Monday, August 27, 2007


Fears of creeping conservatism in Malaysia

As Malaysians prepare to celebrate 50 years of independence from Britain, there are growing concerns about the influence of Islam and a creeping conservatism in religion and politics.

While Malaysia is one of the world's most stable and moderate Islamic nations, there is some soul-searching about what the future holds.

In the Malaysian state of Kelantan there are separate checkout aisles for men and women, and calls for sharia law to be adopted.

When independence was granted in 1957, the new leaders promised peace and harmony of ethnicity and religion for all Malaysians - Malay, Chinese, Indian.

Since then Malaysia has been hailed as a modern and moderate Islamic nation.

Despite growing concerns, that is still the case, says Abdul Hamil Otman, the religious adviser to Malaysia's Prime Minister.

"Although there are some interpretations here and there, it's not a big problem for the country," he said.

It used to be that only small parts of Malaysia imposed strict Islamic practices.

But Zainah Anwar, from Sisters in Islam, sees an alarming trend emerging.

"These groups that are at the forefront of the Islamic revival movement, pronounce that the kind of Islam that we have been practising all this long is Jahiliah Islam - Islam of the ignorant," she said.

Malaysia's constitution determines that anyone born into the majority ethnic Malay population is automatically a Muslim.

And sharia law deems that once a Muslim, always a Muslim.

But Dr Otman says this is a constitutional problem, not a religious problem.

He says the Government is looking at that section of the constitution, but not much progress has been made.

Another issue confronting Malaysia is the affirmative action program affecting the majority ethnic Malays, or Bumiputras.

What was designed to overcome the economic marginalisaton of Malays under the British has over three decades become an instrument for cronyism and nepotism.

Critics such as Ms Anwar say it has done little to benefit ordinary people.

"It deepens the intertwining of business and politics and merit is no longer the first criteria," she said.

The ruling United Malays National Organisation has been reluctant to alter the policy.

But as time goes on it is getting harder to shake off accusations that it is a form of protectionism.

Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has been lobbying Asian leaders to press the point at next month's APEC meeting in Sydney.