What Will ASEAN say to a Malaysian Islamic State?
By Farish A. Noor
At present, there are several right-wing conservative Buddhist groups calling for Thailand to be officially declared as the first Buddhist state in the world; a feat unmatched by anyone else thus far for even Sri Lanka has remained a secular state all these years. One wonders what the implications of such a move might be both for Thailand and the region as a whole should it come to pass: Would the rise of right-wing Buddhism have an impact on the Muslim and Christian minorities in the country? Would it further inflame the situation in the South of Thailand where conflict between Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims has been raging since 2004?
One factor that has prevented any country in ASEAN from unilaterally making such drastic changes to its internal politics has been the checks and balances offered by the region’s plural character itself: A quick look at the map of the ASEAN region would show that this is a region of many faith communities living together and overlapping. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei remain predominantly Muslim, but they are flanked by predominantly Buddhist Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and even Vietnam. In turn there is the Phillipines which is Christian as well, and in all these countries – Singapore being a case in point – there are also large pockets of cosmopolitanism mixed with multiculturalism and multi-religiosity too.
Historically this may have been one of the factors that prevented countries like Malaysia and Indonesia from unilaterally upping the stakes in the Islamisation process, for it would have raised eyebrows in the neighbouring capitals. How long this state of affairs will remain unchecked, however, is anyone’s guess. In Malaysia and Indonesia the rise of political Islam has also given birth to radical new Islamist groupings like the Hizb’ut Tahrir that are now calling for a Pan-Muslim ASEAN super-state, far-fetched though their ambitions may seem.
Malaysia, on the other hand seems to be making tentative steps towards raising the stakes in the Islamisation race further. Following the results of the March 2008 elections that badly damaged the image and standing of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party that is led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, it would seem that the political elite of the country are more in favour than ever for a political compromise between UMNO and its former arch-nemesis, the Malaysian Islamic party PAS. For several weeks now the Malaysian political scene has been abuzz with talk about a possible merger between the nationalist UMNO party and the Islamist opposition party PAS, on the basis of further developing and ensuring Malay-Muslim unity in the country.
But an Islamic state in Malaysia? The implications are manifold and would consume the attention and energy of a legion of political analysts. How would such a merger between the nationalist UMNO and the Islamist PAS work? Would Malaysia finally declare itself to be ‘the Islamic state of Malaysia’? What would happen to the existing institutions of state such as the Parliament and the Monarchy? (PAS, for instance, has mooted the idea that the Parliament would be subsumed under a more powerful council of guardians and ulama since the 1980s.)
In Malaysia itself the talk of a possible merger between UMNO and PAS has given cause for anxiety among many of its citizens who wish to see the country remain on its secular-democratic track, and who fear that the sudden rise to power of PAS would undermine all the achievements of secular civil society in areas such as multiculturalism, gender equality and freedom of speech. Even among the ranks of the Islamist party itself there are dissenting voices that argue that the latest gambit by UMNO to bring PAS closer to it is nothing more than a thinly-disguised attempt by UMNO to remain in power at whatever cost.
One other factor that has to be raised now is how all this will affect Malaysia’s image abroad and how this may damage Malaysia’s standing as a moderate Muslim state in the region. After all, was it not the government of Prime Minister Badawi that promoted its own brand of ‘moderate’ Islam, dubbed Islam Hadari – that was in turn roundly condemned as un-Islamic by the very same PAS that UMNO is now trying to court? For decades the Malaysian government has presented the country as a bastion of moderate Islam while decrying PAS as a ‘fundamentalist’ party. Is this ‘fundamentalist party’ now being courted by UMNO to secure UMNO’s dominant position in the country? And would this mean that UMNO will now allow the very same ‘fundamentalist’ PAS to dictate the form and content of normative Islam in Malaysia?
Should the UMNO-PAS talks continue, and should PAS ever be brought into the ruling coalition by UMNO, the ASEAN region may have to look closer at Malaysia and consider the implications of this move for the region as a whole. A Malaysia with Islamists in power and a Malaysia that finally commits itself to the creation of an Islamic state will have long-term implications for ASEAN and the wider community. For a start, the success of the Islamists in Malaysia (should it come to pass) would embolden Islamists in Indonesia and other parts of the region to press ahead with their demands for an Islamic state too. What next? An Islamic state of Indonesia? And where will these moves take Malaysia and Indonesia, two key strategic states that have til recently been cast as ‘model’ ‘moderate’ Muslim states on the geo-political map?
It is for these reasons that the behind-the-scenes negotiations between UMNO and PAS in Malaysia cannot be seen as domestic concerns alone. ASEAN today has become too integrated and inter-dependent that any radical shift in any single ASEAN country is bound to have an impact on the economic viability and political stability of the region. UMNO today may be desperate to hold on to power, but even UMNO has to realise that there are internal and external limits to the manoeuvrability of any party.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University and co-founder of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research site