Cautious Observations on Malaysian Politics

I’ve been debating heavily whether to post this or not, but decided that, at the very least, this may be of some interest to people outside of Southeast Asia, particularly in the United States. The caveat, and the thing that’s been keeping this back for so long, is the fact that I’ve only been in Malaysia for a year and until recently, hadn’t been keeping up much with local politics, except by word of mouth. Once I began reading, however, I couldn’t stop. Obviously, I don’t have all the ins and outs, and my scope is limited, but perhaps something can be gained from an outsider’s perspective, even if that something is a recognition that outsiders care about Malaysia, but need to know more.

Some Cliff’s-Notes Background

Malaysia, in its present form, has been around since the 1960s. In 1963, it gained independence from Britain, which had governed as a colonial power since the 18th century, and in 1965 it expelled Singapore due to ethnic violence, after which it has retained its general shape.

On May 13th, 1969, the same ethnic tensions that had led to the expulsion of Singapore boiled over after the election. Race riots ensued, in which hundreds of people were killed, forcing the government to essentially declare martial law until they could restore order. Generally speaking, the violence was primarily between the ethnic Malays and Chinese. With a young communist China in such close proximity and undergoing such social and political upheaval, there were concerns that there was more going on than just racial and religious discord. A Time magazine account of the riots can be found here. Since then, there has been a visible campaign of unity, which seems to have worked.

The Here and Now

That unity has eroded somewhat in the past months. The national election of 2013 saw the ruling party, the Barisan Nasional (BN), lose a sizable percentage of its power, despite keeping its majority share in the government. The ruling party since independence, the BN won less than half of the popular vote, but kept a majority share of its parliamentary seats. While this sparked some controversy, the real and probably lasting effect is the fracturing of the power base. The seats BN lost, it lost to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Both the BN and PR are coalitions of smaller, localized political parties (imagine if each state in the US had its own distinct parties, which were then grouped together under the umbrellas of the Democrats or Republicans), but as far as I can tell, the BN’s member parties are more or less unified, goal-wise. The PR appears to be comprised of groups with ideologies and goals that differ significantly. Some claim to be secular, while others, like the PAS, are ardently Islamic.

As the firm grip of the status quo has given way, these smaller groups have carved out their own slice of the pie. While it’s not a complete power vacuum, the ceded space has opened up space for more radical groups, like the ultra right-wing Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (ISMA) and Perkasa, that while non-governmental, have recently been flexing their political muscle.

The head of ISMA, Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, ruffled a lot of feathers across the board recently, when, among other things, he called the ethnic Chinese “trespassers”:

If they want to remain as citizens of this country, they must pledge loyalty to the Agong and accept the position of Islam as the official religion and the sovereign rights of Malays.

Standing in the way of Malay ambition and denying Malays their right in determining the future of the nation is a challenge and an act of overstepping by a foreign race. ¹

He goes on to blame Zionist and Jewish proxies for trying to subvert Islam. So there’s that. If you speak Bahasa, enjoy:

The response to this, and to recent pushes to install hudud (a subset of limits and punishments in sharia law) as applicable to non-Muslims, has been overwhelmingly negative. While you can see some support for it, many seem to dismiss it out of hand as an impossibility in such an historically multicultural society. But the fear still lingers. Objectively, alienating and disenfranchising 40% of your population, not to mention possibly taking half (the female half) of your workforce away, is economic and political suicide. Current goals for the nation to reach Developed status by 2020 would have to be scrapped, and trade deals with foreign investors would be strained.

Malaysia’s constitution provides freedom of religion, while at the same time sets Islam as the state religion. This means that laws and customs are made according to the letter or the spirit of Islamic law. Sharia law has so far only applied to Muslims, and even then seems limited in its enforcement. Almost all Muslims I have interacted with here are self-governing in regard to how conservatively they interpret these laws and tradition, but certain things, like rules governing food, drink and family are, almost universally followed without threat of enforcement.

For the non-Muslim Malaysians and foreigners, there is almost no interference from religious law, except for certain de facto limitations on speech and the press, often in the form of self-censorship. Honestly, after a while here, one hardly notices the difference, but for someone fresh off the plane from the States, it can be a bit jarring. It’s a little like tasting a soup, realizing it needs something, but not being able to put your finger on what.

What is clear is that the vast majority of people are proud to be Malaysian and proud of the progress their country has made toward becoming a world-recognized developed country. While some see hudud and other more conservative alterations to Malaysian society as necessary to overcome crime, many see it as a step back socially and as a cheap way to avoid dealing with the causes of crime in a developing nation.

Every country that is now considered developed went through the same struggles. The great nations are the ones that remain true to their vision throughout the Great Experiment.

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