Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak woos Islamic heartland, mixing religion and politics to survive
The approach may deliver Najib votes, but it also carries risks in a country with large Chinese and Indian minorities and a history of ethnic violence
In Malaysia’s Islamic heartland, a door to Hollywood has opened. For the first time in more than 20 years, the city of Kuala Terengganu has a cinema, showing blockbusters like Baywatch and Wonder Woman. But the darkened hall is dotted with infrared cameras to monitor theater-going couples.
“Are you looking at the screen, or are you doing a bad thing?” said Samiun Salleh, general manager of the Terengganu State Economic Development Corporation, a partner in the cinema.
The effort to mollify local clerics is a political one in the conservative Islamic northeastern state governed by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition. With a federal election due within 12 months, Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is seeking to burnish its credentials with Muslim voters.
To do so, Umno has formed an unlikely arrangement with its long-term nemesis, the hardline opposition Pan-Malyasian Islamic Party (PAS). At the Centre of the thaw – they call it informal cooperation – is a rapprochement between Najib and PAS chief Hadi Awang.
The move is simple maths for Najib: more than 60 per cent of Malaysians are Muslim, and 50 per cent are ethnic Malays, many of them in rural areas. He needs their votes for Umno to extend its 60 years in power, and closer ties with PAS may help. For Hadi, it gives him the ear of the prime minister and a better shot at influencing government policy.
“The issues of race, ethnicity, the Malay language and especially Islam are close to the heart of the Malays,” said Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, a professor of politics and international studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia. “By working together to uphold Islam, either through the implementation of sharia law or strengthening the position of Islam within the administration, this serves both parties well.”
Najib’s efforts have widened an existing rift between PAS and other parties in the opposition alliance, some of whom objected to PAS’s push for sharia law for Muslims. PAS has now formally abandoned the opposition, raising the risk multiple candidates compete against Umno in each seat.
PAS and Umno have had a long and at times rancorous rivalry dating back to the late 1970s, driven largely by personality politics. But Hadi has appeared side by side with Najib at several public events in the past year.
Najib has allowed Hadi to introduce legislation to broaden the power of Islamic courts nationally. The bill would increase maximum jail terms and lashes with a cane for religious infringements.
“PAS is flexible,” according to Hadi’s son, Muhammad Khalil, 40, who is national director of the PAS youth wing.
“We are willing to work with any quarters or parties,” he said last month at the party’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. “What matters is that it benefits Islam and that it benefits Malay Muslims.
“We put Islam as the foundation, and Malays must be the foundation for the country’s ruling political system.”
Terengganu is PAS’s spiritual home. It’s where Hadi Awang hails from. PAS has three of the state’s eight federal seats, while Umno has four.
Before oil and gas discoveries off Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast in the early 1970s, it was one of the country’s poorest states. But there’s been rapid industrialisation and development over the past 30 years, and the state has a burgeoning tourism industry.
PAS has aligned with Umno before: it joined the broader Barisan Nasional coalition in 1972 but was expelled five years later. In 1981, Hadi Awang was interpreted as saying Muslims who supported Umno were infidels, a remark his son said was taken out of context.
Now, Najib and PAS leaders are jointly advocating for the ethnic-minority Islamic Rohingya in Myanmar. At the Umno general assembly in December, Najib warned Islam would be threatened if the opposition won power. In April, he wrote a blog post detailing the steps he’d taken to protect Muslims’ welfare.
Yet while the approach may deliver Najib votes, it also brings risks in a country with large Chinese and Indian minorities and a history of ethnic violence, including before Malaysia’s split with Singapore in 1965. Chinese and Indian voters are bastions of opposition support.
Prioritising Islamic voters would “be extremely harmful” to Malaysia’s harmony, said Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser to Malaysia’s Pacific Research Centre.
“It would also inadvertently nurture a hot bed for misguided religious extremists and fundamentalists to spread their twisted versions of intoxicating ideologies,” he said.
The weakening of Islamic State in the Middle East has led to warnings that fighters may return to Southeast Asia, raising the risk of greater home-grown radicalism or the re-energising of localised extremist groups.
Umno’s Kuala Terengganu division chief Sabri Alwi said he was not concerned about the PAS cooperation.
“We are Muslim, PAS is also Muslim, we can stand together,” Sabri said before an event to give cash hand-outs to lower-income earners during Hari Raya, the holiday marking the end of the Islamic month of fasting.
But architect Kamarul Bahrin, 62, who designed Kuala Terengganu’s football stadium and the state museum, claimed otherwise. A PAS member since the early 1980s until recently, and a lawmaker since 2013, Kamarul said the party had moved in recent years to weed out more moderate members.
“In PAS today, all they want are yes men,” Kamarul said in an interview at his offices in the city. Kamarul was part of a group that broke away from PAS to form a party known as Amanah – or “trust” – in September 2015. Amanah has joined the opposition alliance.
“This election is crucial, it’s make or break,” said Kamarul. If Umno and PAS continue to mix religion with politics “we will end up as two Malaysias”.
It’s a careful dance, according to Kuala Terengganu’s PAS chief, Wan Sukairi Wan Abdullah. “PAS equals Hamas,” he said, referring to the Palestinian fundamentalist organisation. “And Umno equals Donald Trump. The two don’t mix.”
“The friendliness is a new strategy born out of mature politics. We are working together for the sake of the people and Islam. That is important.”
After about five months the Kuala Terengganu multiplex has had no reports of bad behaviour, according to Samiun. Proof, he said, that compromise is possible.
“So far, there are no complaints, they are very happy,” he said of the local clerics. “No bad things have happened.”