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Malaysia's new beginning fraught with anxiety

Non-Muslims hope for fairer treatment under graftbuster Mahathir but say real change could take at least a year reporter, Kuala Lumpur reporter, Kuala Lumpur

Updated: August 24, 2018 10:33 AM GMT
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Malaysia's new beginning fraught with anxiety

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad addresses civil servants from the Prime Minister's office during his first assembly in Putrajaya on May 21. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

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Malaysian shopkeeper William Antou thought his days of running a business were numbered a few months ago as Islamic hardliners began flexing their muscles by implementing legal amendments to sideline non-Muslims.

Rules were being changed and racial and religious discord hung heavily in the air in this multi-ethnic nation.

The government even debated adopting a strict Islamic penal code — a proposal that religious minorities feared could infringe upon their rights.

Najib Razak, who has since been ousted as prime minister, had thrown his weight behind a contentious bill that sought to incorporate parts of the Islamic penal code, or "hudud," into the nation's Islamic legal system.

But things changed in May when a new government headed by 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad took over pledging to crack down on corruption, a move that has left the Barisan Nasional coalition partners licking their wounds.

Najib has since been charged with corruption and his party left in a state of disarray. At a month-long parliamentary sitting that ended on Aug. 16, the so-called Hudud bill was barely even mentioned.

Now William sees a brighter future. While he has not witnessed any economic changes in the first 100 days of the new administration, various promises and objectives come into focus that give him cause for hope.

Mostly, however, he is just happy the see the corruption-plagued former regime unseated.

"It is too short of time to assess the new government," he said. "It will take at least another year before we see any real change."

As the first criticisms of the new Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan alliance government set in, it is worth recalling the remarkable events of the recent general election.

Against all odds, an unwieldy coalition swept aside the old guard and brought about a quiet revolution. Now it is rewriting the political and social rules that govern the country.

Lim Kit Siang, MP for Iskandar Puteri in Johor, notes how the previous regime had attempted to sow fear among the majority Malay population.

The mudslinging was based around one core argument, namely, that Lim's party and its coalition partners would ruin the country if they won the election.

The media focused its attack on Lim on three eventualities that have not transpired — that he would become the prime minister, that Malaysia would become a Christian state, and that the monarchy would be abolished.

"This is the stuff of the politics of race, religion, fear, hate and lies which was so rampant in the campaigns of irresponsible UMNO-BN leaders and cyber-troopers before the polls," Lim said.

UNMO is the acronym for the United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia's main opposition party and a founding member of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

"But have these irresponsible politics of race, religion, hate, fear and lies ended with the conclusion of GE14?" he asked in a blog post, referring to the nation's 14th general assembly.

Pointing to the recently held by-election, Lim noted that "racist, reckless and most provocative and incendiary speeches" were still the norm among UMNO politicians.

"There has been an intensification of the politics of fear, hate and lies post-GE14, which becomes doubly vicious and toxic when accompanied by the extremist politics of race and religion," he said.

Azli, a doctor at a government hospital, said the new government must learn from these "protest" leaders to become more creative stewards of the nation now they are in power.

He said many people are easily misled, quick to respond to racial provocation and childishly pleased with destructive gestures, but that the protest leader will always be viewed as a hero.

"Malaysians have accomplished something big ... it is not a trivial matter. So they should not be making trivial complaints now, asking for favors and so on. Rather, they should focus on how to build a better country that can compete with the rest of the world," Azli said.

The new government has found itself in difficulty dealing with the country's dual justice system — which is based on both secular and Sharia law.

In June, the case of an 11-year-old bride from Thailand came to light, causing an outcry following her marriage to a Malaysian man 30 years her senior.

Malaysian Muslims below the age of 16 are allowed to wed with the permission of religious courts but the union between the girl and the 41-year-old rubber trader went viral on social media, and reignited calls to end the practice of child marriage.

The ceremony took place in June near the Malaysian border in Thailand's Muslim-majority south in Narathiwat province.

The 11-year-old is believed to be the trader's third wife.

The uproar prompted the head of the Ministry of Women and Family Development to weigh in on Facebook last month, saying the country "unequivocally" opposes child marriage and is taking steps to raise the minimum age of wedlock to 18.

Given its parallel religious and civil legal systems, critics remain skeptical there can be full enforcement of the ban on child marriage, especially among conservative Muslim communities in the country.

According to recent statistics, around 16,000 girls below the age of 15 in predominantly Muslim Malaysia are already married.

Meanwhile, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the country has come under heavy fire from conservatives in the past, and only received arms-length support from Muslim leaders in the government.  

But Fuziah Salleh, a deputy minister attached to the Prime Minister's Department, recently urged compassion and respect for people of all sexual and religious preferences, regardless of what Islam considers to be "normal" or "deviant."

Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said the LGBT community has a right to exist in Malaysia provided they keep their "practice" behind closed doors.

She advised this minority group against seeking to "glamorise" their private lives and said they should respect the fact that Malaysia is a country where the official religion is Islam.

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