CANBERRA: What’s happening with Malaysia? The country has long been viewed in Australia as not only an especially friendly Southeast Asian neighbour — the “recalcitrant” Mahathir Mohammad excepted, though he’s been retired six years — but also a model of middle-class success and tolerance in that region.
Today, however, the country is having a hard time holding things together, in the face of religious and ethnic divides, political battles, and economic challenges.
Michael Danby, who chairs Australia’s foreign affairs subcommittee, told parliament last Tuesday night that “fellow democrats around Asia are flabbergasted at events unfolding in Kuala Lumpur.”
He was referring to the second trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy.
“For the second time,” Danby said, “the Malaysian legal system is being manipulated by supporters of the incumbent government to drive Malaysia’s best-known leader, Anwar Ibrahim, out of national politics.
“For the second time, documents are being forged, witnesses are being coerced, and evidence is being fabricated. This trial, like the first trial, is a disgrace to Malaysia, a country that aspires to democratic norms.”
Danby said it was long past time that Malaysia repealed these British colonial laws, which could not then be used for such political purposes.
“In the second place, everyone in Malaysia, and everyone in the international legal community, knows that Anwar is innocent of these charges.”
The underlying problem is that Anwar, leader of the People’s Justice Party, is the first charismatic Malay opposition politician with sufficient appeal for Malay voters to pose a real threat to Umno’s 52-year hold on power.
This episode indicates that it’s also long past time Umno took a spell in opposition, as Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is doing.
Declared a middle-income country by the World Bank several years ago, Malaysia has grown accustomed to patronising its giant neighbour Indonesia — even though it still rankles that Malaysia itself continues to be patronised by its tiny neighbour Singapore.
Now, though, it is Indonesia — the raucous democracy with a rapidly acquired capacity to change leaders and governments peaceably, the world’s largest Muslim country renowned for its moderation and pluralism — that is receiving international praise, with US President Barack Obama flying across the world to visit (with a side-trip to Australia).
In 2008, last year and — as estimated by IMA Asia — this year, Malaysia’s economic growth figures are 4.6 per cent, -2.8 per cent, and 4 per cent. Indonesia’s are 6.1 per cent, 4.5 per cent and 5.6 per cent.
Since taking office last April, Prime Minister Najib Razak has started to dismantle the 40-year-old New Economic Policy, Sydney-based business consulting firm IMA notes.
It says: “While the NEP did little for ordinary Malays, its supposed beneficiaries, it enriched a handful of businessmen and contributed to corruption in Umno.”
Najib also has to tackle the over-reliance on oil money — for more than 40 per cent of government revenues — while just 2.3 million of the 28 million population pay income tax. And he needs to open more sectors of the economy to foreign investors.
That’s hard to do, while at the same time grappling with the plethora of problems resulting from Malaysia’s restrictive religious laws, reflecting Islam’s role as the state religion.
Queensland University political scientist David Martin Jones, currently working in Malaysia, says: “There is now an interesting collection of scandals dating from the first Anwar case in 1998 that coincides with the fragmentation of Umno-controlled politics.”
One such scandal comprised the tragic case of Lina Joy, aged 45, who was born into a Muslim family but began attending a church in 1990 and was baptised in 1998, and naturally wished to marry her Christian fiance. But marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men is forbidden under Malaysian law, and after years of battling the authorities in the courts, in 2007 she was refused permission to convert formally.
This year, Malaysia has seen its simmering religious and racial conflicts boil over after a ruling of the High Court that the Malay language pages of the Catholic Church’s weekly newspaper, the Herald, could use the term “Allah” as a translation for “God”.
Malaysian Christians say they have used “Allah” for God for centuries.
The government is appealing the decision. But in the meantime, it has triggered violent protests from Muslim Malays who comprise 60 per cent of the population, and who claim exclusive rights over the Arabic word “Allah”. Christians comprise just 9 per cent of Malaysians.
Eleven churches, a Sikh temple and two Muslim prayer rooms have been attacked so far, as a result of the row, and the severed heads of three wild boars — considered unclean by Muslims — with their mouths stuffed with bank notes, in plastic bags, were found outside two mosques.
The High Court last April sentenced to death two policemen who were assigned to the office of Najib Razak, the then deputy prime minister and defence minister. They were found guilty of murdering a Mongolian woman who had had a relationship with Abdul Razak Baginda, a defence analyst for a think tank, and had translated for him on a deal to buy submarines from France.
Abdul Razak, arrested for abetting the murder, was acquitted. But the motives for the policemen to have killed Atlantuyaa — by explosives — remain murky.
Martin Jones says: “Malay political scandals and the cynicism they engender, together with the bitter debate over the ‘Allah affair’, are seriously fragmenting the Malay community, whilst minority communities are increasingly rejecting the Umno model of Satu Malaysia (1 Malaysia). I suspect this portends some trouble ahead for the Malay political process.”
Razak has launched a multimedia 1 Malaysia campaign to promote the virtues of “perseverance, a culture of excellence, acceptance, loyalty, education, humility, integrity, and meritocracy.”
This looks to be a hurdle too high for a political establishment whose credibility is too low, for an economy that for two years has suffered net outflows of foreign investment, and for a culture suffering some confusion.
Jones points out: “It’s somewhat ironic that an ostensibly puritanical political culture that won’t contemplate a Beyonce concert seems to lap up details of Anwar’s alleged penetration of his aide.”
The singer Beyonce last October cancelled a second planned concert in Malaysia after accusations by Islamic conservatives that her show was immoral. She scored a huge hit when she flew instead to a Muslim neighbour with less stringent rules on dress or behaviour: Indonesia. — The Australian