Malaysia: Ready, aim, shoot in foot
By Anil Netto
PENANG - Malaysia's opposition alliance will have to get its act together if it does not want public support for it to dissolve in a sea of acrimony. A highly publicized dispute between two key opposition parties over whether Malaysia should be turned into an Islamic state is threatening to undermine the alliance and has provided fodder for the leaders of the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition to denigrate the opposition.
The opposition's ideological rift - the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) aims to set up an Islamic state while the multi-ethnic and Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) insists Malaysia should remain a secular state - is not something new. It is a decades-long gulf that once blocked closer cooperation between the two of Malaysia's largest opposition parties.
But in 1998, everything changed when former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim was ousted from government and jailed. His sacking triggered widespread outrage and unleashed reformasi, a movement pushing for wide-ranging reforms. For the first time, PAS and DAP supporters were united in a larger common cause: challenging the ruling coalition's dominance, wiping out injustice and stemming perceived rot in the system.
A new party, the National Justice Party (Keadilan) headed by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah, tapped into the discontent. Sentiment among the grass roots favored a united opposition front, prompting opposition leaders to quickly cobble together a new opposition alliance, the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front), ahead of the 1999 general election. The alliance grouped the three opposition parties, along with the tiny Malaysian People's Party (PRM), and was backed by an Alternative Manifesto, which made no mention of an Islamic state.
Instead the manifesto pledges to "create a favorable atmosphere - through the provision of infrastructure, education and legislation - towards affirmation of Islam as a way of life among Muslims, while ensuring the rights of non-Muslims to practice their respective religions or beliefs". It was also pointed out that PAS' own party constitution does not mention an Islamic state.
But although the manifesto was accepted by all the main opposition parties, it still left the alliance vulnerable to the ruling coalition's scare tactics and to the differing interpretations of the DAP and PAS. Playing on lingering ethnic Chinese fears of an Islamic state, the mainstream media highlighted the ideological rift within the front in the run-up to the 1999 general election and implied that the cultural and religious rights of the minorities were under threat.
The fear campaign worked. Although the Barisan Nasional suffered a loss in support among ethnic Malay-Muslims outraged by Anwar's ouster, it coasted home to victory on the back of non-Muslim support.
Once again, the media have highlighted the DAP's objection to PAS' recent statements in support of an Islamic state. The media attention has also diverted the public gaze away from embarrassing issues confronting the Barisan Nasional. These include the takeover of two relatively independent Chinese-language dailies by the coalition's second largest party, the Malaysian Chinese Association - a move that has sparked uproar among the ethnic Chinese, who make up 25 percent of the population.
Another issue that has been swept aside is the abrupt resignation of the powerful finance minister Daim Zainuddin, a key ally of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Daim's departure has left Mahathir looking increasingly isolated as the premier completes 20 years at the helm with no sign of calling it quits. At the same time, his United Malays National Organization is struggling to redeem itself among its grass roots supporters.
The Islamic state brouhaha in the media has also overshadowed a string of court decisions that have cast doubt on the independence and integrity of key government institutions. Thus, the opposition's seeming inability to settle its ideological rifts privately among its leaders has played straight into the hands of the ruling coalition.
In a sense, the ideological dispute appears academic. The numbers just don't add up. Turning Malaysia into an Islamic state would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority - something that PAS would be unlikely to muster.
In the 1999 general election, the opposition alliance allocated only a third of the 193 parliamentary seats for PAS to contest in one-to-one battles against the ruling coalition. The remainder were allotted to other opposition parties. The PAS, however, won just 27 out of the 64 seats allotted to it. Even in those 27 seats, analysts pointed out that it was outrage against the ruling coalition and the Anwar factor rather than sentiment in favor of an Islamic state that helped PAS to win.
Another obstacle in the way of an Islamic state is the weak influence the PAS commands in the north Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, which together make up 48 seats in parliament. Of the 193 parliamentary seats, only about 100 of them are ethnic-Malay majority seats, which are likely to be hotly contested.
PAS' best hope lies in capturing a few more states in the Malay-Muslim heartland to add to the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu that the party already controls. In these two states, PAS has imposed Islamic rules: a ban on gambling, curbs on alcohol sales, and separate check-out counters at supermarkets for men and women. But it has also taken steps to liberalize official attitudes towards non-Malay cultural and religious observances in a bid to reach out to more non-Muslims.
Thus far, PAS leaders have not made it clear what they mean by an Islamic state and much of the rift has centered on semantics - Islamic state vs secular state. In reality, Malaysia is hardly a completely secular state with the constitution already regarding Islam as the country's official religion. The country already has an Islamic banking system and religious courts - coexisting side-by-side with the conventional system - as well as an International Islamic University.
The only way out of the opposition's ideological impasse is for the parties to recognize the reality in Malaysia and to engage each other in a series of high-level talks to trash out a consensus once and for all. It has already moved in this direction and called a halt to public exchanges on the Islamic state issue. If it fails in this endeavor, the alliance could disintegrate.
In a sense, the Barisan Alternatif should consider itself fortunate that the dispute has surfaced now - when the alliance still has time to consider strategies and to build a consensus - rather than on the eve of a general election, when it would be even more vulnerable to ruling coalition attacks.
source: atimes.com, July 5, 2001