Mahathir's coalition falls back on Islam

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Tue Nov 23 03:35:17 MST 1999

23 November 1999
Mahathir's coalition falls back on Islam
By Ranjan Roy
KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's fundamentalist Muslim Party may be putting religion
on the back burner, but the governing coalition is asserting its Islamic
credentials to woo voters one week before a crucial general election.
The National Front, which has ruled the south-east Asian nation since its
independence in 1957, has ensured that Malaysia was seen by many as a model
Islamic country, said the 14-party coalition's manifesto released late
Islam is the official religion of the country where more than half of the 22
million people are Muslims. But the government of Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad has rejected demands by the fundamentalist opposition group to
declare Malaysia an Islamic state.
The 19-page manifesto released by Mahathir lists Malaysia's economic success
and social stability as the main reason why the electorate should re-elect
him on November 29. But it says the government has combined growth with
promoting Islamic studies, an Islamic banking system and helped Muslims to
travel for their annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In contrast,
the opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party, or PAS, says that it is not
stressing its religious demands so as to accommodate non-Muslims who are
members of the new four-party coalition formed earlier this year to
challenge Mahathir.
The opposition banded together to capitalize on an anti-government wave
triggered by the sacking and arrest of Mahathir's popular deputy Anwar
Ibrahim. The parties include the multi-ethnic National Justice Party headed
by Anwar's wife and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party.
Anwar, 52, a former Islamic radical leader, still has a large following
among conservative Malay Muslims and is respected as an Islamic scholar.
Mahathir's United Malays National Organization and PAS depend on Malay
votes. The Christian and Buddhist ethnic Chinese, who comprise about 30 per
cent of the population, have traditionally voted for a Chinese component of
the ruling coalition. The 10 per cent Indians, who are mostly Hindus, have
also voted for a similar group.
The minorities remain wary of PAS because in the only state it controls, the
party has directed Muslim women to cover their heads, banned gambling and
public consumption of alcohol and tried to impose harsh Islamic punishments
for petty crimes.
But in the run-up to the vote, PAS says it is not stressing on Islam to get
votes. ``We have not abandoned those principles. But we are fighting more
for common issues such as democracy and justice,'' said PAS spokesman Mahfuz
Haji Omar. ``Even older, more radical PAS leaders have accepted this,'' said
Mahfuz. (AP)

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