Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Abdullah's Reign At Risk As Malaysian Islamists Stress Poverty

In the northeastern Malaysian state he oversees, Nik Aziz Nik Mat banned nightclubs and pool halls on the grounds they violate Islamic law.

Now that his party is contesting national elections, he promises a different fight: against poverty and corruption.

Nik Aziz, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party's spiritual leader and chief minister of Kelantan state, and other party leaders are avoiding religious rhetoric as they campaign for national and state elections March 8. PAS, as the party is known, may be the biggest threat to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's governing coalition.

"PAS has no choice but to tone down its Islamic hard-line stance,'' said Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, a political analyst at Universiti Malaya. "They realize they have to show the public, quite seriously, that they are accepting the importance of pluralism in the country.''

Abdullah's multi-party, multi-ethnic National Front coalition already faces declining support from Chinese and Indian minorities upset by the country's legalized pro-Malay preference system.

Should he also lose too much support from ethnic Malays, Abdullah's United Malays National Organisation party might dump him, even though the coalition is unlikely to lose power.

"Abdullah will not be seen as a credible leader'' if Malay support drops off substantially, said Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, international studies dean at Universiti Utara Malaysia.

Majority

The National Front won more than 90 percent of the parliament's 219 seats in 2004 and has had a two-thirds majority for more than 30 years. The ruling coalition also won 453 of 505 state seats contested in the elections.

PAS won six parliamentary seats and took 36 state seats in 2004, most of them in Kelantan, the only Malaysian state ruled by the opposition. A strong PAS showing would increase pressure on the national government to do more for Malaysia's poor.

Approval for Abdullah, 68, among Malays fell to 76 percent in December, from 84 percent in October, according to a survey by the Merdeka Center, an independent Malaysian research group.

Awang Adek, who as UMNO nominee for Kelantan chief minister is seeking to oust Nik Aziz, said Abdullah isn't threatened.

"The momentum is on our side,'' he said.

PAS has two new advantages in this campaign. Nik Aziz, 77, has allied with former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, a well-known moderate Islamist who spent the last election in prison. And Abdullah's predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, is serving the interests of PAS, even though he opposes it, by calling for UMNO to replace the prime minister.

Kelantan

Malaysia's constitution defines all Malays as Muslims. PAS's biggest base of support is in Kelantan, where about 90 percent of the state's 1.5 million people are Malays, compared with 60 percent of the country's total population of 27 million.

PAS is trying to redefine itself after years of advocating strict adherence to Islamic law. The party is running its first non-Muslim candidate, a Hindu woman, for a seat in the southern state of Johor. It also has dropped a ban on pop concerts in Kelantan it introduced in 1991.

"There is no more talk like before of PAS being like the Taliban,'' Nik Aziz told reporters in Kelantan's capital, Kota Bharu, on March 4.

Anwar, 60, has played a key role in moderating PAS's stance and rallying opposition to the government.

"Anwar has managed to narrow the gap between non-Muslims and staunch PAS supporters with his moderate, multiracial approach,'' said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent Malaysian research group.

Denied Allegations

Finance minister under Mahathir until he was fired in 1998, Anwar was later found guilty of having homosexual relations and of trying to cover up that alleged crime -- allegations he denied. The sex charge was overturned in 2004.

To increase the opposition's chances, Anwar's People's Justice Party, PAS and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party have agreed not to compete with each other in voting districts in mainland Malaysia.

The party, running on the slogan "PAS For All,'' has dropped a previous goal of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state. Its manifesto promises free education, health services, low-cost housing, cheaper fuel and a minimum wage.

That message especially resonates in Kelantan. The state is Malaysia's third-poorest. The poverty rate was 11 percent in 2004, compared with 5.7 percent for the whole country that year.

PAS has gotten assistance in making its case from Mahathir, Abdullah's predecessor, who argues that corruption is increasing and calls for UMNO to replace the prime minister with Deputy Premier Najib Razak. Malaysia slipped to 43rd in Berlin-based Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index from 39th in 2004, when Abdullah won his landslide.

Abdullah counters that corruption prosecutions doubled to 1,317 in 2006 from 663 cases in 2001.

Corruption is a concern for retired civil servant Ahmad Othman, who runs a small palm oil farm in Kelantan. Folding his prayer mat after a two-hour weekly sermon by Nik Aziz, Ahmad said he'll switch to PAS from UMNO at this election.

