Abdullah Badawi, Malaysia's prime minister, yesterday promised to promote a "progressive, modern" form of Islam and eradicate rural poverty as he sought to blunt the appeal of the opposition fundamentalist Islamic Party of Malaysia (Pas) in the March 21 general election.
Mr Abdullah has said that Islam will be "the biggest issue" in the election, since the main battleground in the multi-racial country will be in northern Malaysia, which has a heavy concentration of Muslim Malay voters.
The ruling National Front coalition government is expected to win a commanding majority in the national parliament. But the loss by Mr Abdullah's United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the dominant party in the coalition, of a third state government in the north to Pas could weaken his authority.
Mr Abdullah promised that Muslim students in state primary schools would be required to learn Arabic and read the Koran as part of education reforms. The move is seen as an attempt to persuade Muslim parents not to send their children to private religious schools, which the government believes foment extremism.
The government's election manifesto also promises to improve rural development. North Malaysia is the country's poorest region, which has been regarded as one reason disillusioned voters have been drawn to Pas.
"Pas is concentrating more on the ideological aspect of Islam. We concentrate more on what we can do to make Muslims better off. A good Muslim is a person who wants peace and progress," said Mr Abdullah.
He has also sought to improve Umno's image by replacing a third of its candidates with fresh faces, including many Islamic scholars.
The emphasis on Islam in the election, however, threatens to alienate Malaysia's Chinese and Indian minorities, who account for 45 per cent of registered voters. "For the 30 years I was in parliament, the word Islamic state was barely uttered, but now it is a major political issue," said Lim Kit Siang, head of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, which mainly represents ethnic Chinese.
Malaysia is one of south-east Asia's richest countries and often seen as a model of moderate Islam by stressing scientific and educational achievements and tolerance for other beliefs.
Pas wants to introduce a stricter form of Islam, including hudud (criminal) law that will allow, for example, amputation of thieves' hands.
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"