Tuesday, Jan 27, 2004

Malaysia Government Woos Malay Heartland

By Liau Y-Sing

KOTA BHARU, Malaysia (Reuters) - In the capital of Malaysia's poorest, opposition-led state, newspaper vendor Mat Zin counts his blessings before his morning's earnings.
Malaysians shop at a fresh market in Kota Bharu in the northeastern state of Kelantan, 300 miles north of Kuala Lumpur. Kelantan and Terengganu -- the two of Malaysia's 13 states under opposition control -- have seen little of the progress that transformed the country from backwater to manufacturing hub. File photo taken November 24, 2003. (Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters)
"Money isn't the number one priority. It will come when you do good. God will send you everything, whatever you want," he says, displaying the sort of attitude that has previously stumped Malaysia's main Malay party in its chase for rural votes.
Like many other roadside traders hawking their wares in the state of Kelantan, ruled by the Islamic opposition Parti Islam se Malaysia, the 47-year old Mat is happy with his lot in life: a monthly wage of about $132.
Most households in this mainly Muslim northern state bordering Thailand get by on much less than the $7,900 average annual household income Malaysians enjoy.
Kelantan and Terengganu -- the two of Malaysia's 13 states under opposition control -- have seen little of the progress that has transformed the country from backwater to manufacturing hub.
And the prospect of more development projects has failed to move voters in the rural Malay heartland to switch their allegiance to the ruling National Front coalition led by the United Malays National Organization.
A general election, due by November, is widely expected to come in the first half of the year. The ruling party has governed since independence from Britain in 1957 and will undoubtedly win again.
The question is whether UMNO can win back its core constituency, the Muslim Malay votes it has been losing to PAS, and thus lessen its dependence on Chinese and Indian votes in the multi-racial country?
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in power since October, is scaling back on big infrastructure projects and focusing on the often-ignored farm sector, in an effort to win back votes in the "Malay heartland."
Malaysia's love of mega-projects has long had its critics, not least among PAS leaders.
"Every year when the school term begins, villagers will look for money from elected representatives, from whoever," Kelantan Chief Minister and PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat told Reuters after a recent weekly Friday sermon.
The soft-spoken party figurehead, clad in white robes and turban, chided the government's largesse, as a 1,000-odd crowd milled around stalls selling religious relics and food.
"It's a sign that rural folk do not have enough money for their children and yet the government still spends on extravagant projects," he added.
The east coast of the peninsula, where Kelantan and Terengganu are located, has seen less development, particularly in infrastructure.
The East Coast highway, initially planned to run up to Kuala Terengganu, the state capital, was halted at the state border after Terengganu fell under PAS control in 1999.
Malaysia's large projects include the $2.4-billion Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the $1.6-billion, 1,483-ft Petronas Twin Towers.
At the last general election in November 1999, the ruling coalition won more than two-thirds of the seats in Malaysia's parliament, but nevertheless lost votes to PAS in the heartland states, including Kelantan and Terengganu.
PAS has now set its sights on the northern state of Kedah, home state of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
In its election manifesto, the party has called for the imposition of Islamic law in the country, where Islam is the official religion but the laws are secular. The party, however, has said non-Muslims would not have to abide by sharia law.
PAS, which won power in Kelantan in 1990, has thrived as a haven for Malay protest votes, but has had a tough time convincing voters unhappy with UMNO but suspicious of plans to turn Malaysia into a theocratic state that it is a viable alternative to the ruling coalition.
Some analysts say the appeal of radical Islam may have grown in Malaysia since the U.S.-led war on terror began with the intervention in Afghanistan (news - web sites) following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Shortly after taking over last year from Mahathir, Malaysia's master builder, Abdullah delayed a controversial $3.8-billion rail project, citing the need to focus on other areas.
He highlighted the agriculture sector for priority with the appointment of a new minister, Muhyiddin Yassin.
"By channeling funds there, Abdullah's moving into areas where he's low on support. The government is seen as responding to the needs of poor rural Malays," said Terence Gomez, a university professor and author of studies on what critics call Malaysia's crony capitalism.
Agriculture has been overlooked for decades in favor of electronics manufacturing as the country fought for foreign investment. The sector's share of GDP (news - web sites) has fallen to less than 10 percent from a third in the 1960s.
A smaller federal budget for 2004 will also mean less direct government money on infrastructure projects than seen in the run-up to previous elections, economists say.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"