KUALA LUMPUR - In preparation for Malaysia's golden anniversary next month, banners have been hung on the streets around the Petronas Towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur showing Malay, Indian and Chinese children blissfully bicycling and running through a village at dusk. The sign reads: "One legacy. One destiny."
But behind the message of unity, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the conservative race-based party that has run Malaysia since independence, is ushering in the country's 50-year anniversary by ratcheting up its trademark fear-based communal rule. Last week Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak controversially referred to Malaysia, which includes 40% non-Muslims, as an Islamic state. "Islam is the official religion and we are an Islamic state," Najib said.
It's unclear whether the incendiary statement was an election ploy, but his comments have engendered a political firestorm here. (On Wednesday, Najib ordered component parties of the National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN) that UMNO heads to prepare for an election by early next year.) More likely, the comments were the result of a desperate politician and embattled political party resorting to desperate political measures. Najib's aspirations to become prime minister are well known and have been cast into doubt by an ongoing murder trial in which the main suspects - including prominent political analyst Razak Baginda and two elite police officers - have been closely linked to Najib.
Opposition leaders and the murder victim's cousin say there is a photo linking Najib with the Mongolian model found blown up with C4 explosives in a patch of jungle outside Kuala Lumpur. Najib has refused to answer questions about the woman and he may be spared having to testify. Nonetheless, the ongoing case has hurt UMNO's political standing, and the party appears to be appealing to its well-worn tactic of playing the race and religion card to divert attentions.
In the larger scheme of things, Najib's comments might have been meaningless. UMNO has long relied on communal rhetoric to sustain its five-decade grip on power. But the comments also come at a time when the nominally secular country is undergoing what some view as a pronounced Islamization; when several court decisions have denied individuals the right to be recognized by the religion of their choosing; when race relations are on the skids; and when official provocation is on the rise - all as the country finds itself in the throes of a mid-life crisis.
In response to Najib's remark, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a component party of the BN coalition, issued statements assuring its constituency that Malaysia is a secular state. UMNO Youth chief and Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, famous for speeches in which he brandishes Malay daggers and warns Malaysia's minority Chinese and Indian communities not to question Malay "supremacy", hit back by telling the MCA (sans dagger this time) not to issue "any more statements that Malaysia is a secular state".
A few years ago, when the state-run print and broadcast media monopolized public opinion, Najib's and Hishammuddin's comments would have been spared public probity. But with the recent proliferation of weblogs and independent news websites, the ruling elite are increasingly being exposed to outside criticism.
Take, for instance, Minister in the Prime Minister'S Office Nazri Abdul Aziz, who during a recent parliamentary session repeatedly shouted "bodoh" (stupid) across the floor at a fellow parliamentarian. The nine-minute clip was posted on YouTube, and Malaysian bloggers had a field day asking in effect, "Who is running our country?"
On Monday, UMNO information chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib filed a police report against Raja Petra Kamarudin, the editor of popular Web portal Malaysia-today.net, for allegedly degrading Islam and stirring communal tensions. The website has built a name for itself by aggressively reporting on alleged abuses of power at the highest levels, including within Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's inner circle.
UMNO probably didn't foresee what happened next. By Monday afternoon, with news of the police report out, the site's pages loaded slowly as its server hit 97% capacity, according to Raja Petra. By Tuesday, Raja Petra had posted a warning to UMNO as clear as that which the party was trying to send to him and bloggers. In an article titled "See you in hell, Muhamad son of Muhamad", Raja Petra reminded readers of the former state-level chief executive's attempt to bring 2.4 million ringgit (US$693,000) into Australia in 1997.
Raja Petra's style of recalcitrance is one of UMNO's biggest fears: dissenters who refuse to go quietly, dissenters who could inspire others to speak out just as fearlessly over the Internet. His is arguably not a common response in feudal Malaysia. And UMNO, through remarks like Najib's and the crackdown on bloggers, are putting Malaysians' tolerance to an important new test.
On Tuesday the government said it would formulate new laws that would potentially allow for detention without trial to punish "offending" bloggers. On July 13, Nathaniel Tan, a webmaster for the opposition People's Justice Party (PKR), was detained for five days by police after he was said to have "classified" documents alleging that Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharom had taken bribes to free known gangsters from prison.
Not only did the circumstances surrounding Tan's detention draw attention to Johari, it also put the spotlight back on Najib. Some bloggers speculated that Tan's arrest was meant to distract the independent online media from the Mongolian-murder trial.
A few months ago, around the time that Malaysia's arch-conservative Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin announced that the government had to control bloggers and classify them as "professionals" or "non-professionals", several prominent websites, including Malaysia Today, added blog roundups to their homepages (with one of the blogs therein proposing to extend the "professional or non-professional" label to politicians).
But bloggers are not the only Malaysians concerned about UMNO's mounting crackdown on dissent. Former UMNO chief and longtime prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his onetime deputy and current opposition figurehead Anwar Ibrahim have both in recent weeks concluded that UMNO has "rotted". Meanwhile, a band of academics has begun campaigning against Akujanji, a pledge of loyalty to the government that every college student must sign and over the years has been used to suppress free expression.
Last week, meanwhile, the Internal Security Ministry ordered all the major media not to publish on the question of whether Malaysia is an Islamic state. Only the prime minister and deputy prime minister are authorized to comment on it, said the ministry. But on Wednesday a diverse group of Malaysians held a forum to discuss the matter, in short emphasizing that while the constitution declares Islam as Malaysian's official religion, the secular-based constitution, not sharia law, was intended as the country's legal framework.
Despite this dissent, many political analysts predict an UMNO-BN landslide at the next general elections, which will occur when the prime minister decides to call them. That, they say, is because most Malaysians have been indoctrinated by the government to fear political change and still vote on ethnic lines. In an ironic twist, Mahathir, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years, recently suggested that Malaysians tend to vote blindly and said, "The country deserves the government it gets."
The real victim in all this is the Malay community, whom UMNO claims it is serving and protecting. By politicizing religion, UMNO has tarnished Malaysia's international and domestic reputation as a bastion of moderate Islam. Meanwhile, UMNO's unwavering support for an affirmative-action program favoring ethnic Malays over minority Chinese and Indians has bred animosity among non-Muslims and become an excuse for them to scapegoat Malays for all the country's shortcomings and ignore their significant contributions to nation-building.
That racial divide has and continues to play into UMNO's hands. The government elite and a growing band of concerned Malaysians have set the stage for country's 50th anniversary. Malaysians of all ethnicities must now decide where they will stand, if it's best to leave nation-building primarily in government hands, or if now is the time to become more active stakeholders in the country's future.
Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, is a Kuala Lumpur-based writer. From the Asia Times.