Malaysia: “Don’t Mention The Law!”


Clive S. Kessler

Dr Mahathir began the year 2001 on the back foot; one year later he is again in charge. Since Anwar Ibrahim’s ‘rebellion’ in 1997, well before the 1999 elections, the Barisan National (BN) government had been beleaguered by a wide popular front of opposition forces; during 2001 the Prime Minister repolarised Malaysian politics on a new axis: a massing of all other political forces under United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) generalship against the Islamist Parti se-Islam Malaysia (PAS). The entente between PAS and the anticlericalist and non-’Malay-centric’ Democratic Action Party (DAP), linchpin of the Barisan Alternatif opposition coalition, shattered under heavy BN-orchestrated pressure. The ensuing isolation of PAS was soon reinforced by Dr Mahathir’s adroit handling, as a leading international Muslim moderate as well as domestic strongman, of the events of 11 September 2001.

Emboldened, Dr Mahathir now took the fight to his cornered adversary. It was pointless for PAS to call for Malaysia to become an Islamic state; it already was one, he averred. This insistence he and his spin-masters based on the contention that an Islamic state was one that operated, and was internationally recognised as operating, under Muslim leadership and on Islamic principles. Significantly, this is something rather less than the strict-constructionist shari’a-based polity for which PAS clamours. Yet the very way in which the UMNO advanced this claim, in a pamphlet from the Information Department suggesting that the UMNO would eventually do by stealth what PAS demanded be done explicitly and without delay, generated considerable disquiet among Malaysian non-Muslims, many of whom, perhaps for the first time, began to question, and to assert their right as Malaysian citizens to question, the implications for all of its diverse citizens of Malaysia becoming an Islamic state. The pamphlet was soon suppressed. No longer were non-Muslims ready to abstain from expressing views on what many had hitherto been prepared to concede was a matter simply for Malaysia’s Muslims to decide for themselves.

An extraordinary crowd of many hundreds of concerned Malaysians thronged in early 2002 into a Catholic church hall to hear the question debated by government and PAS spokesmen, gently prodded from the side by long-time DAP boss Lim Kit Siang, now released from his entangling alliance with PAS. What they offered was as worrying as it was evasive. UMNO reasserted its view that a state committed to Islamic concepts of social justice was an Islamic state. Accepting that minimalist criterion, PAS polemically responded that Malaysia, where the state did not offer equal and impartial treatment to government and opposition supporters, was no such thing. Neither side discussed what it would mean to create in Malaysia a state based upon a thoroughgoing implementation of conventionally understood shari’a law, including the notorious hudud punishments of stoning and amputation and the refusal to give full weight to evidence provided by women and non-Muslims. UMNO was too cowardly to say that it was opposed to such a regime while PAS, still hopeful of winning significant non-Muslim support or at least passive consent, was too opportunistic and cynical to say that it was really for such a polity. To evident and mounting public resentment, wary ideologues on both sides heeded the same pragmatic imperative, ‘don’t mention the law!’

Yet debate is not so easily muffled. Aware that it will be no short or simple struggle to vanquish the Islamists, and recognising that such a campaign cannot be waged solely by establishment politicians, leading government strategists and spokesmen, including those who orchestrate public opinion through the government-oriented mass media, began to call upon the moderate Malay middle class to find their voices, to stand up and be counted, and to give assertive expression to their moderation. It is unclear whether this vast class of Malays, created by UMNO developmentalist policies since the 1970s, are still capable after decades of habitual deference and ingrained prudence of knowing their own thoughts and finding their voices. But if they can, then it is clear that the consequences of their doing so will extend far beyond whatever Dr Mahathir and his grand strategists expect or imagine.

Ironically, then, the values and practices of ‘civil society’ may end up being projected on the screen of contemporary Malaysian politics, not by Anwar Ibrahim as ‘reformasi’, but, in his last great campaign against conservative and obscurantist Islamism, by Dr Mahathir himself. Already, this struggle is under way. In February the Malaysian Association of Muslim Religions Scholars (PUM: Persatuan Ulama Malaysia) presented to the Council of Rulers a memorandum urging action against a number of prominent Islamic modernists, on the grounds that, by questioning how the ulama (religious scholars) play their role and exercise their judgment, these analysts – who included a noted non-Muslim scholar of Islam (and patient voice for knowledgeable interfaith dialogue and conciliation) - had insulted Islam itself.

UMNO and government leaders, apparently aware of the advantages to their own cause of protracted public dispute over the claims of the ulama to be the unchallengeable ‘successors of the Prophet’, far from either silencing the ulama or rushing to support their critics, or even seeking to clarify the issue, have instead left the critics, including some who have until now not generally been publicly ‘quotable’ in the mainstream media, to defend themselves - and are seemingly prepared to allow them considerable scope to do so. ‘Let the debate be heard,’ government spokesmen simply say, for the moment at least. The cost to the vulnerable critics of the ulama may be as great as the low-risk benefits to the government, especially to Dr Mahathir himself who, rather than the isolated modernist intellectuals, is the real target of the Islamist and PAS-inclining ulama.

WATCHPOINT: Expect further escalation of public polemics against PAS and its surrogates, possibly leading to an early election in late 2002 or early 2003.


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