Difficult Political Games in Malaysia

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A difficult balancing act in Malaysia.

Here's a fascinating piece from Chris Badeaux on the double game being played in the Malaysian state of Sarawak at the moment. As I wrote a few weeks ago in profiling opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the challenge in running a campaign whose constituencies include Chinese Christians of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Muslim Brotherhood-allied Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) may be too difficult of a balance for any politician - even a naturally gifted one like Anwar - to strike. The last paragraph here is particularly insightful:

Thus, two nights ago, Anwar spoke to a wildly enthusiastic crowd in one of the local Chinese-majority constituencies, and very carefully avoided mentioning anything remotely about PAS at all. Indeed, his speech had virtually nothing to do with local politics, instead focusing on his second sodomy trial, national politics, and a brief shot at a local incumbent who was running as an independent after his party (PKR) decided not to contest the seat to allow DAP a clean run at it.

When Anwar visits with PAS strongholds in peninsular Malaysia, he is clear to take credit for bringing the Islamic extremists into his coalition; when he visits the Chinese communities in Sarawak, he is not quite so clear that he supports a party that wants to make alcohol illegal, make the murder of a non-Muslim by a Muslim less of an offense than the murder of a Muslim by a non-Muslim, and, oh yes, supports turning Malaysia into an Islamic state. The Chinese community here is one of, if not the greatest, driver of entrepreneurialism and private wealth creation, and private Catholic and Protestant Christian schools are a source of great pride. It is terribly unlikely that they would roar with approval if they knew that Anwar was helping advance the end of those things.

So Anwar plays a double game. Before Islamist constituencies on the peninsula, he is a man who supports the imposition of sh’ria. Before Chinese Christians and moderates in Sarawak, he is a man more sinned against than sinning, a man whose only crime is bringing together an opposition to face off against a governing coalition that is transforming Malaysia into a developed state.

Two-faced politicians are hardly a wholly owned property of the West. But it's more difficult when you're trying to balance constituencies who are not just incompatible, but often pitted directly at odds with one another on matters of policy. And complicating matters further is the factionalism of ethnic communities - as an insightful working paper (pdf) from local professor Faisal Hasis notes in passing, no single ethnic group forms a majority there.

This diverse picture on the ground makes it difficult for the ruling authorities to deploy the patronage which has served them so well in the past, but it also makes the challenge of forming a coherent opposition movement nearly impossible. And should the opposition win, the prospects of forming a government which remains responsive to these disparate needs is unlikely, to say the least.

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