Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Malaysia; Clipping the Opposition's Wings

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Malaysia; Clipping the Opposition's Wings

Article excerpt

ISLAM AND THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE FAR EAST: Malaysia; Clipping the Opposition's Wings

"It's like another sunset," my companion said, but the red glow came from behind a headland to our north, not from the west. The light is visible from far away and would be familiar to anyone who has traveled on either the Arab or Persian side of the Gulf. It is caused by the flaring of gas at the giant installation on the coast of Terengganu where oil extracted from below the sea is pumped ashore. The resource that it advertises is one of the focal points in the inter-party battles for influence which have followed Malaysia's general election.

Terengganu is one of Malaysia's poorest states, and the 5 percent royalty which its government receives each year on the oil and gas makes a significant contribution to its budget. Its newly elected chief minister, Abdul Hadi Awang, wants the Malaysian federal government to increase his state's share of the royalties to 20 per cent, saying that the extra money will be used to alleviate poverty in his state. But there's a very big fly in the ointment. He heads an Islamic Party (PAS) administration and the federal government is controlled by the National Front, led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), chief rival to PAS.

UMNO leaders, headed by Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, were angry and disturbed at the inroads which PAS made during the elections into its traditional base of support, and especially at its loss of control in Terengganu. Not only would the central government be very disinclined to help PAS by making more revenues available to Terengganu's new administration; it has even indicated that it might seek to take away the oil revenues that the state already receives. Government sources informed Singapore's Straits Times that the state only has a legitimate claim to revenue from mineral resources exploited within 12 kilometers of its shore, and that anything beyond that belongs to the federal government. All the oil wells off Terengganu are far out to sea. A source said, "The government decided to give Terengganu the royalty years ago because it was a very poor state. There is no legal obligation to continue to do so."

In other words, Terengganu might be made to pay for having voted against the ruling alliance. The threatened tussle over oil revenues is just one of the battlefronts between the government and the opposition. The first action taken by Abdul Hadi Awang on his election was to have the state government building sealed, so that no documents which might possibly embarrass his predecessors and the national government could be removed. A series of decisions followed which were in line with the objectives of PAS, but which disturbed non-Muslims throughout Malaysia. A ban on gambling and the open sale of alcohol was announced -- both were already forbidden to Muslims in Malaysia as a whole. There was talk of introducing kharaj (a tax which is only paid by non-Muslims), but the negative reaction of moderate Muslims as well as PAS's electoral allies and non-Muslims has made Terengganu's government proceed cautiously on that issue. It also backed down on a decision to evict kindergartens for 40,000 children run by a federally funded agency from state government-controlled community halls.

Malaysia's government-aligned press has highlighted all these measures and the criticisms made of them. PAS is in a better position to respond than the rest of the opposition. Its supporters are influential in many mosques across western Malaysia and are accused by the government (in this case, accurately) of using their position to have anti-government speeches made from pulpits.

PAS also has a popular newspaper known as Harakah, which appears twice a week. Its circulation was 75,000 two years ago, but rose quickly, shooting up to 360,000 during last year's election campaign. It was not long after that election that the government moved against Harakah. …

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