A Chinese Woman in PAS Country

It's 4 am in Kota Bahru. The streets are empty in the capital of Kelantan, the northern state bordering Thailand on Malaysia’s east coast. Here in the heart of the old town, which is mostly populated by shops owned by ethnic Chinese, also lies the headquarters of the Parti se-Islam Malaysia, or PAS, the fundamentalist party that has ruled the state for 18 years in defiance of all electoral attempts by the ruling national coalition to root it out. Further down the street are the state mosque and the sultan’s palace.

Just around the corner, a young ethnic Malay woman walks down the stairs of a budget hostelry located above the shop. Wearing a pair of tight-fitting capris and a tight short-sleeved tee-shirt, she looks at me and smiles. Moments later, a young man with short, streaked curly hair comes down, tucking in his shirt. He smiles too.

As I walk up, I meet a regular at the motel where I've been staying at for the past week. He is probably in his late teens or early twenties. Scrawny, but handsome with big doleful eyes and smooth olive skin, he waits around the lobby for his girlfriend, who is usually up in a room.

Life in Kota Bahru is strikingly similar to that in Brunei, another strict Islamic state, where entertainment and the public sale and consumption of alcohol are illegal. Beneath a prim and proper exterior are all the carnal undercurrents. As in Brunei, illegal drinking holes exist, but they are strictly for non-Muslims, and tapai -- alcoholic fermented rice — is a popular tipple. Youthful rebellion against medieval Islamic laws simmers, but quietly, and many leave the state, either in search of better employment opportunities or a more liberal lifestyle.

Khalwat — close proximity between unmarried people of the opposite sex -- is policed by the religious authorities as in every other state throughout the country, but considerably more assiduously. In extreme cases, sitting side by side with a member of the opposite sex to whom you are not married is forbidden. More common are couples hauled up for premarital or extramarital sex. Ominously, pencil scribbles on my room wall warn that fornicators will burn in hell for eternity.

On my first few days here, the khalwat police knocked on my door to check if I was sinning or had sinned. The first time they were polite and asked whether I was Muslim. The second time, they were insistent enough that I became worried that they would break down the door if I didn't open it. Both times, they asked if I was alone. I thought that was really none of their business as I am a non-Muslim, and they left after I asserted my exempt status from moral policing.

All of this Big Brother style surveillance does little, if anything at all, to prevent hot-blooded young Muslims from keeping the beds bouncing. After all, there are 24 hours in a day and so many young people and so few khalwat police. In Kota Bahru, however, to a some extent, PAS's focus on family values has kept the frolicking at bay compared to other states like neighbouring Terengganu, where getting laid is probably easier than finding a clean toilet.

The PAS headquarters is a pale green building with a geometric-patterned facade in the center of town, facing the old market and surrounded by shophouses with shaded walkways. The party inside it seems to offer few practical solutions for curbing social ills apart from religion. In a political rally organized by the party recently, I spoke to a grassroots woman leader, a penghulu tanpa mukim (roughly translated as a village leader without a district). Asked about PAS's approach in tackling social ills like Muslim women throwing away their newborn babies, which is common in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, she meekly said: "Such things don't happen as much here. We try to solve such problems amicably in Kelantan."

"What if the boy runs away and leaves the girl?" I asked. She replied: "Usually in Kelantan, the boy won't run away and will marry the girl."

Beyond that, Kota Bahru is a surprisingly pleasant and very safe place to live, unlike Kuala Lumpur, where street crime is becoming all too common. For all the restrictions on Muslims, non-Muslims here are free to sin as they wish. Beer is available in Chinatown and at a smattering of illegal pubs that offer tacky music. Non-Muslims practice their religion freely. The state boasts the largest reclining Buddha in the country and the racial tension that sometimes pervades the urban areas on Malaysia’s west coast is largely absent here. Local Chinese have assimilated more those in other states, probably because they make up a fraction of a population in which 94 per cent are ethnic Malays. Most speak the local dialect and mingle with Malays in restaurants and cafes.

"I love my PAS," said a middle-aged Chinese businessman at the political rally as he got into his chauffeured four-wheel-drive with his wife. "PAS is good." When I pointed out the lack of entertainment, he quipped, "So what if there is no entertainment? It's not everything. You want a beer? I'll take you for a beer now."

But PAS's greatest challenge is not winning the non-Malay vote, for it has done well in being fair to all the races in the state. Its main hurdle in becoming a true political force is the Malays' acceptance of the party's fundamentalist and rigid moral policing. Speak about PAS to an urban Malay who likes drinking and clubbing – and there are lots of them in Kuala Lumpur and other urban areas -- chances are that he or she will cringe and indicate a preference for the People's Justice Party (PKR), the multiracial but Malay-dominated party led by former deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Despite the fact that it has become an integral part of the opposition coalition in the parliament in Kuala Lumpur, federal power, however may not be the party's goal as its leaders appear quite content running their own little Islamic kingdom in this secluded and almost magical part of Malaysia, which has a distinct cultural identity. Many Kelantanese are proud of their state and their chief minister, Nik Aziz Nik Mat. The PAS spiritual advisor, fondly refered to by many as "Tok Guru" (teacher), has ruled since 1990 and has built a cult-like following with his spartan lifestyle and messianic mannerisms.

For all its Islamic leanings, the party's administrative performance is commendable compared to states under the National Front, or Barisan Nasional (BN), which is led by the largest ethnic party, the United Malays National Organisation. For instance, Sabah and Sarawak are among those richest in resources but with the highest poverty rates. Kelantan has inched up the poverty rankings through prudent financial management despite funding restrictions from the Barisan-controlled federal government.

For an urban Chinese like me, or rather a non-Muslim, the Kota Bahru experience so far is like that in many other small towns. The thing that sets it apart is the town is almost as Chinese as it is Malay. Next to Chinese textile stores are Malay ones, whereas in Kuala Lumpur racial segregation is starker. with almost clearly defined Malay and Chinese areas. Malays own newspaper stands here, which are traditionally dominated by ethnic Indians on the other side of the mountains. But these are early days and there is much more to explore and learn about this Islamic 'paradise'. Perhaps to even to learn to shed my racial lenses.