.... Heartaches in Putrajaya over an Islamic state
By: MGG Pillai - Malaysiakini (Monday November 5)

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 follow suit.

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 controls.

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 flak.

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 members themselves.

Larger conundrum

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 Mahathir.

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 would be.

Leaderless heartland

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. 

M.G.G. Pillai

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