IN no other democratic elections does religion play such a consistently crucial and entrenched role as in Malaysia. Just look at the rhetoric spewed forth by the politicians during this 14th general election period.
Pas, traditionally, uses religion to woo voters, often saying that other parties are not “Islamic” enough.
In its national and state manifestos, Pas claims that it is “offering Islamic governance” and “more Islamic elements”, including hudud punishments for violating certain “perceivedly” syariah prescribed practices, such as a spot fine on Muslim women who fail to wear the hijab in public.
In past elections, there would be a war of words between Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Reportedly, Hadi had accused Dr Mahathir of “bullying and buying” Pas members and leaders, and depriving the state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu, the two states under the control of Pas at various stages during Dr Mahathir’s 22-year rule, of their fair share of petroleum royalties.
Dr Mahathir fired his own broadside, castigating the ulama for not countering the infamous Pas decree pronounced by Hadi — Amanat Hadi — in the 1980s, which allegedly declared that those who supported BN were infidels.
BN under Najib, especially in GE14, is sensibly rising above this psychological war of words between the two opposition groups (Pas and the opposition pact) over a subject that on its own can never win the election.
Najib and other Umno leaders are adopting an all-inclusive and proactive message that, “while the position of Islam as the federal religion will continue to be preserved, the rights and freedoms to embrace and practise other religions are still protected by the government”.
BN’s pledge to establish a special non-Muslim unit in the Prime Minister’s Department, “to promote dialogue on equality and mutual understanding between races, and to “continue to disburse grants to all registered religious institutions that seek to implement programmes of understanding and harmony among the people”, is as crucial to nation building as it is true to the Malaysian Constitution.
This approach is a continuum going back to the founding fathers of post-independence Malaysia, including Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister and his successor, Tun Abdul Razak, Najib’s father, who stressed that the “future of our country depends on one important thing, that is on the unity of our people of various races”.
Former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose father was a noted learned scholar in religion, went a step further in declaring that “harmony between the various communities and religions in Malaysia is not an optional luxury; it is a necessity”.
This inclusive approach is neither at the expense nor of the marginalisation of the majority Bumiputeras and Islam.
On the contrary, thanks to the founding principles of the rakyat and Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, the Bumiputera and Muslim citizens who constitute 68.6 per cent of the 31.7 million population enjoy a special position.
The Bumiputera population is projected to top 70.7 per cent in 2030, thus the single most important constituency in Malaysian politics by far.
Malaysian parties historically operate under ethnic and religious grounds, which, in some respect, resembles a sectarian democracy.
Actually, BN has done more than any other party since independence to defend Islam and strengthening the Bumiputera through the New Economic Policy and its various initiatives.
Party manifestos especially representing the Bumiputera electorate are filled with pledges to defend Islam and strengthen the Bumiputera Economic Transformation 2.0 agenda.
In fact, Section 12 of the BN manifesto precisely pledged the former and 16 other pledges which the opposition is not in a position to deliver.
These includes establishing a progressive Al-Quran University, with the aim of producing 125,000 huffaz (one who memorises the Quran) with professional qualifications in science, mathematics and engineering; ensuring that Malaysia becomes a leader in the global halal industry; establishing a committee on the harmonisation of syariah and civil courts; introducing a syariah-compliant home sales and purchase agreement; and, increasing the quality of haj and umrah management services.
In addition, BN also promises to establish the national syariah judicial council, to be chaired by the prime minister, a consultative body to streamline issues relating to syariah legal and judicial matters in Malaysia, and a special court council on marriage, custody (hadhanah) and maintenance (nafkah), beginning with the Federal Territories Syariah Court, to expedite the hearing and resolution of cases.
The writer is an independent London-based economist and writer