Losing liberal Malaysia

It’s hard to miss Siti Kasim, with her mane of platinum-dyed hair and a laugh that moves quickly from a mischievous chuckle to a full-throated roar. But as she holds forth in a Kuala Lumpur café, the only interruption is a group of three middle-aged ladies. Two are fans, one sheepishly asks if she is a singer.

“Haters never come forward,” Kasim says, laughing. “Maybe they think I’m such a bitch they don’t dare to come forward and say it to my face.”

It’s a far cry from the abuse she receives daily online. Kasim, a Malay Muslim lawyer and activist who has spoken up in defence of Malaysia’s LGBT community and warned publicly against what she calls the “Islamization” of the country, has become something of a lightning rod for hardliners, amid shrinking space for public discourse around religion and identity in a country that, at least theoretically, acknowledges its plurality of race and faith.

Growing conservatism at the grassroots, both in rural areas and amongst the urban working class, a resurgent Islamist party, a ferociously charged social media environment and decades of ethnically-charged politicking by the ruling party have combined to create an environment where moderate voices and opposition figures are increasingly shut down. The growing dominance of harder-line religious thought, amplified online and promoted by mainstream politicians, has sidelined the voices of liberal Muslims and silenced many.

“When it comes to religion, you must shut up. You cannot speak up,” Kasim says. “People like me who believe in a different sort of Islam, who believe that we are regressing, find it very frustrating.”

She has been detained by police, accused of apostasy by politicians and official religious authorities and threatened online with rape, acid attacks and beheading.

“I don’t care, lah,” she says. “If I took action against everyone who makes threats against me, I would be sitting in the police station every day. I have to pick my battles. A lot of people are worried for my safety. I cannot be thinking too much about it… I keep telling everyone, the day you see Siti Kasim leaving this country, that means it’s beyond help already.”

Populism is not a new phenomenon in Malaysia. Although the country’s post-independence leader Tunku Abdul Rahman managed to create some sense of national unity in the 1960s, simmering tension between ethnically Malay and ethnically Chinese Malaysians — the second largest ethnic group in the country — spilled over into violence. Rahman resigned and was replaced by Abdul Razak, who consolidated power to the central government and began a policy of affirmative action for Malays, based on a simple electoral arithmetic — win the Malay vote and you win the country. 

Modern Malaysia comprises most of what was British Malaya along with two states—Sabah and Sarawak—on the north shore of Borneo. Singapore joined the federation in 1963, but left two years later, due in no small part to differences over how racial and religious differences would be handled. 

Singapore, like the other ‘Straits Settlements’ of Malacca (now Melaka) and Georgetown, were commercial ports with large ethnically Chinese populations. Although most came as menial workers or indentured labourers, some families thrived and formed trading enterprises that spread throughout the region. Under British rule, races were expected to stick to their proscribed roles, and mix only in the market-place.

By the Second World War, ethnic Chinese were a de facto merchant class, and were, on average, substantially wealthier than the indigenous Malay population. The richer and more successful families were also well-integrated into colonial society. They spoke English, and many converted to Christianity. 

Independence and democracy changed the balance of power. In 1963 ethnic Chinese made up 40 percent of the population, but Malays were the majority. To win elections meant courting Malays. Racial tension rose. In 1969, race riots that pitted ethnic Chinese against Malays in several cities led to a state of emergency being declared.

In the years that followed, the United Malays National Organisation, the largest party in the Barisan Nasional coalition that has run Malaysia since independence, built its dominance by institutionalizing support for bumiputra — “sons of the soil” — a blanket term encompassing Malays (the vast majority of bumiputra) and indigenous groups from Borneo. The “New Economic Policy” formulated in the 1970s gave bumiputra advantages ranging from access to education to discounts on housing, aimed at redressing the economic inequalities of the colonial era, which had left disproportionately little property in the hands of the Malays. The plan targeted a redistribution of wealth such that 30 percent of all corporate equity should be in bumiputra hands by 1990, up from less than 3% in 1970.

“The narrative since then is: if the government does not protect the Malays… champion the Malays’ cause, then the Malays have no future,” says Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank. “Our politics has always been divided along ethno-religious lines. This time is no different from what has happened in the past. Except that you see in every election it goes one step higher than the one before. Now it’s coming to a stage where people are starting to say it is divisive. If you ask me, it has always been divisive.”

