It is difficult to shake off the sense of dejevu in Malaysia.
Despite the retirement of Prime Minister Mahathir, he has been active in the public arena, criticising the Badawi administration. Now, Mahathir’s ex-deputy, Anwar has also returned to the political scene. Anwar fell out with Mahathir and was subsequently charged with sodomy and corruption. Although his sodomy charge was overturned, his corruption charge remained. This means that he is barred from standing for public office until April 2008.
Anwar has also supposedly declined the offer to return to UMNO (which he said was graft-ridden) and is reportedly building up his party Keadilan to fight for the next general elections expected to be held later this year. He has already confirmed that he will be running for the presidency of Keadilan, a position currently held by his wife. Anwar is also campaigning for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in the Machap by-election and for his own party in the Ijok by-election.
In his speech at the annual dinner of the Foreign Correspondents Association in Singapore, Anwar spoke up on the recent series of controversies on the reluctance ofMalaysia’s civil courts to hear inter-religious disputes. Most of these cases involved the rights of non-Muslims. These controversies have in fact cast doubts on whether political support of non-Muslims for Prime Minister Abdullah and his Barisan Nasional have been eroding.
Seizing the opportunity to make a stand on this issue before the Machap by-election, Anwar told the audience that “Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution. There is no basis to compel non-Muslims to go to the Syariah Court.”
Aware of the increasing fear and unease of the non-Muslim population, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Abdul Aziz revealed that the Attorney-General Office is studying a proposal for a special commission to study religious sensitive cases to be set up. This commission would comprise of the heads of the various religions and would look into the recent cases involving religious conversions which have cast uncertainty over which jurisdiction these cases belong to.
The government has also tried to promote racial (and religious) integration within schools. The deputy Education Minister Datuk Hon Choon Kim said that the programme, Students Integration Plan for Unity (Rimup), was aimed at instilling patriotism in students through games, sports, academic and other activities. Rimup is also expected to help strengthen the racial relations as the activities are especially organised to encourage students of different races to interact with one another. The government has allocated RM25.8 million for Rimup.
The government is anxious to regain the confidence of the Chinese voters especially in the light of these religious controversies where the rights of the minorities have been seemingly ignored. The BN leaders left nothing to chance and top leaders from UMNO, MCA and Gerakan all hit the campaign trail to shore up support for its candidate. This has probably paid off with the MCA candidate supported by the ruling coalition winning an impressive 79% of the votes in the Machap by-election.
Machap has a large Chinese population, making up about 45.6 per cent of the total. Malays comprise 38.3 per cent, Indians 15.3 per cent, and others 0.7 per cent. The by-election in Machap therefore is seen as a test of the Chinese ground, which is said to be unhappy with deteriorating race relations, religious controversies and a slow economy.
Prime Minister Abdullah was quick to comment on the Machap by-election result, stating that the win showed voters still wanted to be represented by BN because of its track record in development. (13 April 2007)
MCA scores big win in Malacca by-election (Straits Times, 13 April 2007)
Barisan Wins in Machap by-election (The Star, 12 April 2007)
Anwar on Campaign Trail in Malaysia: Party Official (Agence France Presse, 11 April 2007)
Commission to Study Religious Sensitive Cases (The Star, 11 April 2007)
Best for Inter-Faith Council to Liaise with PM, says Nazri (New Straits Times, 11 April 2007)
Uneasy Opposition Alliance Seen (New Straits Times, 11 April 2007)
Anwar: Don’t Force Syariah Court on Non-Muslim (The Straits Times, 10 April 2007)