ANALYSIS: Progressives Want Secular Future
By Prof. Peter G Riddell
Malaysia is a country in ferment.
The abduction of protestant Pastor Raymond Koh missing since 13 February after being snatched from a street in Petaling Jaya near the capital Kuala Lumpur, comes against a background of pressure against non-Muslims.
The growing demand for Islamic criminal punishment codes, known as hadd or hudud (plural Arabic for 'prohibitions'), which set Pakistan on the road to ruin, is worrying .
Hudud crimes warrant severe corporal punishments, including stoning for adultery, and death for apostasy. Though limited by rules of evidence, their implementation on any statute book creates consternation, and at worst, as in Pakistan, mob rule.
Yet demand for and implementation of such penalties are creeping in from conservative fringe states in Malaysia.
Malaysia is described by the CIA as ‘a middle-income country [that] has transformed itself since the 1970s from a producer of raw materials into an emerging multi-sector economy’, so the hadd development has huge ramifications, and a crucial subtext in potentially volatile identity politics
Since independence, first as Malaya in 1957 then as the enlarged Malaysia in 1963, the country has witnessed a tussle between two parties vying for the support of the majority Malay race - who are all Muslim.
The United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, has been the driver in the ruling coalition since independence, originally representing a more modernizing approach to Islam. Its principal rival for Malay support is the conservative Islamic party, known by its Malay acronym, ‘PAS’.
Muslims constitute sixty per cent of the population, with the remaining forty per cent divided among Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, various Chinese religions and other minor religious groupings.
Malaysia has a lot going for it. It represents the meeting place of three of the world’s greatest civilizations: Malay, Chinese and Indian, all making a significant contribution to the nation.
As such, Malaysia could be a dynamic laboratory for Islamic religious pluralism. Yet for forty years, the drift has been towards increasingly narrow religious exclusivism.
For the first decade of its existence Malaysia flourished as a multicultural, multifaith state.
Then bitter race riots in 1969 left a legacy of fear among the majority Malay race that their predominance was threatened.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during the 1980s and 1990s, the UMNO-led coalition government sought to entrench Malay predominance by strengthening Islam in the fabric of the state.
The Mahathir government introduced a raft of Islamic legislation and established a diverse set of Islamic institutions: Islamic banks, an Islamic Economic Foundation, an Islamic foundation for social welfare, an Islamic Centre within the Prime Minister’s department, Islamic universities, and many more institutions.