March 26, 2004

ANALYSIS - Abdullah restores Malaysia's moderate image

By Simon Cameron-Moore

KUALA LUMPUR - Glad Mahathir Mohamad finally quit, Malaysia's Muslim majority gave his successor a stunning election victory, abandoning a dalliance with political Islam for hopes of clean government and economic progress.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's success will help wash away fears that the increasing religiosity of Muslim Malays could be channelled into radicalism and extremism.
Tough on militants, Malaysia has bridled at Western perceptions of it as a risky place in a world running scared following al Qaeda's attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
"Ever since 9/11, they've portrayed Malaysia as a moderate Muslim country. This election shows it," commented Bridget Welsh, an expert on Southeast Asia from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, who came to follow the election first hand.
The moderates secured their victory in a way that prompted criticism from the fundamentalists and other opposition groups.
"This election has been unfair. We were not given any chance through the media, through anything," said Abdul Hadi Awang, leader of the main Islamic opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia, as he conceded defeat as chief minister of Terengganu state.
Mainstream media are uniformly pro-government, the election campaign lasted just a week and the creation of new seats and constituency boundary changes all favoured the ruling Barisan Nasional alliance and its leading force, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
For all that, analysts say, the scale of the rout leaves little doubt that Abdullah is the leader the Muslim Malays and Malaysia's other races want.
It marked a rejection of the conservative social agenda and weak economic policies of PAS, left clinging to power in just one of Malaysia's 13 states, analysts said.
The inward-looking Malays were less bothered by outsiders' assumptions equating conservative Islam with militancy, and the vote for Abdullah was more to do with his vision of the faith than sensitivity over how foreigners view them, analysts said.
Countries in the region will be relieved that the Islamists have been put to flight.
Neighbouring Singapore, the rich, mostly Chinese island state that was part of Malaysia until 1965, will no doubt be pleased about the election outcome. The island state, with a sizeable Muslim minority, smashed a militant Islamic cell in late 2001 that had planned to bomb Western embassies and other targets.
Thailand, battling a surge in violence in its majority Muslim south bordering Malaysia, will also take heart.
But while Islamist parties in Indonesia will struggle to make too much ground in the coming elections there, analysts said it would be wrong to draw strong conclusions about the state of Islam in the region.
The result showed Malaysians want the economic progress Abdullah's predecessor Mahathir showed them during his two decades in power, but, analysts stressed, without the sleaze.
Significantly, and with recounts continuing for a few seats, Abdullah won an unofficially estimated 63 percent of the popular vote. Since independence in 1957, no one has scored higher, except Mahathir, who captured 65 percent in 1995 at the height of Malaysia's boom times, and before Malays turned against him.
Malays were still angry with Mahathir, analysts said, and bitterness lingered on over the humiliation of Anwar Ibrahim -- the popular deputy premier sacked and jailed after making a challenge in 1998.
But the pro-Anwar Parti Keadilan was all but wiped out in this election, as the promise of reforms and development from Abdullah eclipsed old loyalties.
Chandra Muzaffar, a political scientist and former opposition figure, hailed Abdullah's ability to connect with Muslims and non-Muslims.
"He's one of the most open-minded Muslims you could meet," said Chandra. "He projects the best of the religion."
Malays were willing to accept Abdullah's softer sell of the concept because he has a moral authority, coming from a family of Islamic scholars, and his own reputation for probity.
"It is the corruption and venality on the part of leaders (in the Muslim world) that strengthens religious Islamist movements," Chandra said.
The vote also showed that the Muslim Malay majority, who make up close to 60 percent of the Southeast Asian nation's 25 million people, want more Islamic values in government.
But they don't want the dogma that the preachers who run the Islamist opposition espouse.
"People want jobs, stability. They are rejecting political Islam. They want benign Islam," commented Abdullah Ahmad, an UMNO veteran who was replaced as group editor of the New Straits Times days after Mahathir retired.
Muslims needed to be reassured that Malaysia's laws and sense of social justice reflected Islamic precepts, without alienating the non-Muslim Chinese and Indian minorities, analysts said.
Analysts were not overly concerned that the crushing defeat of the opposition could sow seeds of extremism among hardcore Muslims who felt let down by Malaysia's democracy.
Police have arrested some 90 suspected militants in the past three years, including a handful of PAS members.
But the history of militancy in Malaysia since the late 1970s has been episodic rather than a running theme.

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