Kuala Lumpur. When a Muslim group set a target of one million participants for its anti-apostasy gathering last Saturday, it was inevitable that it would fail to live up to the billing.

Only 5,000 people showed up at the venue – an 80,000-capacity stadium on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

But while the poor turnout was hailed by some as a victory for the “moderates”, 5,000 is not a paltry number and the rally did gain significant attention.

It was organized by Himpun, an ad-hoc group of non-governmental organizations, to protest against alleged Christian proselytization of Muslims. This came after a raid in August by the Selangor religious authorities on a church where several suspected Muslim converts were attending a dinner.

Many Muslims regard apostasy to be one of the gravest sins.

Declaring that it is not linked to any political party, Himpun appears to be the latest Malay-Muslim pressure group to spring up in a turbulent political landscape to push a conservative pro-Malay agenda.

In Malaysia, Malay and Muslim causes tend to be inextricable from one another because by law, all Malays are Muslims.

After race riots in 1969, this group has benefited from pro-Malay economic policies – for everything from education to business – to help the majority community catch up with the wealthier Chinese. Malay Muslims make up 60 per cent of Malaysians, Chinese 25 per cent, with Indians and other indigenous groups making up the rest.

But after the 2008 general election, when minority communities deserted the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, Prime Minister Najib Razak tried to roll back the pro-Malay economic policies to try to win these groups back and to jump-start an economy that had become uncompetitive.

Hardliners baulked.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat’s multiracial centrist political position also left little room for such hardliners to seek support in the opposition. So they formed their own groups.

The most prominent is the Malay supremacist group Perkasa, led by independent MP Ibrahim Ali.

Initially dismissed as too extreme to succeed, it has shown itself to be persistent, energetic and, to some extent, influential on public opinion.

“We should take them seriously as it shows a certain insecurity spreading among the Malays,” said political analyst Ooi Kee Beng, from Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Observers noted that it is natural for pressure groups to flourish after a strongman steps down, as Tun Mahathir Mohamad did in 2003.

“People now see politicians as being accountable to them, not their masters,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who heads the libertarian think-tank Ideas.

Other emerging groups include those lobbying for the wider use of English in schools and for gay rights. The Malay groups, however, are the loudest because their agenda resonates with the biggest crowds.

Some Malays, for so long the favored recipients of economic opportunities, fear they have the most to lose from changes to the status quo, especially amid a slowing economy. They feel threatened by minority communities which are no longer afraid to speak up and demand equal rights as Malaysians.

It is not just change from without. The Malay community itself has grown increasingly diverse, with urbane, liberal Malays rejecting the hardline positions of Perkasa and Himpun.

Some in the opposition have accused the ruling Umno party of using these new Malay groups to stoke Malay insecurity in order to unite the community under the shelter of the BN. To some extent, Umno has gained from this heightened race rhetoric but it is not entirely clear-cut.

The Himpun rally, for instance, attracted more open support from some opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia politicians than from Umno.

Despite their ad-hoc nature, these new players have already had an impact. Perkasa, for instance, forced the government to backpedal on dismantling its pro-Malay economic policies.

Following its complaints, the government agreed to allocate at least 30 per cent of the contracts for the Mass Rapid Transit project to Malay firms, and set up a new agency, Teraju, to protect Malay interests under Datuk Seri Najib’s economic reforms.

Wan Saiful noted that Perkasa successfully mobilized public opinion through mass events. Meanwhile, it lobbied the government behind the scenes.

“The government does take them seriously because it has no choice,” he said.

Some analysts say it is not an entirely bad thing to have more open debate.

“Malaysia is in its post-strongman era, and is in the midst of transiting to something else,” said Ooi. “It’s a breath of fresh air but we don’t always know what to do with fresh air.” – STRAITS TIMES INDONESIA