Aug 28, 2007

At age 50, Malaysia questions its identity

HAPPY 50th MERDEKA!

(AFP) KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia marks the 50th anniversary of its independence later this week at a time when it is increasingly questioning its own identity amid rising Islamisation and racial polarisation.

Since winning independence from Britain, Malaysia has been transformed into one of the Muslim world's most developed countries, complete with skyscrapers such as the iconic Petronas Twin Towers and massive highways and ports.

It has also slashed poverty through stable economic growth.

Yet as the country prepares to mark a half-century of nationhood on Friday, many are struggling to agree on what it means to be Malaysian, and how much your religion and culture counts.

P. Ramasamy, a political scientist and former professor with the National University of Malaysia, is worried about a rising influence of Islam, and the racial and religious divisions it could spark.

"If this is the indicator after 50 years, I do not want to look forward to the next 50 years as the situation may become worse," he told AFP.

Islam is the official religion here and Muslim Malays make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people, with the rest mostly Buddhist, Christian and Hindu.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution but a number of recent events -- such as a court's decision not to recognise a woman's conversion to Christianity and a row over whether Sharia law should be incorporated into the legal system -- have highlighted long-standing divisions.

Malaysia experienced deadly race riots between Malays and Chinese in 1969 sparked by political rivalries and anger over the wealth of the Chinese, and today ethnic Malays dominate politics.

The National Front coalition -- formerly known as the Alliance Coalition -- has ruled Malaysia since independence.

It includes ethnic Chinese and Indian parties, but is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Abdullah frequently preaches national unity and freedom for all religions, but Zaid Ibrahim, a lawmaker with UMNO, says that communal relationships have become worse over the past five decades.

"This 50th celebration of our independence brings to me a tinge of sadness," he told AFP.

"I'm sad that we have become a country that talks of race and religion on a daily basis, and that we feel the need to continuously emphasize power, authority and coercion to extract obedience," he said.

Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was sacked and jailed in 1998, told AFP that Islam in Malaysia had been "hijacked" for political reasons by the ruling party, and urged caution against creeping extreme Islamic tendencies.

He pointed to a recent decision by the Federal Court rejecting a women's bid to be legally recognised as a Christian after converting from Islam.

Lina Joy waged a decade-long battle to have the word "Islam" removed from her national identity card, but the court threw out her case and said only the Sharia court can legally certify her conversion.

Anwar decries not just the religious divisions, but the economy, which he says is being battered by corruption.

"Foreign investments are heading elsewhere. This is due to incompetence, poor governance and refusal to change. So we are losing out to Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, India and China," he said.

Quality of life for many Malaysians, however, has risen considerably over five decades.

Most homes now have a car and two television sets. Per capita income last year stood at 5,388 dollars, up from 2,335 dollars in 1990.

Malaysia's gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 was valued at 151.4 billion dollars from 44 billion dollars in 1990.

Yet Southeast Asia's third largest economy has seen foreign direct investment steadily declining. In 2006 it amounted to an estimated 3.9 billion dollars, compared to 5.5 billion dollars in 2001.

Malaysia's official economic growth forecast for 2007 is six percent, behind that of rivals China and India. Its economy grew 5.9 percent in 2006.

Wan Suhaimi Saidie, an economist with Kenanga Investment Bank, warned that boosting foreign investment was going to become a challenge.

"Unless we introduce new investment friendly policies like tax breaks we will lose out," he said.

Almost half of the last 50 years were dominated by the economic and political policies of Mahathir Mohamad, 81, who retired from office in 2003 after 22 years as prime minister.

He handed the reins to Abdullah, but has since become an outspoken critic of his 67-year-old successor, whom he has accused of nepotism and corruption.

The next elections will be in 2009, but P. Ramasamy warns that the country must find a solution to religious tensions if it is to continue to modernise.

"If it is not addressed, it will create serious racial problems in the country," he said.

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