AFTER WINNING a 57-seat majority in the national 222-member parliament in the Malaysian elections at the weekend, one would expect the Barisan National Alliance to be celebrating its return to power. Not so: members of the Alliance have been stunned by the result, and many have called for the resignation of the incumbent Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Despite its re-election, the stocks of the Alliance have deteriorated dramatically. In the previous parliament, the Alliance had a 177-seat majority; it also controlled 12 of Malaysia’s 13 states, but, in state elections held at the same time as the national ones, the Alliance was thrown out of power in four more states.
Many parts of Malaysia’s multiracial and multifaith society are discontented with Alliance policies. Religious minorities, who make up 40 per cent of this largely Muslim country, have felt particularly aggrieved. The Christian community (which constitutes nine per cent of the population) has been alienated by issues such as the continuing rhetoric from senior government figures about Malaysia being an Islamic state.
Islamic authorities have also tried to ban the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims in their worship and publications. Christians argue that the term is well established as the way of referring to God in the Malaysian-language Bible.
Hindus and Buddhists have joined in these protests. The former have witnessed the demolition of a number of temples. Thousands of Hindus took to the streets of the capital in November, claiming economic exclusion and discrimination in government policies.
Yet public discontent with the government has gone beyond religious issues. In Malaysia, race and religion are closely intertwined, so religious discrimination has a knock-on effect on racial tensions. In the words of the Malaysian Christian academic, Dr Albert Walters: “The alarming slide in race relations continues, along with the rising influence of Islam, thus giving rise to racial and religious polarisation in Malaysian society. Some of the most racially charged rhetoric seems to be coming from the ruling party itself.”
One of the Alliance government’s most trenchant critics has been the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has vied for half a century with the Alliance for the hearts and minds of Malaysia’s Muslims, and has often called for an Islamic state. In an effort to marginalise PAS, the government introduced its own agenda of Islamisation. In the state of Trengganu, for example, the government has built 62 mosques over the past four years.
In this election, PAS played its cards differently. Rather than calling for an Islamic state, which had alienated non-Muslim voters, PAS focused on social welfare and advocacy, even fielding some women and non-Muslim candidates. The change in strategy paid handsome dividends. Its share of the federal parliament increased from seven to 23 seats.
The rise of another opposition group, the PKR Justice Party, has been even more significant. Its principal spokesman is the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim, the former Alliance Deputy Prime Minister, who fell foul of Prime Minister Abdullah’s predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad.
Mr Ibrahim and his Justice party were able to tear the mantle of Muslim moderation from the Alliance’s grasp. At the same time, the Justice party, through skilful candidate selection, succeeded in appealing to Malaysia’s non-Muslim minority.
Net result: Justice Party representation in the national parliament increased from one seat to 31. It will be the senior partner in the new coalition governments in three of the five states that are not controlled by the Alliance.
Many of Malaysia’s racial and religious minorities are rejoicing, and with good reason. First, the traditional more-Islamic-than-thou tussle between the Alliance and PAS has been pushed off centre-stage. It has been replaced by a competition pitting the Alliance, which claims to be pluralist yet Islam-friendly, with a loosely allied opposition, now led by the Justice Party, which speaks the language of multi-ethnic and multifaith equality.
In the wake of the election result this week, Mr Ibrahim said: “The people have voted decisively for a new era, where the government must be truly inclusive, and recognise that all Malaysians, regardless of race, culture or religion, are a nation of one.”
Even the Islamist PAS old guard, represented by its spiritual leader, Haji Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, was forced to speak in similar terms, declaring: “We will approach this victory from an Islamic point of view, and this means everyone is equal. . . All are brothers and sisters. There should be no more dividing people along racial lines.”
Other factors could still emerge. As one Malaysian pastor said: “The opposition in the form of PAS cannot be an option, as they [ultimately desire] an Islamic state. The opposition in the form of the Justice Party is untested, and therefore cannot be predicted accurately.”
Nevertheless, these elections represent a watershed for Malaysia in terms of the nation as a whole and its religious minorities. Although the same government has been returned to power at national level, the political scene is now witness to a vibrant and powerful opposition. This can only give a shot in the arm to the ailing democracy of Malaysia.
Dr Peter G. Riddell is Professorial Dean of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Bible College of Victoria, in Australia. He is the author of Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World (Hurst, 2001).