Malaysia's Radical Drift

Posted on Friday, January 22, 2010 by Prashanth Parameswaran



“We are…a moderate, Muslim state”, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared last November. “There may be some incidents along the way that take place, but that should not be seen as evidence of a radical shift”.

Those words are ringing increasingly hollow. Following a December court ruling that reversed a government ban on the use of the term “Allah” for God in Malay-language Christian publications, almost a dozen churches were attacked in Malaysia with Molotov cocktails and rocks. The instability threatened to upset Malaysia’s fragile multi-ethnic fabric and derail Mr. Najib's own vision of inter-racial harmony.

The brouhaha is more political than religious. The word “Allah” predates Islam and is still commonly used by Christians in other predominantly Muslim countries like Syria and Egypt. Even the traditionally Islamic Parti Islam-se Malaysia (PAS) makes no bones about it.

But Malaysia’s ruling party UMNO is anxious to court Malay-Muslim voters by posing as the guardian of Islam, particularly after its unprecedented drubbing in 2008 elections. It insists – curiously – that using ‘Allah’ is part of a pro-Christian plot to convert Muslims.

This is only the latest episode of the government’s Islamic posturing. During the past year, it dithered before prosecuting Muslims who offended Hindus by using a severed cow’s head in public demonstrations, and threatened to cane a Muslim woman for drinking.

The ‘Allah’ controversy could cost the government dearly. Non-Malays and even moderate Muslims might fault Mr. Najib’s half-hearted initial attempts to stop Muslim demonstrations in mosques for emboldening the radicalism that followed. And UMNO’s lurch toward extremism could alienate its constituencies in the Christian-strong eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak.

If these sentiments persist, voters could desert the ruling party in the next election (expected before 2013) in favor of the more moderate Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition coalition. Though the gulf in parliamentary control is still quite jarring to expect an outright UMNO defeat – UMNO holds 137 of 220 seats while PR holds 82 seats – it is not unreasonable to expect an even greater shift of voter sentiment away from UMNO if this politicking continues.

More broadly, UMNO’s exclusivist Islamist agenda could tarnish Malaysia’s reputation as a moderate and prosperous Muslim country. Incidents such as this will only exacerbate the flight of capital and non-Malay talent from it, thereby crippling Malaysia’s long-term economic competitiveness.

Malaysia also risks facing international opprobrium for its radical drift. Already, Kuala Lumpur’s decision to back Iran in a key vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month along with Cuba and Venezuela, when even China and Russia did not, raised eyebrows in Western countries in general and Washington in particular. What may seem like a deft political strategy for Malaysia's ruling elite is fast looking like a damaging political game for the country.

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