Emerging role of religion in Malaysian politics

THE most important factor in Malaysian politics is race.

Actually, that sentence would have been more accurate in the past tense - race was the most important factor. The picture today is more complicated. Race remains important, but another form of essentialism - religion; specifically, Islam - is beginning to play a central role.

That is the conclusion suggested by a new study by Dr Heng Pek Koon, a Malaysian academic now based at the American University in Washington.

Some of her findings were surprising. A 'random' survey she conducted among 501 college students in the period between July 1999 and August 2000, revealed that non-Malays were less exercised now than they used to be about the perceived pro-Malay bias of the New Economic Policy (NEP).

When asked to rank the changes they would like to see in the NEP, most of her Chinese respondents ranked better infrastructure first and 'no change' second. Only 13 per cent said the NEP should be terminated (5th), and 11 per cent said it should be implemented more fairly (6th).

They might feel differently, of course, once they entered the workforce, and grappled with the realities of the job market, as Dr Heng told me in a telephone interview. Nevertheless, she felt that her findings did indicate that the NEP's pro-bumiputera policies were no longer a matter of 'widespread discontent' among non-Malays, as they were in the 1970s.

Indeed, Malay students expressed greater dissatisfaction with the NEP. 'No change' was their first-ranked choice, but a fairer NEP was second - a reflection of the widespread impression among Malays that the way NEP has been implemented has led to 'widening intra-Malay income gap', with a patronage system favouring a small class of the politically-connected at the expense of the rakyat (people).

Dr Heng's survey confirms what has been anecdotally obvious to observers of Malaysia for some time: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's policies have proved more popular among non-Malays than among Malays.

Among Dr Heng's respondents, only 34 per cent of Malays ranked him as the politician they admired most (even former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim scored a marginally higher 35 per cent). By contrast, 60 per cent of Chinese students ranked him first, while among Indians, he scored a whopping 70 per cent.

The man whom Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, sacked from the ruling Umno for being too radical a Malay nationalist, has become more popular among non-Malays than even the Tunku was. The reasons for this are many and complex. Dr Heng listed a few in a recent talk at Singapore's Institute of South-east Asian Studies.

One, Dr Mahathir has succeeded in his nation-building efforts. Students of all races had a strong sense of 'a common Malaysian national identity'. About 70 per cent of Dr Heng's respondents said that the concept of 'Bangsa Malaysia' was more important to them than their own ethnic identities.

Two, the economic liberalisation Dr Mahathir set in train in the mid-1980s, together with his liberalisation of education and cultural policies, opened up greater opportunities for 'non-Malay economic advancement, educational attainment and cultural expression'.

But three, the growing Islamisation of Malaysia's Malay majority, together with their disillusionment with Umno's money politics and perceived corruption, has led to the erosion of Malay support for Umno.

The growing religiosity of Malays was among the most striking of Dr Heng's findings. 'Islam and the Malay language were top-ranked by 62 per cent of Malay students as the most important markers of a common Malaysian identity.'

When asked to identify the key attributes of Malay identity, 72 per cent of Malays said Islam, placing it above Malay language and culture. And when asked about their views about 'existing state policies governing religious practices', 55 per cent said they wanted more Islamic laws, 24 per cent were satisfied with prevailing practices, and 21 per cent said they wanted more religious freedom.

Such views were reflected in the political preferences of Malay students. When asked which party they would support in the next general election, 50 per cent chose Parti Islam SeMalaysia, the Islamic party, and only 34 per cent picked Umno. By contrast, 46 per cent of Chinese students said they would back the ruling Barisan Nasional.

Are these shifts systemic, or do they reflect a temporary swing of the political pendulum, accentuated perhaps by the continued anger many Malays feel over Anwar's treatment? And more to the point, can Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, due to succeed Dr Mahathir soon, stem the erosion of Malay support for Umno?

Few doubt the ruling party will prevail in the next general election, perhaps even retaining its two-thirds parliamentary majority. For one thing, there has been a judicious gerrymandering of constituencies, with urban areas getting more seats at the expense of rural areas and the representation of Umno-stronghold states strengthened. For another, many, including Malays, would be disposed to give Datuk Seri Abdullah a chance. The new man with a reputation for honesty may well reverse the 'Anwar factor', said Dr Heng.

But in the long term, it is anyone's guess if the growing Islamisation of Malays is reversible. It is striking that Islam, not Malay language and culture, is now the chief marker of Malay identity.

This 'Arabisation' of Malay culture is perhaps not surprising, given than more than 100,000 Malaysian Muslims have in recent years studied at Middle Eastern and Pakistani religious schools. At this very moment, there are an estimated 40,000 studying in those parts, according to Dr Heng.

It remains to be seen if national service and the re-introduction of English as a medium of instruction in national schools will accomplish one of Dr Mahathir's chief aims - the formation of a 'Melayu Baru', at once Islamic and yet modern.