PETALING JAYA: There is no escaping the fact that former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad must shoulder some of the blame for the current climate of intolerance in the country, says a Singapore think tank.
Rashaad Ali, who is a political researcher with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the former prime minister had planted the seeds that has now grown into the fundamentalism and extremism taking place in the country, the South China Morning Post reported.
He was alluding to the fact that Mahathir had overseen the setting up of federal religious department, Jakim, as well as Biro Tata Negara (BTN) under the prime minister’s department in the 1980s, laying the foundation for religion and race to be the focus as Umno rallied Malay voters to their side in all general elections since.
“Considering the climate that has been fostered over the last 20 to 30 years, and accelerated in the last 10 years, it would be political suicide for Najib to take a middle path and speak out against hardline groups, let alone curb the powers of the religious bureaucracy.
“Hence, path dependency dictates that this strategy is unlikely to change any time soon, making a strong case for Najib taking ‘Islamisation’ much further than his predecessors,” Rashaad told the Hong Kong-based daily.
He added that Najib has to use Islam to shore up floundering Malay support, “a tactic first masterminded by Mahathir when he was in power from 1981 to 2003″.
“The Najib administration has repeatedly used religion to galvanise Malays, positioning themselves as the defenders of Islam in Malaysia and reinforcing a siege mentality,” Rashaad was quoted as saying.
The recent controversy over the banning of “beer fests” to commemorate the famous Oktoberfest celebration held annually in Germany, as well as the emergence of two Muslims-only laundry (in Johor and Perlis) have given rise to already existing tensions over infringement of non-Muslim rights by conservative Muslim groups as well as PAS.
According to SCMP, while Najib has come under fire for years over his supposed appeasement of Islamic fundamentalists, the ban on the beer fests raised questions on whether the Mahathir-helmed Pakatan Harapan is in the pocket of religious conservatives as well, despite its public brand as a champion of secularism.
This follows online petitions and other statements by Pakatan Harapan components PPBM and Amanah also calling for an end to beer festivals. Both PPBM and Amanah are splinter parties comprising a majority of members from Umno and PAS, respectively.
“The beer festival bans are tricky for both leaders as, with a general election looming, they are each battling for the support of the country’s largest vote bank: rural Malay Muslims for whom religious conservatism is a way of life,” SCMP said.
The Better Beer Festival, scheduled to be held over the weekend at Publika in Kuala Lumpur, had been cancelled, after the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) had not given it the relevant authorisation.
Later, the Inspector-General of Police Mohd Fuzi Harun said the reason for the cancellation was that police had received reports of an imminent militant threat in the popular mall and nightlife location.
Critics denounced both over what they called pressure from conservative groups as a leader from PAS had just days earlier demanded that authorities ban the event, or risk the national capital turning into “the largest vice centre in Asia”.
Meanwhile, an analyst with the BowerGroupAsia political risk consultancy, told SCMP that the wishes of urban voters are likely to be overlooked by both political coalitions as they fight for the hearts and minds of rural Malays.
“The rural Malay constituencies are the key battlegrounds. Disgruntled urban voters are a minor headache that both sides are willing to take,” Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani was quoted as saying.