"Not once have I seen corruption in Kelantan,'' he said. (Bloomberg.com)

***** PAS is beginning to do and say the 'right' things. But will the majority of non-Muslims trust them and will they be prepared to risk an 'out of the frying pan into the fire' scenario? I have my doubts.

For too long has PAS been considered part of the extreme fringe and no amount of words or superficial gestures will change the perception that they are merely religious fanatics attempting to masquerade in moderate's clothing.

Indeed many non-Muslims should be thankful for the decades-old impasse between Umno and PAS. If God forbid, these two parties ever got together and ruled the country we can be sure that the time would then be opportune for most non-Muslims and many Muslims to migrate to less hostile shores.

Both Umno and PAS are not good for Malaysia. What we truly need is a party which can transcend race and religion, led by pragmatic and honest men and women who won't play the ethnic and Islam card for short-term gains. As it stands unfortunately no such party exists in Malaysia. Perhaps in the future. Who knows?

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Purple Haze said...

The first order of the day is to deny the BN the 2/3 majority in Parliament. Without the co-operation of all Opposition parties, regardless of thier leaning, this will not come to pass.

Once that happens, it is hoped that Malaysia will graduate towards treu democratic ideals.

10:54 AM GMT+8  
Anonymous SM said...

I doubt PAS & UMNO will ever work together. Well, I hope not!
From what I've heard, the non-Muslims in Kelantan are very happy with the PAS Government. Anyway, the Opposition is made up of DAP, PAS & PKR, not just PAS.
In less than 72 hours we are going to determine if we want the same arrogant, smug, Body Snatching, Racists guys in charge or are we going to use our brains & deny them the 2/3rds majority (oh to see the smug grins wiped off their faces!) which gives them free rein to do whatever they please?
The Aussies did it, they kicked Howard out! Change of Govt. No problems. The Pakistanis showed Musharraf what they thought of him & his cronies.
Let's show the world Malaysia really Boleh!
Just Change It!

12:45 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous TRISHUL said...

The way I look at it, PAS is like a scorpion. It has a sting in its tail and will use it! But we know it. Unlike UMNO which is like a lion fish, venomous spines all over the body. And it is beautiful to look at. UMNO is the evil combination of greed, arrogance, corruption. If necessary it will change its policy to fit the occasion. Who do you think is causing the racial friction in this country if not UMNO. They've learned the art of divide and rule from the British.

And they are also be a chameleon. Previously, to counter PAS, UMNO said Malaysia is an Islamic Country. Recently just because PAS said that they will create a welfare state, some UMNO moron said Malaysia IS a welfare state.

You decide, you want a confirmed religious zealot with a known sting or one that is beautiful to look at but with venom all over the body.....

1:17 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:03 PM GMT+8  
OpenID jedyoong said...

haiyah. time to let umno/bn feel the pain-lah. lined their pockets and enjoy. while the country falls apart. limiting our freedom of speech. forcing ppl like zam and nazri upon the malaysian public. what more? giving a virtual a safe seat in N.Sembilan. nepotism at is most blatant lah.

give PAS a chance lah. no harm, the malays themselves are afraid of PAS. so if PAS is serious about power, then it should wake up.

meanwhile nothing wrong with having more Opposition MPs to make noise in parliament...

8:36 PM GMT+8  
Blogger walski69 said...

Other than their well-known, long-standing ideology of an Islamic state, PAS are actually quite an honest lot.

As things stand:
a) they are only contesting 60 parliamentary seats - which means that they alone cannot form a government, even in the unlikely scenario that they win all 60.
b) their track record of fairness to all religions and cultures in Kelantan is something that even BN cannot match
c) their willingness to tone down their Islamic state rhetoric shows that they're focused and pragmatic - all three major opposition parties with one aim in mind: unseat BN, or at the very least deny the juggernaut incumbent the 2/3 majority.

At this juncture, my personal take is that there is more to fear from UMNO than PAS. Those who are familiar with my stand may find this a little surprising, but look at the recent PEMBELA nonsense, from which PAS totally distanced themselves from (at least officially).

If it's fairness that non-Muslims (and Muslims, too) are looking for, you're likely to not find it within UMNO/BN, basing on their recent track record.

I say, enough is enough... it's time for change.

11:31 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous SM said...

Walski9,

I fully agree with your comments!

9:48 AM GMT+8  

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