Dirty Gossip, Dirty Politics in Malaysia

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, terrorists etc, these are some of the lurid headline-grabbers to come out of Malaysia in recent months.

I asked a group of twenty and thirty-something professionals what they thought of the controversy. None appeared 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,”

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.

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. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on April 1 said that he is “a Malay first and Malaysian second,” a contradiction on Najib’s spin that he did nothing to contradict.

On top of Malaysia’s social fissures, the country’s economy is linked to ethnic politics and 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 Programe (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, but if he is sincere about revamping the system, he will have to look over his shoulder, as many within the UMNO do not want change. He 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.

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