Malay issues put state govt in a bind

The Penang administration of Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has a Malay dilemma.

He says he has been trying to help the community in the last nine years since he became chief minister, but is facing a backlash on several fronts.

His administration is accused of ignoring the plight of poor Malays and interfering in Islamic matters, and Mr Lim has threatened to sue those who continue to claim that he had a hand in removing the previous mufti - the state's top religious officer - and meddled in the issuance of Islamic edicts.

Penang has the highest percentage of Chinese among the 13 Malaysian states - just under 40 per cent of its 1.7 million population. So it has been easy for Umno, the Malay party led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, to play the race card to discourage Penang Malays from supporting Mr Lim.

Penang has been ruled since 2008 by the Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance, with the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) helmed by Mr Lim as the lead party.

Umno is using the loss of Penang to paint a scary picture of the future of Malays in Malaysia.

Datuk Seri Najib has warned Malays that if Harapan comes to power nationally, DAP would dismantle pro-Malay institutions that give them land and grant financial aid to businessmen and students, as well as Islamic bodies that help the poor and those who want to perform religious pilgrimages.

But Mr Lim insists that Penang has not harmed Malays, with state funding for Islamic affairs doubling since he took over.

Yet there have been several Malays who have left the DAP in recent years, with some saying they were unfairly treated by the leadership. Former DAP vice-chairman Zulkifli Mohd Nor formed the People's Alternative Party, or PAP, with other DAP rebels in 2014.

"When I joined the DAP 26 years ago, I was thinking it was a socialist democrat party. I can go to the villages and say Islam is moderation and it does not run from socialist democrats. But the minute we are successful... it is not a socialist democrat party. It is run by a dictator, a chauvinist, a racist," the Penang-based veteran told The Straits Times.

Among former DAP members who joined him were Penang Malay Congress president Rahmad Isahak, who has repeatedly accused the party of co-opting Malay leaders to make it appear multiracial.

"How many seats (will DAP reserve) for Malays this election? Should be at least four. It's only cosmetic," he said.

Still, few observers believe that the DAP-led Penang state government is in any danger of losing power.

Harapan has a 70 per cent grip of the 40-seat state assembly and is especially strong in 19 wards, or nearly half the legislative, that DAP swept in 2013.

The 10 seats won by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition were Umno seats with Malay majorities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Malay issues put state govt in a bind'. Print Edition | Subscribe