Samsul Said / Courtesy Reuters A worker cleans up a pool inside the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin mosque in Putrajaya, October 9, 2013

Malaysian Malaise

Letter From Kuala Lumpur

Almost half a year has passed since Malaysia’s contentious general election, in which the country’s ruling party, Barisan Nasional, or National Front (BN), lost the popular vote for the first time since it took power in 1957 but managed to secure a narrow majority in parliament. Even that victory, many believe, was won through fraud: The oppositions alleges that the BN gerrymandered and flew in phantom voters. When the election results were announced, Malaysians of all stripes took to the streets in protest; an estimated 120,000 showed up at a stadium outside the capital on May 8, the largest demonstration in recent memory. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, vowed never to surrender the fight, and in the months that followed, thousands gathered under the slogan “Black 505,” referring to the date of the election, and wore black as a sign of mourning. Those who participated, and even some nonpartisan observers, believed that some form of political reform was just around the corner.

But the revolutionary spirit has largely died. Last week, Bersih, a nongovernmental organization campaigning for fair elections, set up a weeklong publicly funded People’s Tribunal to hear from anyone willing to speak about their experiences with vote rigging, vote buying, and intimidation. In three months’ time, it will produce recommendations about how to improve the electoral system. However, since the tribunal has no legal standing and the government has criticized its proceedings, change seems far-fetched. Bersih’s latest effort is a last-ditch attempt on behalf of Malaysian citizens to articulate their grievances after months of more aggressive tactics that went nowhere.

After Malaysians fought so hard to oust the BN at the ballot box (an extraordinary number of opposition supporters canvassed neighborhoods throughout the country and took to the polls), it is strange that they would give up so quickly -- and without a violent crackdown. The reversal seems all the more puzzling given the government’s recent adoption of an increasingly conservative brand of Islam that many Malaysians do not support

In another sense, though, the waning of the protest movement is no surprise at all. The stock market is at an all-time high and consumer spending is on the rise. The government lowered interest rates and set off a buying spree of home and cars. It also announced its intentions to increase cash payouts to the poor gradually, from 500 ringgit ($150) to 1,200 ringgit ($392); build a million low-cost homes; and lower car prices by up to 30 percent over the next five years.

For Malays -- Muslims who make up 60 percent of the population and form the BN’s main constituency -- economic policy has always trumped democratic practices. In the years after Malaysia won independence from the British, economic disparities stoked ethnic tensions. In 1969, the discontent incited race riots: Malay protesters decried the country’s Chinese minority for controlling the bulk of the economy. Whereas Malays tended to live in more rural areas and work as field hands, the Chinese and Indians who had immigrated to urban areas developed successful businesses that made them very wealthy. The government responded to the Malay outcry with its so-called New Economic Policy, which attempted to redistribute wealth to Malays through quotas for public scholarships and employment in the civil service. This directly undermined the Chinese and Indian minority populations and continues to be a source of resentment in those communities today. The policy also granted Malays public funds to establish Islamic banks and schools that would protect their religious interests. Economic rebalancing and Islamization thus came hand in hand.

The result of the policy was a large, urban, and devout Malay middle class. That population is both financially secure and entitled to additional government protection; still, old habits die hard. “Malays have been led to depend on the government for many things, from basic economic security to ensuring that Malaysia remains a Muslim country,” says Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, the managing editor of Projek Dialog, a Web site that promotes interfaith discussion. “For decades, Malays have relied on the state to safeguard their position in a very pluralistic setting.”

The reliance has been mutual. The BN also depends on Malays to maintain its political power. However, the relationship has somewhat weakened as many Malays, particularly in urban centers, have started to feel increasingly financially stable. The government has realized that it cannot rely on economic policies alone to harness Malay support. And that is why experts such as Premesh Chandran, the founder of Malaysia’s leading independent news site, Malaysiakini, believe the government has resorted to conservative religious rhetoric in recent months. According to him, inflammatory language sparks fears that non-Muslims are overrunning the country. In reality, however, the ethnic dynamics in Malaysia have not changed considerably over the last few decades. Non-Muslims are not in fact increasing in numbers or economic strength. 

Still, on a daily basis, the BN government resorts to extremism. In July, two Malaysian bloggers were imprisoned without bail for posting a photo of themselves eating pork and greeting Malays fasting for Ramadan. Then, after a Malay animal trainer posted a video showing her washing dogs, which are considered unclean by Muslims, the government charged her with sedition. In August, a Singaporean hotel owner allowed Buddhists to use a Muslim prayer room on his property. The police arrested him, and the government revoked his resident status. And just a few weeks ago, Malaysia’s home minister told journalists that use of “Allah” was the exclusive privilege of Muslims and that the government would prosecute any others who uttered it.

The government has also capitalized on international events, including the global war on terror, the Arab Spring, and recent developments in Syria, to reinforce its position as a defender of Islam. “In key moments of stress, politicians love to talk about how Malaysia is confronting the same problems as other Muslim countries,” says Tom Pepinsky, an associate professor of government at Cornell University.

Malaysians have had varied reactions to the government’s activities. Some conservative Malays have come out in support of the heavy-handed action, but there has also been a great deal of disapproval. Chandran tells me that a large segment of Malaysia’s ethnicities, particularly in urban areas, realizes that the government’s assertions are a cynical strategy to mobilize support. “The conservative mood in the country is really about the political situation,” he says, “not so much about whether people are ideologically adhering to conservative interpretations of Islam or not.”

The BN’s methods are not working as well as they once did, however. The party began taking up strong Islamist positions before the election, and although those mobilized some conservative Malays, they did not help with the larger Malay population -- and certainly did not win the government any points with Chinese and Indian voters. Before and after the election, Malaysians of all ethnicities and socio-economic classes seemed disenchanted with a political system that hinges so heavily on race and religion. Merdeka Center, an independent pollster, reported that a significant number of Malays voted against the BN in May. And fewer Chinese and Indians than usual ticked “Barisan Nasional” on the ballot. As the BN continues to lose its grip on Malaysia, it keeps returning to Islamism as a political strategy, which only serves to alienate the Malaysian electorate. For now at least, they are not willing to jeopardize economic stability to bring about a change. Still, as the election in May revealed, that might not last for long.

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