Manipal, India — Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made the worst call of his political career by calling a general election a full year before it was due, believing that international economic uncertainty was likely to send the economy southwards and ethnic tensions were at risk of escaping from the band-aid applied to them.
He therefore decided on a March 2008 poll, but Saturday's loss of 60 of the 199 parliamentary seats that his Barisan Nasional Party had won in 2004 has weakened not only his government but his leadership over a party unhappy with his "bureaucratic" style.
Sadly, the mild-mannered, moderate Badawi is less the culprit than he is the victim of the Malay supremacist policies followed by his party since 1957. These policies have implied that the multiracial, multifaith country's Malay majority of 60 percent was an endangered species in need of protection against the rest of the population, including the one-tenth that are ethnic Indians and one-fifth of Chinese descent.
The "bumiputra" policies followed by Malaysia's rulers since the 1950s have been sharpened over the decades, so that in effect today non-Muslims and non-Malays have a second-class status in the country. As occurred in the Indian mutiny of 1857, it was a question of faith that ignited the Hindu firestorm on Nov. 25, 2007, that led to the present electoral debacle for Badawi -- after Hindu temples were bulldozed to make way for roads, malls and housing sites.
Such contempt for the institutions of their faith sparked anger among the Hindus of Malaysia. Although Muslims of Indian origin kept away from the protests that followed, the 90 percent of the Malaysian Indian community that are Hindu was alienated from the ruling party by the brutal police repression let loose against peaceful protestors in scenes reminiscent of the days of the freedom struggle in India. Several of the protestors were jailed, and many are still in prison on the absurd charge of terrorism.
This effort to quell the protests by force revived memories of 1969 in the Malaysian Chinese community. That year, vengeful Malays had roamed across the country destroying the lives and property of those of Chinese origin. The Malays had been angered by the losses suffered by the Malay-dominated United Malays National Organization in the just-concluded elections -- when too, as has happened this year, the ruling party's majority in Parliament fell below the two-thirds needed to amend the country's Constitution.
Saturday's election results indicate that three-fourths of Malaysia's Hindus and about one-third of its ethnic Chinese voted for the opposition, increasing its tally from 19 to 89. A Hindu leader incarcerated since November won in a constituency with a Chinese majority, against the ruling party's ethnic Chinese candidate. This coming together of Chinese with Indians is evidence of the resentment the Wahabbist agenda of the ruling BNP has created among the minorities.
Especially since the time of Mahathir Mohammad, Malaysia has steadily distanced itself from the syncretic, tolerant Islam that is still dominant in next-door Indonesia, substituting it with the harsher cadences of the Wahabbi faith to which few within the population -- but several within the country's Malay elite -- subscribe. As a result of Wahabbi pressure, Malaysia has followed Iran and Saudi Arabia in policies designed to ensure that only a "pure" culture and ethos prevail in what was once a secular country, with shops and other businesses warned to adopt only products and practices that "conform to Sharia" as defined by the Wahabbist-Khomeinist ulama, the Islamist scholars.
Interestingly, the Wahabbist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which rules the state of Kelantan, is moving toward a more inclusive strategy. It put up a Hindu candidate, a female activist, in the election. Malays by nature are syncretic and tolerant, and the population at large is yet untainted by the elite's obsession with "Islamic purity."
Repression of the rights of a minority by the majority is reprehensible in any society, and has been absent thus far in Malaysia's much bigger neighbor, Indonesia. There as well, however, Wahabbist-Khomenist influence is spreading, especially among urban youths, often as a reaction to the ongoing struggle in Iraq. The Iraqi theater appears to have inflamed the Muslim umma outside the Middle East to a degree that Palestine has thus far failed to do.
Badawi is far more secular than his fiery predecessor Mahathir Mohammad, but lacks the will or the ability to bring the radical groups within his party in line with his moderate approach. Should he fail to make an effort to win the trust of the Chinese and Indian minorities by diluting Malay supremacist policies, both his party and his country will be entering a stormy period.
Religious and ethnic minorities have indicated their disapproval of the creeping Wahabbization of Malaysia, and unless the ruling party accepts that the hotheads within its own ranks are the real problem, rather than those on the outside, Badawi will be unable to prevent a further erosion of support for the once-dominant BNP. The Malay-oriented policy of the BNP seems likely to spawn Hindu and Chinese clones that will follow the ruling party in viewing Malaysians as separated by creed rather than united as a people.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)