Far Eastern Economic Review


Mutual Accommodation

Islamic politics in Malaysia

Issue cover-dated December 23, 1999

Johan is a young Malay who puts in 12-hour days, seven days a week, shuttling a cab between Kuala Lumpur and the airport. For that, he earns just enough to be counted among the lower-middle class, even if he has no time to spend his money in the metropolis the capital has become. But this doesn't bother him. Resting mid-day by a roadside coffee stall--though he wasn't eating or drinking and wouldn't for another six hours because of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month--he said he would rather there was less glitter and life were simpler. That's why he's pleased that northeastern Terengganu state is becoming more Islamic. In last month's elections, Terengganu's became the second state government to be wrested from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's federal-ruling coalition by the Islamic party, Pas. And it's people like Johan who make more-secular Malaysians nervous, not to mention foreigners invested in Dr. Mahathir's vision of a country with a progressive economy and a Muslim majority.

This is Malaysia's dilemma. Its Westernized elite prefer life to be divided between private and public spheres, with secular politics insulated from private devotions. But though a church-and-state separation may work in the modern West, Islam poses difficulties. In Islam, theology and politics are one and the same; a holistic way of life. That's why the clerics who gained control of Terengganu are trying to sterilize the public arena by banning gambling and alcohol sales. And likely they will want to do more, since the devout are harmed if their society condones immorality even by unbelievers.

For long, Malaysian leaders have sought to mitigate their advocacy of secular politics by competing with Pas' clerics on personal devotion--an argument that public secularism doesn't matter so long as personal faith is strong. This hasn't convinced Islamists. From where we sit, an alternative approach may work better. Let Terengganu and the other Pas-controlled state, Kelantan, have their way without impediment as far as the constitution allows. It is within states' rights to regulate matters relating to Islam and land use--for example, to limit activities, such as selling alcohol, that can be conducted on properties. Those who can live with this will stay; others, as Johan indicated a desire, will move there because of it. At the same time, assert that if it remains the will of the country to continue secular federal politics, which guarantees freedom of religion, then that must be respected.

No doubt this situation won't satisfy all. Islamists will still find that federal laws, such as the criminal code, aren't Muslim; not everyone uncomfortable with a more strident Islam can move away. Yet the point of a modus vivendi, an imperfect compromise, is to allow as much of life as possible to continue rather than be stalled by bickering. More, since both the advocates of secular politics and Pas avow confidence in democracy, both may want to continue making their case with voters, whether most are ready for more Islam or only some are. So long as the debate continues at the ballot box, no one--especially investors--will fear any radicalism.

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