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Malaysia at a tipping point

Minorities could again have a key role in determining the next government of the southeast Asian nation
Malaysia at a tipping point

Supporters of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) gather on election nomination day in Pekan on April 28. Malaysia's 14th general election will be held on May 9. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)

Published: May 03, 2018 04:34 AM GMT
Updated: May 03, 2018 04:44 AM GMT

When Malaysians last voted in a general election five years ago, they were almost evenly split over whether they wanted the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition government to continue running the country.

With the opposition alliance, which then included the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Party better known as PAS), edging the election on the popular vote, the balance of power was decided by voters in Sarawak and Sabah, the most Christianized states in the country.

Current caretaker Prime Minister Najib Razak got a new lease of life. Change was expected. 

Five years on, discriminatory policies against minorities have been magnified, fraud and misconduct have punctured the economy, Islamists have been emboldened and non-Muslims remain on the fringes of Malaysian society.

When the constitution was adopted on the Malay Peninsula in 1957 and Islam was made the religion of the federation, non-Malays were guaranteed the right to follow a religion of their choosing.

Islam has grown increasingly conservative in recent years. Atheists and gays have been denounced as lawbreakers. A ruling in January reiterated the curious and cruel policy that Malaysian Muslims may not leave the faith without the consent of Islamic authorities.

The ruling gives due weight to the feeling that Najib and his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) are disinclined from reining in Islamists' influence on public policy for political reasons.

Now mired in corruption scandals and allegations of despotism, Najib is again fighting for his political life and that of his coalition. This time he has PAS in his corner, raising the Islamic profile of UMNO and the coalition.

The rise in racially and religiously charged rhetoric promoting Muslim dominance in the multicultural nation has dominated the news over the last five years.

Just over 60 percent of Malaysia's 32 million citizens are Muslims, mainly ethnic Malays. Most of the rest — including those of Chinese and Indian descent as well as various indigenous groups — are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or not religious.

Half a century since independence from Britain, Malaysia remains a fragile democracy. Inter-communal suspicions, spurred by racist policies, run deep and have arguably worsened. 

Voters can see that democracy in their country is not functioning well. The basic principle of a democracy — that all need to work together to uphold a political system on whose rules they all agree — has been ignored. Instead, internal arguments continue to be fanned at the expense of communal harmony.

The hijacking of the election in Malaysia was reported in The Economist, highlighting how the process was bordering on farce.

What is certain is that this general election could be the most skewed electoral contest Malaysians have witnessed.

Opposition candidates have found themselves disqualified, police physically restrained one candidate from filing his election papers and the leader of the opposition, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92, alleges an attempt was made to prevent him filing his electoral papers.

Religious leaders often have a huge influence, for better or worse, as to which outcome prevails in an election.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei has urged the faithful to make their vote count next week.

Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim of Kuala Lumpur said Catholics should vote according to their conscience based on the social teaching of the faith.

"The first and most essential principle of our social teaching is the dignity of every human person and each one's basic right to life. Many non-Catholics, too, think a society dedicated to the common good should protect its weakest members," he said in a pastoral letter on April 24.  

"The upcoming election presents us, once again, with an opportunity to participate and exercise our democratic right to vote and choose our leaders. As responsible stewards, there is no room for attitudes of indifference or apathy towards the good governance of our country.

"Every vote helps set the direction of our country and society for the next five years, and it is only proper that we ask for divine assistance and guidance in our choices in order to allow our nation to flourish and continue to prosper."

He urged voters to choose leaders free from corruption who could ensure the well-being of all Malaysians.

"We need to choose leaders who truly care for the rakyat (Malay word for 'people'), promote justice and equality, stand up for principles with integrity and work for the common good of citizens and strive to build a cohesive, harmonious and prosperous nation," Archbishop Leow said.

"We have a responsibility to participate in the political process by voting."

The archbishop also called on Catholic voters to help ensure a free and fair election by volunteering to be polling and counting agents and by providing transport to polling centers for voters.

He also asked that they pray that all political leaders accept the outcome of the election.

It's a striking fact that Malaysians, especially in its two Borneo states, have shown a spirit of racial and religious tolerance and a capacity to endure. They would do well to sustain these values by making a principled stand on what they want their country to be.

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