Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Government woos conservative base with canings

Datuk Seri Najib is committed to economic reforms, and at the same time is desperate to win over the conservative Muslim group. - Picture by Jack Ooi

The caning of three women under Islamic law is the latest move by the government to woo conservative Muslims, a risky tactic that could cause a backlash by ethnic minorities and damage economic reforms.

The first ever canings of women in traditionally moderate Malaysia were carried out in February after syariah court sentencing for adultery. Another woman faces caning for drinking beer.

The canings came hot on the heels of a row over the use of the word “Allah” by Malay-speaking Christians that triggered attacks on churches and mosques and ahead of another court case this week over Christians’ right to use the word.

The punishments have been endorsed by officials from the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the party of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, which dominates the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled for 52 years.

It stumbled to its worst ever results in national and state polls in 2008, leading to the ousting of its then premier and Najib’s appointment in April 2009 to turn round its fortunes.

Najib says he is committed to economic reforms to roll back preferential treatment for ethnic Malays, but he is desperate not to alienate the 55 per cent of the population that is Malay and Muslim and is the cornerstone of support for the BN after ethnic Chinese and Indian voters deserted it.

“There is an overt thinking by many in Umno that it is going to be difficult to regain lost support especially among the Chinese,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling organisation.

The controversies have registered with fund managers who last year asked Najib in New York about the beer drinking case during a roadshow to promote reforms and win investment that has increasingly chosen Indonesia and Thailand.

One Malay opposition legislator announced today he was quitting to sit as an independent, saying the opposition had “insulted” Islam by supporting the right of Christians to use the word “Allah”.

A Merdeka poll showed about two-thirds of Malays find Islamic punishments for immoral behaviour appealing and Umno now finds itself battling a resurgent Islamic party for those votes.

Malaysia’s economy leaked a net US$2.5 billion (RM8.5 billion) of portfolio investment in the first three quarters of 2009, according to the latest available government data, while neighbouring Indonesia saw US$10 billion inflows for all of 2009.

Analysts say the religions issue could cause economic damage.

“The unanticipated backlash, both domestically and internationally, could distract Najib from tackling some of the larger economic problems,” political analyst Ong Kian Ming said.

Malaysia’s political system mirrors the ethnic makeup of this country of 28 million people and that has left Umno battling the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a party that advocates Islamic laws and an Islamic state, for Malay votes.

As Najib has unveiled economic reforms that have started to scratch away at a decades-old New Economic Policy (NEP) that gave preferences to Malays, groups have started to sprout up to defend Malay rights, seen as synonymous with Islam, leading to a ratcheting up of ethnic and religious tensions.

It is predominantly poorer Malays who will be hit by a new goods and services tax and the removal of fuel and food subsidies to shrink a budget deficit that hit a more than 20-year high of 7.4 per cent of gross domestic product in 2008.

“With a large number of Malays relatively low income and more dependent on government assistance and services, any cutbacks might pose to be a challenge (for the government),” said Ibrahim.

Some Malays have set up an organisation called “Perkasa” (Strength) to defend their rights including privileges under the NEP. They endorse the canings and Islamic punishments.

“Many Malays support the canings and even PAS has been left behind on this as I was expecting that canings would first take place in Kelantan and Kedah (two PAS-ruled states),” said Perkasa leader Datuk Ibrahim Ali, an independent MP and former deputy minister.

While the canings may appeal to “conservatives” and to rural Malays, PAS only broke out of its rural strongholds when it successfully allied with a mainly ethnic Chinese party and reformists in a grouping led by former deputy premier Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, himself a former Islamist student leader.

PAS proved astute in handling the attacks on churches, by showing solidarity with Christians while Najib bridled at suggestions that the government had fostered an atmosphere of hatred that had lead to the attacks.

PAS officials say Umno’s approach on the canings was a political ploy to win over the 15 per cent of Malays who remain undecided as well as to split PAS from its ethnic Chinese allies.

“The caning issue is just political bait,” said Dr Dzulkifli Ahmad, a senior PAS official.

“Because if you take them on their own argument, then the question they need to answer is do they really want to take it all the way and have full implementation of Islamic law?” — Reuters

No comments: