May 6, 2004
Pulse of the Twin Cities

Malaysia: Racing toward a Muslim democracy

Story and Photos by John Tribbett

This past March, the notion of sleep for the citizenry of Kuala Lumpur was held hostage by the screams of jacked-up Yamaha 125cc motos each night. It was not the usual late-night drag racing in the streets, but the vigorous last round of Malaysian election campaigning.

Just exactly how political flags on bamboos poles jimmied onto the back of motos at 2 a.m. would serve to garner votes—I was uncertain. But with the March 21 polling date fast approaching things were heating up. A friend assured me the packs of young males from opposing political parties playing suicide slalom with traffic were a standard fixture in the world of Malaysia-styled democracy.
Back in the old-world democracy of the U.S., an ostensibly more refined political battle is taking place. Much of the debate centering on the role of American foreign policy—particularly the validity of militarily imposing American-style democracy on the Islamic world via Afghanistan and Iraq with a neo-con hope of a functioning domino theory to follow. The current policy posits if the Muslim world would adopt American democracy, then everything would function smoothly, oil would flow, and terrorism would end.
But there is resistance to the current plan evidenced by the growing list of dead citizens and soldiers, from Iraq to Madrid, that send a clear signal of an unwillingness to embrace U.S. democracy. One need only glance at the headlines to see the continued plunge of our country's popularity worldwide. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the Iraq War around the globe at its March anniversary.
For many in the Islamic realm it may not be the idea of democracy that is so distasteful, but the arrogance proclaiming America as the ideal and sole model of the democratic state. For many Muslims, the democracy of America is a travesty they want no part of. The idea of a restructured society built on the foundation of American multinational corporations like Halliburton is unthinkable.
While the West may pine for secular democratic states supporting westernized standards of a globalized economy throughout the world, something more idealized than even our own systems; we are going to have to accept compromise. It is inevitable these conflicted regions, like Iraq and Afghanistan, are going to be some form of religious state. If we are to successfully engage those in the broader Islamic world, the American public and our policy makers will need to accept that alternatives to the U.S. template of the secular state do exist.
There are models of emerging and robust democracies in the Islamic world rarely mentioned in the American media. In Malaysia, a S.E. Asian country many Americans only know by a derogatory characterization in the movie Zoolander, a progressive and modern Islamic democracy is at work.
By western standards, Malaysia is a relative newcomer to the world of the democratic nation state. It was only in 1963 the Federation of Malaysia fully emerged from the yoke of British colonialism. In less than 50 years, Malaysia has made significant progress on the march towards developed nation status. Its continued political stability is the envy of its S.E. Asian neighbors. The economic growth of the country has been phenomenal. The AT Kearny Foreign Policy Globalization Index for 2004 ranked Malaysia overall number 20 of the top 62 nations, with an economic ranking of 8.
Malaysia’s youthful democracy has managed to create an impressively stable environment for the approximately 60 different ethnic groups that inhabit the country and it has managed to unite a dizzying array of languages and religions.
Much of this growth, both politically and economically, has been attributed to the forward thinking form of Islamic leadership the government espouses. The recently, and overwhelmingly, re-elected Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi throughout his campaign called for a “modern and progressive” form of Islamic rule.
Of course, the growth and development of Malaysia has been a bumpy ride. With the country’s Malay-Muslim citizens dominant, with just over 50 percent of population—racial and communal politics are a constant threat. In 1969, when non-Malays made significant gains in the election deadly racial riots flared and ultimately resulted in a continual enhancement of executive, and hence Malay-Muslim, power. This was backed by a constitutional policy enshrining certain Malay rights, such as preferential education and economic status, to the loss of the other racial groups. The bias still exists, but in recent years many of the policies have been rolled back. The challenges and attempts at better racial integration are a constant topic in the media and in the political and academic worlds of Malaysia.
UMNO, the Malay-Muslim party, heads the BN (Barisan Nasional) coalition that won a landslide victory in this year’s March 21 election. That makes 11 straight—in fact, every election ever held in Malaysia has been won with UMNO at the lead. Though technically not a one-party state, the opposition coalition holds little chance of toppling the ruling government. But opposition parties, from all sides of the political spectrum, are consistently voted into governmental positions in smaller numbers.
But this doesn’t mean other voices aren’t heard. The UMNO led coalition is also comprised of the major Chinese and Indian political parties, MCA and MIC respectively, and parties representing the interests of the more than 25 ethnic groups populating Malaysian Borneo. All of the parties share a common vision of a developed and progressive state, if not necessarily a religiously Islamic state. They operate under a trickle-down mentality, if the country as an Islamic Democratic state led by the BN is doing well—then we all do well. Without the non-Muslim backing the BN coalition would most likely snap.
On the other side, PAS, the dominant opposition party, has visions of an Islamic state. In the northeast of Malaysia, where PAS have been in control in recent years, alcohol is banned and uniformed guards enforce public separation of the sexes. Faux pas by PAS leadership, like saying lipstick invites rape and demands for rigorous Islamic dress codes for women, are regularly reiterated in the ruling party controlled press.
Of course PAS’s conservative Islamic rhetoric doesn’t sit well with most of the country's Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Based on the recent election results, where the UMNO led coalition won back much of the Malaysian northeast, the idea of Shariah, the Muslim code of religious law, being implemented and the potential growth of fundamentalism in Malaysia was not wanted.
But while PAS’s position is distasteful to many, it is important to remember the conservative Islamic parties where given representation in the Malaysian democratic arena. In the northern state of Kelantan, PAS was able to retain power. Rather than ban the conservative element outright, Malaysia has allowed the voice to remain. If these voices were left to stifle, and remain unexpressed through the right to a democratic process, they may well have taken another path of expression.
Just north in the Thailand state of Pattani, which borders the PAS controlled region of Malaysia, the Thai Muslim population has largely been left out of that country's political and economic process. There, alleged separatists have been behind a series of bloody attacks in the past few months. The almost daily killings have been blamed on Islamic militants by the Thai government.
On April 28, well over 100 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks on police bases throughout southern Thailand. Local officials put the blame on Islamic separatists trained by militant groups according to the BBC. So far, Malaysia has been able to avoid these extreme outbursts of fundamentalist driven actions.
Of course PAS is not the only opposition party. Because of the dominance of the ruling coalition, parties with seemingly incompatible interests have often banded together. In the recent election PAS was linked with the National Justice Party. The NJP’s main issue is the release of former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who in 1998 was jailed in a political maneuver on trumped up charges. It seems the population no longer sees the issue as politically relevant—the party was only able to retain one seat in parliament.
Also challenging the BN was the non-religious and more liberal Democratic Action Party. The DAP broke its alliance with PAS and the NJP (they had joined with the other parties to increase the power of the oppositional coalition in the 1999 elections) and were able to win back seats in parliament.
But while Malaysia has achieved a remarkable cultural pluralism, a society largely free from political upheaval, and tremendous overall economic growth—it has not come without costs. The fast track to developed nation status has brought widespread environmental degradation, with deforestation, erosion from development, and pollution of inland and coastal waterways being a major and growing concern.
The rapid transition from third world backwater to developing nation status has meant the growth of a fully functioning civil society has lagged behind. The checks and balances of a civil society have simply not been able to be developed at the same pace of growth as the rest of Malaysia Inc.
And also of concern to many outside observers is the tight control of a seemingly free press. All printed media requires government licensing effectively curtailing the ability of oppositional voices to enter Malaysian society en masse. The two dominant English papers, controlled by parties in the ruling coalition, are often little more than cheerleaders for the government and lampooners of the opposition. The conservative PAS opposition newspaper, Harakah, is severely limited in its right to publish.
Aliran, a group dedicated to social and democratic ideals is active, however, the group’s magazine is only licensed to print in English. This effectively limits the readership to the middle class—a group already versed in the current social issues. Because it is not printed in Bahasa Melayu, the language of the dominant Malay population, a huge portion of the population backing the government lacks access to commentary on the more progressive issues of a civil society. Still, a large and growing media does exist, and dissenting voices are to be found.
Perhaps the greatest detractor of Malaysian democracy is the ISA or Internal Securities Act. The act allows the government to imprison virtually indefinitely, without trial, those they deem a threat to the national security. The act, though used effectively against some potential terrorists, has recently come under attack by Amnesty International. Amnesty demanded more than 80 Islamic militants held under the ISA must be charged or released, calling the detention without trial a violation of human rights.
The ISA has not only been used to fight terrorism. Frequently it has been used against political enemies, including NGO members and opposition politicians. Most famously in 1998 it was used to detain the reformist-minded former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. He was later brought to trial and imprisoned on dubious charges of sodomy and corruption in a maneuver widely condemned as political. He remains imprisoned today.
Ironically, this Draconian instrument, once heavily criticized by the U.S. as curtailing democratic freedom, has recently come into favor with Washington. In March of this year, Secretary for Homeland Security Tom Ridge praised such acts while pledging the U.S. was willing to work with countries using such legislation in fighting terrorism. A Reuters report said Ridge saw no “tradeoff between security and individual freedoms.” This despite obvious political abuses of such Acts the U.S. in recent years had severely condemned.
The March election, though considered accurate, had their share of problems too. BBC reports noted there were “widespread” allegations of manipulated voter registrations and concerns about phantom voters. They also said the independent watchdog group, Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections, had conducted a random sample of 3000 registered voters. In it, one in ten addresses seemed not to exist and almost half of the voters couldn’t be traced. The Electoral Commission blamed the problems on technical glitches.
The worldwide commentary on the election was generally positive. “When it comes to evolution of democracy Malaysia is a piece of good news,” said the Hong Kong Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in the New Straits Times.
It is clear that Malaysia’s democratic system is far from matured and there is much to be criticized. Yet, for all its shortcomings there exists a vibrant and functioning democratic state that has managed to unite various cultural and religious groups. It serves as a role model for the Islamic world. With voter turnout strong in the recent election, it is clear Malaysia takes the democratic process seriously. Moreover, it seems the overwhelming mandate given to the ruling coalition led by UMNO, suggests Malaysia has a strong desire to continue on a progressive path of economic and democratic development as promoted by the Barisan Nasional coalition.
The re-elected Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is seen as solidly Muslim, but moderate and honest, desiring a pattern of growth in step with the global stage and with a commitment to ending internal corruption.
The morning after the election sweep by the re-elected BN coalition, The Star newspaper attributed the victory to his leadership, “Barisan’s moderate and progressive brand of Islam as upheld and observed by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was clearly the cause for the colossal swing against the fundamentalist Islamic party in the predominately Malay-Muslim heartland. The high voter turnout, as much as 90% in some places in Terengganu (formerly controlled by PAS), was an indicator of the people’s strong endorsement of the country’s new leadership.”
Perhaps more indicative of this democratic impulse in Malaysia was the anecdotal evidence in the streets and villages of the nation during the campaign. Throughout, the city of Kuala Lumpur was covered in a daily-increasing layer of political flags and symbols. Every surface—freeway signs, trees, and car windows were covered as average people expressed their choice for the country’s next leadership.
Driving around one could spot campaign tents every few blocks in most parts of the city, often opposing parties setting up location side-by-side in hotly contested areas. Whether it was youth parading flags on the back of motos or near constant, if not sometimes-biased news coverage, it was clear Malaysia was vested in the democratic process.
In the weeks since Prime Minister Badawi’s victory there have already been a series of high profile cases cracking down on the corruption and cronyism that are the plague of young democracies. He has also reiterated the ruling party’s determination to promote a pluralistic society through national programs and improved education. All indications are that Malaysia is committed to a thriving Islamic flavored democratic state.
Even more important for the world stage is the leadership role that Malaysia and Prime Minister Badawi have taken within the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) and its calls for the end to violence and U.S. occupation in Iraq. Malaysia is scheduled to lead an OIC ministerial delegation soon with the U.S., E.U., Russia, and the U.N. for discussion of the Middle East peace process. According to local reports both Britain and the U.S. welcomed the views of the OIC in having the U.N. play a central role in both Iraq and Palestine.
While it is easy to condemn the failures of democracy in the Islamic state of Malaysia, it is important to consider how the country is succeeding. It is also necessary to consider what we, as Americans, are offering to the Islamic political world. Stepping outside the boundaries of the usual pro-American rhetoric is easy to see where the same criticisms positioned against Malaysia can be applied to our own democratic process. In fact, most of the critique sounds strangely familiar.
The sacking and imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar for trumped up sodomy and corruption charges may have no parallel, but the use of personal sexual conduct as a means to politically attack an opponent harkens back to the Clinton administration. As for polling irregularities—we only need remember Florida. And as for achieving a national mandate by dubious means think no further than the Supreme Court in the 2000 election. Our current leader failed to win the popular vote.
America’s national media, especially news organizations like Fox and arguably CNN, have proved themselves far from unbiased in the coverage of events since September 11. The corporate self-censorship and political manipulation of content by the U.S. and Western media is more effective than direct government control because the media we consume appears to be free from bias of government control. In Malaysia it is widely known who controls the press, there is no confusion about what the bias is.
The Patriot Act and surrounding legislation has severely undercut personal liberties in the U.S. In some instances, legislation like Malaysia’s ISA was studied as a model to provide suggestions for our own anti-terrorism laws. Certainly the individuals imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay are no better off than alleged Islamic militants held in Malaysia. Allegations of torture and beatings in Guantanamo Bay are becoming widespread. There are also reports the U.S. legislation, and increased powers given by it, are being used in drug cases, far beyond the scope of fighting terrorism they were originally intended for.
And as for our claim of being a secular state, take a close listen to the war and campaign rhetoric and you will get a good dose of bible speak. In God we trust—indeed.
The woes of the Islamic democratic state sound strikingly familiar to what we are dealing with in our own secular state. Where then have we achieved the moral high ground to proclaim our political system is the best and only vision suitable for the development of a democratic state in the Islamic world?
It is time to broaden the discussion beyond the binary paradigm of East vs. West, of Islam vs. Christianity, and of American democracy vs. supposedly inept Islamic states who require our total assistance. While these polarities may be useful for sound bites and winning public opinion polls, they do little to unmask the reality of the Islamic world in all of its political complexities. It is clear that Islamic countries like Malaysia demonstrate a role model better suited and more palatable for those in the Islamic world.
If our hopes are to eradicate terrorism and to promote world stability, then we would do well to broaden the public discussion to include other models of democracy and a better understanding of current Islamic states. It might also be necessary to give up our hope of exclusive economic control in places like Iraq under the guise of “rebuilding the country.”
But most importantly, we would also be wise to consider those in the Islamic world already have a model of a functioning, modern, and democratic state already in place.
They just might not need to copy ours after all.
John Tribbett is a freelance journalist currently living in Malaysia.


Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"