The New Economic Policy was a qualified success. The wealth gap between Malays and other ethnic groups has narrowed, although by how much is still up for debate. Electorally, though, the strategy worked for UMNO. All six of Malaysia’s prime ministers have been Malays, all from UMNO. Malaysia’s demographics have only moved in favor of this equation. According to census data, ethnically Chinese Malaysians now make up 23 percent of the country’s population. Malays make up just under 60 percent of the population, with the other bumiputra ethnicities adding another 10 percent.

The straightforward calculus—bribe the majority, win the election—has a fundamental flaw. What began as a policy to redress a historic inequity and ensure the stability of the new country has locked the government into a cycle of nationalist appeasement that it cannot get out of; one that continues to erode any notion of racial pluralism.

The rise of Malay nationalism has also opened up new debates about what role religion should play in Malaysian politics. According to the constitution, to be Malay is to be Muslim; Malay identity is indivisible from Islam. 

Malaysia is, constitutionally, a Muslim country, although exactly what that means has been up for debate since independence. Rahman interpreted it as symbolic, rather than a fundamental tenet of the nation, and his own enjoyment of betting on horse races — now out of bounds for Muslims in Malaysia — suggested a distinctly moderate view of the religion.

In practice, the constitution meant that Islam was given special status, and the country adopted two parallel systems of law—secular legislation that covers everyone, and shariah law which applies only to Muslims. Much of the interpretation and enforcement of shariah is devolved to the state level, but across the country bars and massage parlours have signs in the window saying that Muslims cannot use their services. Unmarried couples are allowed to share hotel rooms, unless they are Muslims. Occasional sweeps of cheap hotels pick up offenders. 

Islam in Malaysia has gone through numerous rounds of debate between liberal and conservative wings, but within the identity-dominated politics developed in the 1970s the conservatives became deeply embedded in the machinery of government, gaining access to financial power, and influence over social policies and education. 

“The conservatives have always used the official government bureaucracy to solidify their strength and influence,” Wan says. “Fifty years on, they have access to all the various levers [of power].”

That has translated into more conservative interpretations of law at a state level, and a more hardline interpretation of Islam within public and private education. At the same time, Islam has become a more significant part of the Malay identity.

“Islam was subsumed, historically, within the Malay identity. What has happened today is that the Malay identity has been subsumed within the larger Islamic identity,” says Mohamed Nawab Osman, coordinator the Malaysia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “I think there has been a reverse. Islam has become more important than Malay identity.”

Where once populist battle lines were drawn around economic power and the distribution of wealth and property, now they are almost exclusively done so in religious terms. Where before populists insinuated that ethnic Chinese businesspeople were keeping their wealth within their families, now they suggest that “Christians”—the majority of whom in Malaysia are Chinese—are trying to undermine the status of Islam and encourage apostasy.

In 2014, the government’s National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs issued a fatwa stating that the word Allah God in Bahasa Malaysia as well as Arabic — should be restricted for use by Muslims only, reigniting a decades-old debate around the legality of Malay-language bibles and whether merely translating Christian texts counts as proselytizing to Muslims, which is against the law. The high court upheld the ban, which has become emblematic for activists as a demonstration of how Islamic authorities are interpreting their mandate to allow them oversight of other religious groups.

That growing conservatism has manifested in rising support for PAS, the Malaysian Islamic Party, which advocates the total adoption of shariah in the country. PAS and UMNO have been adversaries for decades, with both tussling over the Malay vote, but the latter has always been better equipped to appeal to a broader demographic than the hardliners. However, UMNO’s nationalist drift and the country’s growing conservativism means that the two are now fighting on very similar platforms, and are increasingly seen as contiguous.

PAS is far smaller, with just 14 out of the 222 seats in the federal parliament, and the governorship of Kelantan, a state on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula, but their ground game has been strong.

“They have been very adept in terms of basically pushing for electoral support. They have a good electoral machinery. They have strong grassroots activities, and most important aspect of PAS’ strength is that they have the mosques. The mosques and prayer halls are perhaps the most effective way of trying to send your message across,” Osman says.

PAS have won supporters — and possibly voters — in rural areas and among the Malay middle class that should be UMNO’s natural constituency. With an election due in 2018 — quite possibly as early as March — this matters, because the ruling coalition has struggled to maintain its dominance in the last two national polls.

