As 14th General Election (GE14) looms, many issues of religion and race have indeed been brought into Malaysian political limelight in recent years. This year alone, for instance, Malaysians at large have witnessed some discourses being deliberated on a number of incidents such as the ban on Oktoberfest or beer festival, the controversy on the Muslim-friendly launderette in Muar, the segregation of drinking cups between Muslim and non-Muslim pupils in a school in Hulu Langat as well as the debate on the constitutionality of atheism in Malaysia.
On other instances, Muslims and non-Muslims alike can still freshly recall the tabling of Rang Undang-undang (RUU) 355 by PAS President Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang in Parliament, a measure that seeks to empower Shariah courts’ jurisdictions. Although PAS maintains that the measure only concerns the Muslims and that the non-Muslims have nothing to worry about, many parties, including that of some “progressive Muslims”, fear that this could only be a façade for the eventual implementation of hudud in Malaysia. In addition, issues concerning Shariah courts’ jurisdictions have long been contended especially when it comes to religious conversion, dissolution of marriage between a Muslim convert and his or her non-Muslim spouse, children custody as well as burial right.
Other issues of concern may also include the abduction of a pastor Raymond Koh who is still missing, the protection that the government has given to a highly controversial Muslim preacher from India, Dr. Zakir Naik, the controversial fatwas by a number of Muftis concerning other religion-resembling practices among the Muslims, and many other assertive actions taken by religious bodies such as the ban on the sale of alcohol in Muslim majority areas. Obviously and evidently these have been seemingly and unpleasantly offensive to many Chinese and Indians alike.
These are all the issues that have definitely affected the stability of racial relations in Malaysia. Since his first GE in 2013 as a prime minister, YAB Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Abdul Razak has witnessed a sudden and drastic slump in the non-Malay or non-Muslim support towards the Barisan nasional (BN)-led government. Despite the promulgation and introduction of 1Malaysia concept to woo the non-Malay citizens with one national identity, Najib has unfortunately seen that his effort in this regard has faced fierce resistance not only from the non-Malays, but also from many segments within the Malay community themselves who were basically anxious about their special privileges being sacrificed for that national identity. This is very telling so as to suggest that the country’s politics has increasingly gone somewhat along the racial line.
While Pakatan Harapan (PH) can now be said to has safely secured the non-Malay votes in majority, the opposition bloc is however still struggling to attract more support from the Muslim majority. This is partly due to PAS’ decision to leave the seemingly DAP-led pact, directly making contest in the upcoming GE to be three-cornered in Muslim-majority areas. With that in mind, the UMNO-led BN seems to have no choice but to focus on getting votes and support from the Malays as many as the party can. It is for that reason we will probably see the outcomes of the coming GE to be increasingly determined by racial and religious sentiments among the public albeit the increasing and equally important concerns on many other issues especially the rising cost of living in the country.
Therefore, there is no doubt and denying that UMNO and BN in general will be depending highly on the Muslim and Bumiputra electorate despite their long rhetoric of being color-blind and concerned for the well being of all Malaysians including the minorities. Participants and observers who were present during UMNO’s recent General Assembly (Perhimpunan Agung UMNO 2017 – PAU) can honestly vouch for that when Najib and some other UMNO’s Supreme Council leaders had set the tone when they warned that the special position and rights of the Malays will be eroded and threatened if the PH, especially the DAP whose membership is predominantly Chinese, came to power.
The issues concerning Muslim plights everywhere in the world today have also driven UMNO to align itself with PAS and many Malay right-wing groups like ISMA and PERKASA. With the recent recognition of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel by the United States (US), UMNO, PAS and a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are now feeling more determined than ever to jointly share stages in addressing the issue although they have previously competed to outdo each other in the Islamization race of their own creation. Najib and Hadi have also proved in the past that UMNO and PAS could work together when both of them attended the gathering of Al-Azhar University graduates in December 2015 and later joined forces again at a rally to protest against Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingyas minority.
There is no denying that Malaysia politics has always been racial and religious-based since the country’s independence, with many surfacing issues of late can further attest to that fact. While people may base their voting preference on how the government has been handling the country’s economy especially in regards to the cost of living, it is believed that many of them would still be casting their votes along the racial and religious sentiments. As it stands now, UMNO seems determined to play race and religion card, making BN somewhat looks like a Malay or Bumiputra coalition. This could adversely marginalize and strain UMNO’s ties with the other component parties especially the MCA and MIC which have devastatingly suffered from a drastic decline of support from their respective ethic communities.
PH, on the other hand, is trying to balance the support that they have been getting from the Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While the DAP has managed to increasingly secure the non-Muslim support, PKR, AMANAH and PPBM are still seemingly struggling to assure conservative Muslims in the country that their rights and privileges would not be eroded if the bloc captured Putrajaya. All these racial and religious issues have of course disheartened the ethnic minorities, but it seems that little could be done by the UMNO-led government to placate them, not when they have wholeheartedly been determined to vote the ruling coalition out. Having said that, it is highly likely that we will see the same pattern of voting – racial and religious-based – come the GE14 next year.