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MGG: Heartaches in Putrajaya over an Islamic state
By M.G.G. Pillai
5/11/2001 11:17 pm Mon
05 November 2001.
Heartaches in Putrajaya over an Islamic state
1:23pm, Mon: The Johor state government, to show its commitment
to Islam, has proposed that Muslim couples undergo an Aids test
before being allowed to marry in the state. The Negri Sembilan
state government, not wanting to be left behind, said it would
The Umno-controlled states - 10 of 13 states - want to reflect
their commitment to the Islamic state the Prime Minister Dr
Mahathir Mohamad says Malaysia is, by being more Islamic than
PAS. The opposition political party controls two states and has
set a clear political objective of an Islamic state.
Other states are planning similar laws. Umno does not want PAS to
steal a march in the two states - Terengganu and Kelantan - it
The proposal has opened a veritable Pandora's box. The Malaysian
Aids Council, headed by Mahathir's daughter, has objected.
Women's groups and NGOs are supporting it. Wiser counsels
prevailed. The compulsion is made voluntary. And another storm in
a teacup blows over.
Fast and furious flak
Johor Menteri Besar Abdul Ghani Othman had sound reasons to
demand it. The Malay, by anecdotal evidence, is more prone to
Aids than the others. Support for an Islamic state in Malaysia
invariably involves state intervention in the bedroom.
Since Mahathir has declared Malaysia to be an Islamic nation,
what better way to show commitment than by decreeing an Aids test
before marriage. But he does not address the reality of four
wives allowed a Muslim, or extra-martial affairs.
He has little doubt that it would give him brownie points if he
is seen pushing Johor towards a more Islamic state than it is.
But it backfired. The complaints came fast and furious. He has
since backtracked. It is now voluntary. He could not contain the
He forgot the times he is in. The Malay, who by constitutional
definition is a Muslim, is not enamoured of Umno as he once was.
He moves away from it, and its long-time president, Mahathir. Any
move will now be challenged vigorously.
The Malays, especially in Umno, would bait the prime minister as
never before. It is played out in typical Malay fashion. He and
his policies are attacked indirectly.
So, the menteris besar of Selangor and Johor are forced to
explain themselves; the former over his land deals and the latter
over this extra hurdle to Muslim marriage. Ghani could not
explain who would do the tests.
Umno members in Johor widely believe it would be the laboratory
owned by the prime minister's second son. Whether that is true or
not is irrelevant; many believe so. That made it worse.
Ghani had no option but withdrew it, with egg on his face. Little
does he realise that every self-serving proposal, and this
certainly is, would be subjected to stringent scrutiny by Umno
The superficial calm in Malaysian politics ignores the
convulsions beneath. Umno is in crisis. The prime minister is
home and dry, but at the cost of Umno's serendipity. Umno members
would challenge its leaders, if to reflect their unhappiness with
Parliament is so tame because the reason the Barisan Nasional
would not debate issues is this ingrained Malay reluctance to
confront. The airing of contentious issues makes the Malay in
government uncomfortable. It is for this reason, not security,
that public gatherings, and campaigning during elections, are
banned. So, what should be discussed is not.
Parliament could not be but a rubber stamp, there to endorse
policies but not discuss them. Any contentious or debating issue
among Malays - as PAS and Umno over the Islamic state they have
in mind - is ruthlessly sidelined. The tragedy is that the
non-Malay parties in the governing Barisan Nasional then fall in
line with the official position, and go along.
Something must give. The Indian and the Chinese are unhappy at
Islam encroaching into their lives, but with few avenues to
express their fears. Neither the Malaysian Chinese Association
nor the Malaysian Indian Congress would bat on their behalf.
When it is Aids test for Malays, or other refinements of Islam at
issue, it reflects a larger conundrum: the encroachment of Islam
to a degree not provided for in the constitution.
Since there is no public debate on this, either among Islamic
scholars, or between Islam and the other religions, it is now
accepted that other religions must bow to the supremacy of Islam
and abide by its restrictions of their faith.
A small group of activist non-Muslims fight a rear-guard battle,
but all it does is to provide a temporary break. The battle
between Umno and PAS over Islam is how relaxed or tightened that
Umno pushes its Islamic agenda to the extent it does to return to
the Malay cultural heartland. It lost that after how it
excoriated the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. That
heartland is still without a leader. PAS has not acquired that
mantle, nor has Keadilan.
The Malay vote is therefore divided, and diffused. The Malay
challenge in Umno-controlled states is a sign of that. With it
comes a host of other problems. Mahathir believes, for instance,
that Terengganu - now in PAS hands - could return to Umno rule in
the next general elections but he is also worried about the
prospect of his home state of Kedah voting PAS into power.
Terengganu is a poor substitute for Kedah. There are several
other conundrums Umno and its leader would rather not discuss.
That is why revolts like in Selangor and Johor cause heartaches
in Putrajaya as never before.