Mar 10,2018 – JORDAN TIMES – Chin-Huat Wong
PENANG — Malaysia is just a few months or even weeks away from its most contentious election in decades. Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, whose rule ended in 2003, is, at 92, working with opposition figures he once repressed to prevent his former protégé, the controversial Prime Minister Najib Razak, from securing another term. But breaking the 61-year winning streak of Mahathir’s former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), will not be easy.
In fact, the pundits are still betting on Najib, with one pollster predicting that the incumbent could regain a two-thirds parliamentary majority, enabling him to amend the constitution. Mahathir has just a few months to change the political dynamic, by leading the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), and replacing the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) with his new party, the Malaysia United Indigenous Party (PPBM), as the primary alternative to UMNO.
While the PAS has only about 15 per cent electoral support, it has managed to push the UMNO to implement elements of its nationalist-religious agenda. A strong enough showing by PH in the next election, however, would expose the PAS as politically dispensable, potentially freeing Malaysia from a toxic game of Islamist one-upmanship.
The impact of that game should not be underestimated. In recent years, religious intolerance has been on the rise in once-secular Malaysia. For example, the Arabic word for God, Allah, widely used by Arab and Indonesian Christians, is now reserved for Muslim use only. More alarming, the Home Ministry has banned a wide range of books, from the Indonesian translation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to the writings of the Islam-friendly Western scholars John Esposito and Karen Armstrong.
The rise of a strict and exclusivist Islam in Malaysia reflects international trends and domestic dynamics. Ethnic-majority Malays, who were marginalised during colonial times, but now enjoy constitutionally guaranteed preferential treatment in the economy and education, must, by definition, be Muslim. The persistence of their favoured status hinges on the UMNO’s political dominance, or so UMNO claims.