, now formally charged with having a relationship with Saiful, says the whole thing has been fabricated by Prime Minister Najib and his wife. Anwar supporters feel the case is a charade aimed at removing him from national politics, presumably leaving the opposition without a nationally recognized unifying figure. Although the trial is now suspended, it is expected to resume in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Najib has spent his first year in office promoting a “One Malaysia” quasi-ideology, while at the same time maintaining that UMNO is an Islamist party.

“One Malaysia” has been roundly dismissed as spin, even as Najib seeks to portray a more inclusive UMNO and BN to undermine the 2008 gains made by the opposition. Contradicting Najib, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on April 1 that he is “a Malay first and Malaysian second.”

On top of Malaysia’s social fissures, the country’s economy is linked to ethnic politics, with the once-successful economic model is showing signs of stress. Foreign investment is down in the face of intense competition from China for the low-wage manufacturing prowess that attracted companies to Malaysia during the 1980s and 90s.

The government has historically favored Malays as part of an affirmative action plan put in place after the 1969 violence, called the New Economic Programme (NEP). The plan is regarded by non-Malays as an anachronism—merely a by-word for UMNO—driven by corruption and cronyism that enables party-linked businesses to land the best deals. Some foreign investors and governments have labeled the NEP a hindrance or even a deterrent to doing business in Malaysia.

Najib has made some small changes to the NEP, risking the ire of his party colleagues who could use any allegation of diminished Malay rights as a platform for a leadership challenge. Najib also recently unveiled his anticipated New Economic Model, which seeks to boost domestic consumption and offset diminished foreign direct investment. The opposition claims it doesn’t do enough to fight corruption, while a newly formed right-wing group thinks it goes too far and wants to retain the status quo.

Malaysia’s enforced stability, more or less based on a one-party system, is clearly under pressure. While many may consider this to be a good thing, the divisions and suspicions between its ethnic and religious groups—as well as those between different economic classes—become more apparent by the day.

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