Political theatre in Malaysia ahead of election

For the first time in more than 20 years, the city of Kuala Terengganu in Malaysia has a movie theatre - the Lotus Five Star Cinemas. But the darkened hall is dotted with infrared cameras to monitor couples - an effort to mollify local clerics in the
For the first time in more than 20 years, the city of Kuala Terengganu in Malaysia has a movie theatre - the Lotus Five Star Cinemas. But the darkened hall is dotted with infrared cameras to monitor couples - an effort to mollify local clerics in the conservative Muslim north-eastern state governed by Prime Minister Najib Razak's coalition.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

'Informal cooperation' between Umno and PAS can benefit both, but also carries risks

KUALA TERENGGANU • In Malaysia's Islamic heartland, a door to Hollywood has opened.

For the first time in more than 20 years, the city of Kuala Terengganu has a cinema, showing blockbusters like Baywatch and Wonder Woman. But the darkened hall is dotted with infrared cameras to monitor theatre-going couples.

"Are you looking at the screen or are you doing a bad thing?" said Mr Samiun Salleh, general manager of the Terengganu State Economic Development Corporation, a partner in the cinema.

The effort to mollify local clerics is a political one in the conservative Muslim north-eastern state governed by Prime Minister Najib Razak's coalition.

With a federal election due within 12 months, Datuk Seri Najib's Umno is seeking to burnish its credentials with Muslim voters.

To do so, Umno has formed an unlikely arrangement with its long- time nemesis, the hardline opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). At the centre of the thaw - they call it informal cooperation - is a rapprochement between Mr Najib and PAS chief Abdul Hadi Awang.

The move is simple maths for Mr Najib: More than 60 per cent of Malaysians are Muslim and 50 per cent are ethnic Malays, many of them in rural areas. He needs their votes for Umno to extend its 60 years in power, and closer ties with PAS may help.

For Datuk Seri Hadi, it gives him the ear of the Prime Minister and a better shot at influencing government policy.

Mr Najib's efforts have widened an existing rift between PAS and other parties in the opposition alliance, some of whom objected to PAS' push for syariah law for Muslims. PAS has now formally abandoned the opposition, raising the risk that multiple candidates may compete against Umno for each seat.

"The issues of race, ethnicity, the Malay language and especially Islam are close to the heart of the Malays," said Professor Mohamed Mustafa Ishak of politics and international studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia. "By working together to uphold Islam, either through the implementation of syariah law or strengthening the position of Islam within the administration, this serves both parties well."

While the approach may deliver Mr Najib votes, it also brings risks in a country with large Chinese and Indian minorities and a history of ethnic violence. Chinese and Indian voters are bastions of opposition support.

Prioritising Islamic voters would "be extremely harmful" to Malaysia's harmony, said Dr Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser to Malaysia's Pacific Research Centre. "It would also inadvertently nurture a hot bed for misguided religious extremists and fundamentalists to spread their twisted versions of intoxicating ideologies."

Umno's Kuala Terengganu division chief Sabri Alwi said he was not concerned about the PAS cooperation. "We are Muslim, PAS is also Muslim, we can stand together."

But architect Kamarul Bahrin, 62, who designed Kuala Terengganu's football stadium and the state museum, feels otherwise.

A PAS member since the early 1980s until recently, and a lawmaker since 2013, Mr Kamarul said the party had moved in recent years to weed out more moderate members. "This election is crucial, it's make or break," he said. If Umno and PAS continue to mix religion with politics, "we will end up as two Malaysias".

It is a careful dance, according to Kuala Terengganu's PAS chief, Wan Sukairi Wan Abdullah. "PAS equals Hamas," he said, referring to the Palestinian fundamentalist organisation. "And Umno equals Donald Trump. The two don't mix."

"The friendliness is a new strategy born out of mature politics," he added. "We are working together for the sake of the people and Islam. That is important."

After about five months, the Kuala Terengganu multiplex has had no reports of bad behaviour, according to Mr Samiun. Proof, he said, that compromise is possible.

"So far, there are no complaints, they are very happy," he said of the local clerics. "No bad things have happened."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Political theatre in Malaysia ahead of election'. Print Edition | Subscribe