ad info

 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek

MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12

A Race for Islamization?

UMNO's dilemma: On this issue, it cannot yield to Pas

Asiaweek Pictures
Farish A. Noor

After last November's general elections, the leaders of Malaysia's dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition were confronted by a radically different coalition of opposition parties. This time Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) won the biggest share of opposition seats in Parliament (27) and became the undisputed leader of the alternative front made up of the Democratic Action Party, Keadilan and the People's Party of Malaysia. Pas also took over a second state (after Kelantan), oil-rich Trengganu. When its state assemblymen gathered for their first official photograph they were all dressed in the black robes, turbans or skull caps that are currently in vogue among the country's ulama (religious functionaries). "Men in black" suddenly had a new meaning in Malaysia.

Setting aside such ideologically loaded displays of religiosity, one must recognize that Pas is now in a unique position to dictate its own terms within the opposition coalition and to inject its Islamist discourse into mainstream politics. This it has been trying to do all along, but only with any success in recent years.


COVER: Seismic Changes
Can president-elect Chen Shui-bian meet the historic challenges posed by a changing Taiwan - and by China?
The Challenge: Now comes the hard part
Reality Check: Beijing will have to deal with the new Taiwan
Profile: Chen's split personality

Editorial: Taiwan and China have reason aplenty to make peace
Editorial: Asia needs new policies to combat prostitution

South Asia: Clinton to India and Pakistan - Start Talking
'Limited War': Don't let the term fool you
Philippines: Sister Christine vs. Estrada - yet another scandal
Extended Interview: Salamat Hashim calls for independence
Myanmar: Behind the secret "Chilston" meetings
Inside Story: Asia's "Insiders" - four people who have blown the whistle on wrongdoing
Viewpoint: A Malaysian race for Islamization?

People: Sumo's big brother calls it quits
Heritage: The struggle to save Penang's old George Town
Art: Digital works blur the line between tech and expression
Books: Why healthcare was so bad in Suharto's Indonesia
Health: Noni - The craze over a smelly green fruit
Newsmakers: Thai "List of Shame" riles the privileged

Games: Microsoft's X-factor
Computing: IBM's Deep Blue man is now into e-commerce
Cutting Edge: An e-book horror story

Bankruptcy: The court-ordered restructuring of TPI suggests Thailand is coming to grips with deadbeat borrowers
Room to Improve: Inadequate laws in Indonesia and Korea
No Hype: Can Singapore's Pacific Internet regain investor favor?
Renong: The Malaysian conglomerate sells off key assets
Business Buzz: A deal to lift Singapore's spirits

Investing: How rising U.S. interest rates will affect Asia

During Pas's fledgling years in the 1950s, it grappled with problems of funding, management and organization and had little chance to push its Islamist agenda. Pas got its act together when its leadership went to full-time politicians and managers in the 1960s, soon developing into a party that served as a wadah (vehicle) for political activism. It also began to promote its Islamist ideology while steadily chipping away at the Islamist credentials of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), anchor of the BN. Determinedly propagating its ideology to the remotest corner of the Malay heartland, Pas prepared to exploit any weakness in the BN's armor.

UMNO's response has evolved over the years. After Independence in 1957, Pas was written off as a party of peasants, village elders and backward ulama. But when it won control of both Kelantan and Trengganu in 1959, the mood changed. From the 1970s, UMNO has upped the stakes in the Islamization process. This was demonstrated by the policies of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government, which produced Islamic banking, the International Islamic University and Islamic think-tanks and research centers. The aim was to show that UMNO was just as Islamic as Pas and in a better position to promote the interests of Malay-Muslims.

The problem with such a move is that it invariably plays into the hands of the Islamist opposition. Mahathir's government wanted to promote its own brand of Islam that was modern and progressive in outlook. But religio-political discourse has the embarrassing tendency of slipping out of control: Islam became the rallying call for not only both UMNO and Pas, but a host of popular organizations, cult groups and alternative movements. Islamist political discourse permeated all levels of Malay society, contributing to the growing expectations of its masses and further enforcing cultural boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslim political parties as well as secular-minded civil society activists found it increasingly difficult to project their concerns in an environment where political discourse interpenetrated with theology.

The time was ripe for the rise of Pas. With a new generation of radical Islamist leaders and thinkers like Nik Aziz Nik Mat, Fadzil Noor and Hadi Awang, the party was more than able to turn the discourse in its favor. When deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim was sacked, taken to court and jailed in 1998 (and assaulted along the way), UMNO's rank and file left the party in droves in protest. Pas was there to provide the political vehicle for them to carry on their struggle. In the last elections, the Malay-Muslims showed in no uncertain terms what they thought of the leaders of the country and UMNO in particular.

UMNO is caught in a dilemma of its own making. As a conservative nationalist Malay party, it cannot afford to back down in the Islamization race. To do so would appear as a betrayal of Islam and Muslim interests, and could only lose UMNO more support. But to enter the fray would mean joining the Islamists in their own game, and thereby intensifying the Islamization process even further. The option that UMNO has not seriously considered so far is to look at the underlying causes of dissatisfaction among the people: the numerous allegations of nepotism, corruption and inequality between the rich and the poor. Addressing these, however, would mean having to clean up the party in public, which the leadership is not yet inclined to do.

Many observers worry about the future, knowing that UMNO has always had the potential of becoming every bit as conservative and reactionary a party as Pas. Should UMNO try to "out-Islamize" Pas, the outcome will have an immediate effect on the whole political terrain. As the government's development agenda is sidelined in favor of more (some would say cosmetic) displays of state religiosity, Malaysia will have to adapt to a new political climate where religious discourse penetrates deeper into the concerns of nation-building, economics and government. The outcome of such a move remains uncertain at this stage, but it will invariably create an "Asian tiger" of a different - greener - stripe.

FARISH A. NOOR is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is currently writing a book on Pas (

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


Quick Scroll: More stories and related stories
Asiaweek Newsmap: Get the week's leading news stories, by region, from Newsmap


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.