It never fails to fill me with some pride when a friend visits Malaysia and returns with glowing reviews. They love Malaysian food (always the food gets mentioned first!), the cosmopolitan city of Kuala Lumpur (or KL) and the friendly people. All these things remind me of the Malaysia I left behind and makes me long for the familiarity of home.
Malaysian politics however, does not depict this same conviviality which the tourists find. It is never truly about ideologies but rather personalities. Malaysia’s main electorate are the Malays, who make up more than sixty percent of the population and are by definition, Muslim. The Malays votes tend to be divided between UMNO (the Malay nationalist party) and PAS (the Islamist party) with a significant proportion going to Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR (The People’s Justice Party).
However, sometimes all is not as it seems. In Malaysia, Islam may be considered the political sacred cow. UMNO and PAS often in the past have tried to ‘out-Islam’ each other with promises of stricter policies. These policies have hardly been ratified but rather remain a potent weapon to win over the Malay-Muslim electorate. Latest in this long line of debacles was the caning of a Muslim lady for alcohol consumption back in 2009 by the UMNO-led government. Although they are not an Islamist party, they needed to bolster their Islamic credentials somehow. However, since then, UMNO has toned down their Islamic rhetoric in favour of a carefully secular one, led by the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Najib’s ‘1Malaysia’ policy which aims to portray the coalition government as an egalitarian entity (difficult with the racist Bumiputra policy in place), working for the good of all Malaysians. So yes, admittedly UMNO has changed for the better, in rhetoric at least. Gone are the highly publicised racist outbursts by extremist UMNO MP’s telling fellow parliamentarians of non-Malay origin to ‘go home’. Those outbursts were from another time, that of the premiership of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose leadership was weak and flatulent. Badawi’s leadership led to the loss of four out of thirteen states in the 2008 General Elections, the worst ever performance for the coalition government.
Then we have PAS, the Islamist party of Malaysia. For decades, PAS has threatened (or promised, depending on one’s perspective) Malaysians with the ratification of hudud law. The hudud became its war cry yet after it won significantly in the 2008 General Elections, it became more moderate! It was co-opted into the ‘People’s Coalition’ with Anwar’s PKR as well as the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and had to lose its fundamentalist agenda. Instead it became a proponent of a ‘welfare state’, claiming that this is what Islam seeks for its citizens! Of course, there was a backlash from the grassroots and most recently, one of its state chiefs, Dr Hasan Ali (who believes that his Islamism includes Malay Supremacism!) has been sacked for his rants against the PAS supreme council. Hasan Ali confuses the casual analyst, he can be an Islamist or a Malay nationalist depending on which day one asks him.
The most recent wave in Malaysian politics is the acquittal of its tragic son, Anwar Ibrahim, Anwar is perhaps the last to remain from the old heydays of Malaysian politics. He has been accused of sodomy, a major crime in Malaysia, with what can barely be called evidence. Fortunately, the judiciary was able to realise that convicting Anwar would make them the laughing stock of the legal world and released him. Perhaps Anwar will now make a final run for Putrajaya and this time, make it.
So there you have Malaysian politics in 2012. Where the nationalist and Islamist can trade places back and forth and where one can be accused of sexual crimes with sperm samples surviving indefinitely! Truly a circus but still, at least the tourists still love Malaysia.
Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.