Challenges for Abdullah in Malaysia – managing race, religion and Mahathir

Updated On: Feb 13, 2007

Mahathir is back. The stage of recent political affairs for Malaysiais set for him to create further tensions both within the state and in bilateral terms.

Speaking on “Umno's Challenges in Facing Vision 2020,”, a forum organized by the anti-Abdullah cybersite, mykmu.net,  Mahathir attacked PM Abdullah’s policy attitude for being 'too nice' to Singapore in dealing with bilateral relations, launching what could be Round Two of the Mahathir versus Abdullah fight.

Mahathir’s criticism came about when he was asked about the stalled bilateral negotiations on water. His view was that Malaysia should restart the talks quickly to raise the price of raw water that it sells to Singapore. In particular, he expressed puzzlement over why the current administration was keen to serve Singapore's interests rather than looking at its own sovereign rights.

Elsewhere, responding to a question on the plan to have a passport-free zone in the South Johor Economic Region to attract more foreigners, he said the idea was like giving up sovereignty to another country. 'If we allow this...then it means it is not our territory any more. Many types of people enter Singapore. They have an Israeli Embassy there, it means even Jews can come in,' he said.

Mahathir also cautioned Umno members to reject any attempt to establish a ‘Singapore-style dynasty’ in the party, as he had done so during his 22 years as the Prime Minister of Malaysia. "Don't try to make your son or son-in-law as the PM," Mahathir told the audience, in obvious reference to the spectacular rise of Khairy Jalammudin in Malaysian politics. "I hope all Malaysians would oppose any attempts to start a dynasty. In our country anybody can become the PM even the fisherman."

The above remarks about Singapore also served as an entry for Mahathir to criticise Umno further, in what he called a “changed organization”, as its members have lost their freedom and boldness to express opinions contrary to those of the party and its leadership. "I feel very sad…Today [Umno] is not ready to hear what it doesn't want to hear," he said. "There's climate of fear." He claimed that now only views in support of the leadership were allowed while opinions on the contrary would be prohibited.

Putting what could be seen as further strain to the ongoing FTA talks between Malaysia and the United States, Mahathir challenged the necessity of even signing the FTA, as he believed Malaysia would lose its right to several things such as government procurement to Washington.

To make matters worse, Mahathir’s Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal, launched last Wednesday, was aimed at putting world leaders on trial for alleged war crimes, including US President George Bush for his role in the Iraq war.

The Malaysian government was quick to distance themselves from the war tribunal.  Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Mahathir's move was an "independent effort," a reflection of democracy in the country, and would not hurt Malaysia's ties with the US and other countries whose leaders were also accused of committing crimes against humanity.

Aside from the Mahathir factor, issues concerning religious conversion continue to hog headlines.  The most recent case of two ethnic Indian siblings attests to the sensitivity of this issue.  Both are claiming they are Hindus after they were certified as Muslims when their father converted from Hinduism to Islam before they were born. Even though Mr Jeevanathan and Ms Maneemegalay’s father reverted to Hinduism in 1991, he was buried by Islamic authorities as a Muslim last month despite the protests of his children, who now fear the same fate.

The siblings' dilemma echoes a series of recent highly charged discussions over religious conversions, such as the case of an ethnic Chinese man who was switched at birth and raised as an ethnic Malay Muslim. He is currently seeking to renounce Islam and change his name after he was reunited with his biological parents.

Another recent controversy related to religion was over whether Chinese Muslims should be allowed to build their own mosques.  This came in the midst of a report that the Malacca state government has turned down a request by Chinese Muslims to build their own mosque.  Some are wary of such developments, as they believed that building separate places of worship for Islam would create disunity amongst the ummah (global Muslim community). Malacca's Chief Minister Mohd Ali Rustam recommended instead for Chinese Muslims to join the state mosque committee.

However, some Muslim converts felt the need to have a place in which they can gather and learn more about their faith in a language they would feel more comfortable with. There is also sentiment that becoming a Muslim does not mean becoming a Malay, while others caution that “it’s the faith that matters, not race”. 

The complexity of the issue of race and ethnicity in a multi-racial society as Malaysia is again reflected when models, particularly those of mixed heritage took issue with Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin’s comments last week of the government’s plan to reduce the number of pan-Asian faces which he said dominated TV screens and billboards.   "I realise that many advertisements on TV now, especially on private TV, feature more faces which are not Malaysians. This, to me, is downgrading local faces," said Mr Zainuddin, according to the state Bernama news agency.

Minister Maidin’s remarks have prompted outrage among Malaysian models and television presenters. Ms Marion Caunter, a 25-year-old host on the popular music station Channel V, said it was difficult and unnecessary to draw the line between "mixed and pure breed" in the multi-ethnic society's media and advertising industry. "Almost everyone in the industry is mixed in some way, everyone's got some mixed blood in their history. So, how do you draw the line and determine exactly how mixed a person is?" said Ms Caunter, who is of Portuguese-Chinese heritage.  (12 February 2007)


Mahathir gets forum for attack on Abdullah (The Straits Times, 7 February 2007)

Malaysian government seeks to distance itself from Mahathir's war tribunal (AP/The Straits Times, 8 February 2007)

Dr M's Remarks Will Not Affect Malaysia-US Ties, Says Syed Hamid (Bernama, 8 February 2007)

Malaysian government seeks to distance itself from Mahathir's war tribunal (AP/The Straits Times, 8 February 2007)

Malaysia's mixed race ad message (TODAY, 9 February 2007)

A CHANGE OF attitude in M'sia? (TODAY, 9 February 2007)

M'sian Hindus in struggle to change Muslim status (AFP/The Straits Times, 9 February 2007)

Mahathir warns against Umno helping start dynasty (Bernama, 11 February 2007)

Abdullah too nice to S'pore, says Mahathir (The Straits Times, 11 February 2007)