Malaysia: Battle For The Heartland


Dr James Chin

The 'battle' for UMNO's top two posts are all but over- Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi are the only two candidates. Mahathir's only potential opponent, former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, was unable to get the required number of nominations. This is hardly surprising given that no UMNO members want to incur the wrath of Mahathir.

While the nation's attention was focussed on the upcoming UMNO party elections, a far more interesting political battle is being waged in the Malay heartland states of Terengganu and Kelantan.

The Chinese ground is presently uncertain for the Barisan Nasional (BN) due to public overtures made by the new PAS state government in Terengganu. One of its first decisions was to lift the prohibition on pig-farming (an exclusively Chinese concern given the Islamic abhorrence to pork) which was banned by the previous BN government. The PAS government also promised to approve permits for temples and churches- something that the previous government refused to consider. Consumption of alcohol is allowed as long as drinkers are non-Muslims and outside the public-eye. PAS also appointed an ethnic Chinese to sit on its consultative council to provide the views of the Chinese community to the new government. PAS further claims that at its next general assembly, it will discuss a proposal to allow Chinese and Indians to be full members. At present, non-Muslims can only be associate members, a category that does not afford them voting rights or allow them to be party candidates in elections.

Collectively these actions have seriously undermined the BN's portrayal of PAS as a fundamentalist party that would render the non-Muslims as second class citizens if it comes to power. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the main Chinese component of the BN, is worried that more Chinese will be convinced that future PAS victories need not necessary lead to emasculation of Chinese religious and cultural rights. In successive elections MCA had successfully used the 'PAS/Islamic state' card to scare the Chinese (and non-Muslims) into voting for the BN.

Since PAS won Terengganu, it has achieved a high degree of popularity by reversing many of the previous administration's policies. The new government has abolished tolls on the main section of the highway, abolished quit rent, introducing a five-day week and introduced interest-free loans to government servants.

UMNO's party machinery in Terengganu appeared to be unable to counter PAS. For more than two decades UMNO politics in the state was dominated by Wan Mokhtar Ahmad, who ruled as menteri-besar (chief minister) for 25 years. Wan was the classic old-style UMNO politician who refused to groom anyone and destroyed all potential rivals from the state. When he forced Mahathir to re-nominate him as chief minister before the election, most UMNO leaders in the state simply crossed over to PAS while others stayed at home, giving PAS a landslide victory. The electoral loss also led to more divisions within Terengganu UMNO when all of Wan Mokhtar's closest aides were replaced after the election.

WATCHPOINT: Expect the mainstream press to continue their attacks on the PAS-led governments in Kelantan and Terengganu after the May UMNO elections.


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