Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Analysing Politics in Malaysia: The Role and Influence of Islam

Written by johnleemk on 6:51:52 pm Mar 11, 2007.

This is part of a series analysing the political situation on the ground in Malaysia. For an overview of the series, and a list of all its parts, please refer to the introduction. To comment on this series, a discussion thread on the forum has been opened.

Religion, for better or for worse, is a major Malay concern. In Malaysian politics, that makes it a major national concern. And because the Malay community is associated in a one-to-one relationship with Islam, for better or for worse, this has meant that Islam is at the heart of many major political conflicts in the country.

The British recognised this early in our history. The one consistent thread running from the time of the British till today is a constant trepidation on the part of non-Muslims to impinge on the link between Islam and government. After all, what was the one inviolable issue of political life that the British Residents could not touch? Islam and the Malay adat (lit. tradition).

Even the controversial Malayan Union, which would have upended the political equation by stripping the Malay Sultans of what little power they had left on paper, refused to lay a finger on Islam and the Malay culture — two issues which remained the domain of the Malay rulers.

It is thus quite clear that the Muslim religion is something which any astute politician has to be capable of using as an issue. Moreover, he must utilise it in such a way so as to avoid alienating too many from either side of the Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy, which really is no mean feat considering the political climate of the country.

It seems to me that this has actually been one of the bedrocks of Barisan Nasional's success in maintaining its decades-long grip on power. From its early days as the Alliance until today, it has always stood for moderation in Islam. It may not be as moderate as many would like it, but it's impossible to deny that it has always attempted to strike a balance between the fundamentalist stance of PAS (the Islamic party) and the near-total secularism of the virtually non-Muslim Democratic Action Party. (One of the few good things I will give former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for is that he stood for moderation in Islam, even though he often had to perform ridiculous stunts to avoid alienating his party's Muslim base.)

Meanwhile, all of the country's opposition parties have been unable to walk the political tightrope as well as BN. PAS, of course, is fundamentally flawed from its basic premises; it seeks to establish an Islamic state, and in the early 1990s, the only state governed by it — Kelantan — symbolically passed a law implementing the hudud (Islamic criminal law) in the state. (Since criminal law is a federal issue, the statute could not take effect.)

By virtue of PAS's failure to allay non-Muslim concerns, it has been really unable to move to the "centre", so to speak. It can try to modernise, it can try to reform, but at its fundamental level, it is premised on a concept that frightens non-Muslim voters, and barring a major (and I mean major) sea change in the political environment, it is impossible to see PAS ever winning power without being part of some coalition government.

The counterweight to PAS has been the Democratic Action Party, which is staunchly secular. Although it pays lip service to the status of Islam as the official religion of the country, the general perception of the DAP is that were it to take power, it would generally reduce the role of Islam in our public life and pay the religion little heed. (It's difficult to see how any other outcome would be possible, considering how few Malays/Muslims are part of the party membership, let alone leadership.)

What's worrying these days is that BN is no longer playing the moderation game so well. It has begun moving to the fringe right on the issue of race, and seems quite close to openly advocating apartheid (there's no other way to read how events played out at the coalition's leading party's annual general assembly last year). A similar move to the far right is apparently underway in religious issues.

The government remains committed to the vague platform of moderate Islam (Islam Hadhari) advocated by PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but whether this lip service translates into actual support is questionable. The Cabinet has generally been responsive to non-Muslim concerns about issues such as moral policing, but whether this is enough to pacify the non-Muslims is questionable.

Over the past two years, several issues have heightened the political tension when it comes to Islam. A Catholic mass where it was rumoured that Muslim children were going to be baptised (the rumours turned out to be false) resulted in a mob attempting to start a riot outside the church. The proposal for an Inter-Faith Commission to encourage dialogue amongst different religions was shot down by the government and radical Muslim activists as threatening to Islam.

At the same time, the controversial manner in which Islam is intertwined with our administration was brought home in a very stark way when several non-Muslims, including a member of the first Malaysian team to ascend Mount Everest, had their corpses seized from their families after they passed away. The reason? They had supposedly converted to Islam and registered this conversion with the government, without notifying any of their friends or family.

Making matters worse is the horrid unreliability of the National Registration Department to do its job right. On more than one occasion, cases have come to light where people were listed as having the wrong religion in the government database. As a result, it's not surprising that very few believe there were any actual conversions among those who were forcibly buried as Muslims by the government. The judiciary, normally the last bulwark of liberty in such cases, was rendered powerless to act by an obscure Constitutional amendment from 1988, which established the secular courts as equal, and not superior to, the Syariah Courts.

Meanwhile, the stalwarts of the liberal backlash against Muslim fundamentalism have been on the receiving end of a lot of pressure. Several cases of Muslims converting to Christianity have come to light, and although they are a very very small minority, they dominate the Muslim imagination, with wild rumours of Islam's supremacy being threatened spreading. Many people on their side, including the lawyer of one such convert fighting for her right to have her religion in the government database altered, have received death threats. Campaigns to defend the country from theocracy, such as one led by the Article 11 Campaign, have been attacked by virtual lynch mobs, with the Police powerless to act.

This resulting lack of moderation represents a political opportunity that should not be missed by the opposition. PAS, for example, could do much to allay non-Muslim fears by fighting to preserve the status quo as it was before these ridiculous incidents. It might not win the party much actual positive support, but it might do enough to convince a sufficient number of non-Muslims to hold their nose and vote PAS instead of Barisan Nasional.

At the same time, the niche for a true moderate political party appears to be opening up, and the two moderate/secular parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Democratic Action Party, should move in to seize this middle ground that BN appears to be ceding. In particular, this is a golden opportunity for PKR. To date, there has not been a party with substantial Malay/Muslim membership that has committed to a true moderate stand on religion (besides UMNO, the leading party in BN, which has been moving to the far right).

PKR would make a particularly credible moderate/secular party, because it can commit to a largely secular platform without looking too bad due to its relatively large proportion of Malay support. The DAP, on the other hand, keeps shooting itself in the foot because its secular proposals make bad PR, coming from the mouths of non-Muslims. The DAP would have to work extra-hard to seize the middle ground, by winning a sufficiently large base of Malay/Muslim support to avoid the PR fallout their secular policy planks bring.

On the other hand, if PKR can prove that it is a true moderate party, if it can commit itself to preserving the rights of non-Muslims while still allaying Muslim concerns about their right to practice Islam being threatened, it will have done much to assert itself as the leading opposition political party. With religion so potent an issue in Malaysia, a middle ground has to be struck if one wants to gather as broad a base of support as possible. BN has been ceding this middle ground. This is a niche that no opposition party has filled since the 1960s, and this is a niche that needs filling.

This is part of a series analysing the political situation on the ground in Malaysia. For an overview of the series, and a list of all its parts, please refer to the introduction. To comment on this series, a discussion thread on the forum has been opened.

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