In 2008, Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament, and was routed at a state level, losing five state governorships to opposition parties. Nationwide, it scraped just over 50 percent of the popular vote. Then-prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stepped down a year later to make way for Najib Razak. In 2013, Najib led the coalition to its worst result ever. The Barisan Nasional parties won less than half of the popular vote, but clung on to a parliamentary majority. Since then, his administration has been wracked by the 2014 corruption scandal at the One Malaysia Development Berhad state investment fund, where billions of dollars are alleged to have been siphoned off into private accounts around the world.

 With that challenge ahead, UMNO has to target PAS’ voters. Just as conservative parties in Europe have tried to slipstream more extreme nativists, allowing the political narrative to shift rightwards, UMNO is entering a ‘holier-than-thou’, or at least ‘as-holy-as-thou’ race with the Islamists, and exploiting what Osman calls a “siege mentality” within the Malay majority. “Essentially, if they don’t try to play to the gallery, they will lose support to in particular the Islamic Party,” he says.

This has manifest controversies that seem small, but which have been amplified by social and mainstream media, serving as dog-whistles to the conservative base. 

In August, a Facebook post by an atheist group in Kuala Lumpur went viral and sparked an investigation by the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department, known by its acronym Jawi. Shahidan Kassim, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, later told a press conference that atheists in Malaysia should be “hunted down” and given religious education, and called on the public to help.

In September, the Better Beer Festival, which has been held in Malaysia since 2012, was cancelled due to “political sensitivities”, after a PAS central committee member claimed that it would make Kuala Lumpur into a “center of vice”, prompting an outpouring of opposition to the event. 

That same month, the Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, was detained at Kuala Lumpur airport and accused, essentially, of preaching without a license after participating in an academic discussion at a golf club. 

The government has used existing powers such as the 1948 sedition act to defend religious authorities against criticism, blurring the lines between church and state — with the additional benefit of delegitimizing political opponents on the basis of their commitment to the faith.

Eric Paulsen, the outspoken founder of the human rights group Lawyers for Liberty, was charged with sedition in 2015 for a tweet in which he alleged that the Department of Islamic Development, or Jakim, promotes extremism. He has also been targeted online by hoaxers who attribute fake quotes to him on social media, and accuse him of insulting Islam.

This all contributes to a cooling of the space for political discussion. “The sensitive areas are race, religion and royalty,” Paulsen says. “In these areas there is no rule of law. Anything goes. As a lawyer you could argue that there is freedom of speech, but it doesn’t matter.”

Election cycles in Malaysia tend to be marked by a reduction in civic space; this time it could be more divisive than ever. In the past the pressure would ease off once the cycle ended, but since 2008 activists say that things have only got more restrictive. Hate speech is on the rise, with visible minorities, such as LGBT people and migrant workers particularly vulnerable.

Elections have to be held before August 2018. They are usually held in March or April – ironically enough, in order to benefit from the economic effects of spending around the super-popular, but decidedly non-Muslim, Chinese New Year.

It is not just the eventual victor, but the conduct of that election that will have profound consequences for pluralism in Malaysia. In the aftermath, the country will need to find ways of un-ringing the bell of divisive nativism and, perhaps, finally settle within itself how it defines the role of religion in a multi-ethnic, modern society.

Whether that is possible depends on just how vitriolic the campaign ends up being. A few warning shots have already been fired. PAS has said that it will contest a large number of constituencies, setting the scene for tripartite battles across the country. The party’s president, Abdul Hadi Awang, has accused the main opposition coalition’s president, the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, of being ‘anti-Islamic’. 

Mahathir is a deeply divisive figure, whose premiership was marked with crackdowns on the same opposition parties that he now represents. The logic of his candidacy was that he could appeal to the Malay base, but it may have the side effect of further sidelining moderates. Young Malaysians are increasingly turned off by the country’s politics. The recent #UndiRosak—“spoiled ballot”—movement that advocates not voting as a protest has gathered momentum. 

If liberals and young people withdraw, 2018 could see all sides end up fighting over the same spoiled earth. As veteran human rights activist Nalini Elumelai says: “Everybody is going to become nationalists. There’s going to be a lot of crazy things happen.”