Playing Islam card won't help Umno

Playing Islam card won't help Umno

During a dialogue session on the 2014 Budget in October, a member of the audience asked Mr Khairy Jamaluddin what he thought were the main reasons behind urban voters' rejection of the Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition in the May general election.

The head of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) replied without hesitation: "I call it the three "Cs": corruption, the cost of living, and crime."

Mr Khairy, 37, and a federal minister after the election, was spot on. But his party, the most politically dominant in the country, does not seem to know that - or even care.

At its general assembly that ended early this month, Umno appeared to move to the right by adopting a firmer embrace of Islam and calling for unity talks with the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

In this year's general election, BN lost the popular vote as well as the support of the Chinese and the urban Malays. The rural Malay vote in the peninsula, however, was split between PAS and Umno.

So the way forward for Umno - to win the next general election - is seemingly through "unifying" both parties.

How to do that? Simple. Just become more Islamic - or, at least, be seen to be doing so.

Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of civil liberties think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, even compared this month's assembly to what PAS used to be. "I must say it's really disappointing to see the Umno assembly becoming like what PAS was 20 years ago," he told The Malay Mail.

Umno also unveiled a new threat for the party to "unite" against. Umno vice-president and Home Minister Zahid Hamidi identified this threat as coming from Shi'ite Islam, one of the two main branches of the religion (the other being Sunni Islam, which the majority of Malaysia's Muslims adhere to). To applause from Umno members, Datuk Seri Zahid said the Shi'ite movement would henceforth be banned.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said later that the Constitution would be reworded to specify the type of Islam (Sunnah Wal Jamaah) that could be practised in Malaysia.

"The competition to out-Islamise one another is really dangerous," said Mr Wan Saiful. "I see definite tensions coming up." Since then, two people have been charged by a Perak religious court with professing the faith and at least 13 more could be similarly charged throughout Peninsular Malaysia.

But it will be easier said than done. Mr Zahid, who is supported by Malaysia's inspector-general of police in this matter, has said the crackdown is a pre-emptive strike against the sort of sectarian violence that exists in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.

But Malaysia has had Shi'ite Muslims for more than a century. Malaysia's Gujarati Muslims, for example, profess the Shi'ite faith and they are largely peaceful and prosperous, being traders, merchants and professionals. Indeed, one of the biggest retail outlets in the country is owned by an Ismaili Muslim. Ismailis practise a branch of Shi'ite Islam.

Umno insiders told The Business Times the crackdown was not aimed at these people. "What we are worried about are those ordinary Malays who go abroad to study in places like Iran and Syria," an official said. "They come back filled with Shi'ite zeal and they try to convert other Malays here. That is what we are against."

But Malaysia is mindful of its diplomatic relations. The country is a leading member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, whose members include countries such as Iran, where a majority of the people are Shi'ite Muslims. Compounding matters are the thousands of Shi'ite Muslim students and tourists in the country.

Finally, the crackdown against the movement is unlikely to help Umno become friends with PAS. The reason? Mr Zahid had told the Umno assembly that a leading light in PAS was a Shi'ite Muslim. That turned out to be PAS's highly popular deputy president Mohamad Sabu. He has indignantly denied it and threatened to sue Mr Zahid.

Umno's current focus on Islam and its potential threats is almost ironic as its respect for the religion was never an electoral issue. Instead, it was the public perception of corruption and wastage in government that alienated the relatively more educated urban voters from BN. Indeed, that perception cut across the racial divide.

It was the same thing in 2008. Then, BN suffered a shock when it lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority and ceded control of five state assemblies, including the two rich states of Selangor and Penang, to the opposition. The results seemed to psychologically scar the party, with its ranks looking for scapegoats.

Catalysed by attacks from former premier Mahathir Mohamad, the blame shifted to then Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Against the advice of his supporters, Tun Abdullah decided against defending his party presidency and stepped down in favour of his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib.

Mr Najib started off in style, introducing liberalising reforms in what he called his "transformation" agenda. In fairness, many of his economic policies genuinely worked, allowing Malaysia to post some of the best growth rates in the region.

But he seemed unsure about when to call the election, repeatedly seeming to postpone it just when he was looking like he was going to call one. Last year, for example, the police's handling of a massive demonstration for electoral reform seemed to turn the electorate against the government just at a time when Mr Najib's popularity was rising.

When he finally called the election this May, BN's term was well and truly up - a factor that led Tun Dr Mahathir to comment: "I thought he should have called it a year ago."

Just before the election, Mr Najib lavished giveaways on all the races: He gave generously to the cause of Chinese education; he gave money to all poor households irrespective of race; and he promised more if elected.

For all that, BN was rejected. In fact, it lost the popular vote but managed to cling on to power because of Malaysia's electoral system, which gives greater weightage to rural areas.

In addition, he fared worse than his predecessor, Mr Abdullah, as BN lost one more seat than it did in the previous election. Even so, he managed to retain the states of Perak and Kedah.

That said, Mr Najib got away relatively unscathed and he prevailed in Umno as well. In the October party elections, all his candidates came in while Dr Mahathir's choice for vice-president - his son Mukhriz, Kedah's Menteri Besar - was defeated.

Whither the future? Next year will go down as the Year of Living Expensively as the cost of living will accelerate. From Jan 1, electricity rates, toll rates and petrol prices will go up. That is almost guaranteed to make the BN quite unpopular.

The trick for Mr Najib is that he must be seen to be leading. Anything less could spell disaster for BN in the next general election. The writer is a senior correspondent with Business Times' Kuala Lumpur bureau. This piece first appeared in the paper on Friday.

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