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Where is Anwar taking Malaysia?
Malay unity with PAS and solidarity with Hamas
By: Cyril Pereira
Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who gained international sympathy as a besieged liberal in western eyes during his two decades of imprisonment and political harassment, has earned growing concern by turning his government sharply toward doctrinaire Islam, causing internal strife with his Pakatan Harapan partners, who complain they have been blindsided too often. The prime minister has also made 21 trips to 14 countries in his first year. He seems eager to be away, rather than solve festering problems at home. He hangs on as finance minister too.
While evading the reforms his voters expect, the prime minister has championed Hamas in the Gaza conflict at a time when his Minister of Communications & Digital is making life miserable for a free press. He stole the thunder from Parti Islam se-Malaysia, PAS, the rural Islamist party, and its leader Hadi Awang, Malaysia’s usually vociferous choir for jihad and is the subject of speculation he may bring PAS into his coalition. Anwar snatched the public relations initiative to burnish his Islamic credentials. He was on TV, press, and social media, outshrilling PAS and Hadi.
His education minister implemented Palestine Solidarity Week in schools for her boss. That saw videos on social media, of school children engaged in flag-burning, toy-gun charades, and hate slogans. Parents rattled by the agitprop the kids received at school worry how they are coping with math and science too. Attitudes among some teachers and the ministry disturb them, when little children are used as pawns.
That risks annoying Malaysia’s powerful incoming Constitutional Monarch, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, who takes over as king on January 31, and who has long showed public antipathy to the imposition of Middle Eastern religious strictures on Malay society. In particular, he has had a fraught relationship with the Islamic Development Department JAKIM, that functions within the prime minister’s office and that Anwar is seeking to enhance. He had ordered a “Muslim-only” launderette in the town of Muar in 2017, to stop discriminating customers by religion or race. The holy dhobi had the option to comply or decamp quietly.
But a Jakim-hosted preacher chose to criticize the Sultan with towelhead doctrinal arrogance. Sultan Ibrahim rebuked the cleric Jamihan Mat Zin, during a local university convocation, as “an empty can and brainless.” He ordered the Johor Islamic Religious Department, JAIJ, to cut ties with Jakim forthwith. “I am directing JAIJ to stop wasting its time with Jakim.”
“Stop wasting time with Jakim” is a sharp rebuke that sums up its irrelevance. Sultan Ibrahim asked if the Malaysian government should issue Muslim-only currency too, as the notes and coins in circulation could have been touched by non-Muslims, bartenders, and even pork butchers. Asia Sentinel from 2021, reported halal certification scams rife under Jakim. Despite MACC anti-corruption review, no one is charged.
Anwar has bewildered citizens by allocating Jakim more budget and upgrading its remit to vet policies of his Madani (sustainability, equity, justice) governance, including economics and finance. Nevertheless, Jakim will avoid incurring royal displeasure during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar. All Malaysians would be relieved.
Shuffle the deck
Some in the governing coalition parties – the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Anwar’s own moderate urban Parti Keadilan Rakyat are voicing reservations about the PM’s tango with Hamas although both do support the Palestinian cause. Anwar critics allege he cartwheeled into that circus to remain relevant to Malay-Muslim voters, as global anti-Israel protests reached a crescendo. He has pumped up Malaysia’s standing in the Muslim world but at growing expense elsewhere.
His calculus on a revived Malay Unity alliance with PAS, and for good measure, the former backdoor ruling party Bersatu, could net an alternative parliamentary majority – and the Malay-Muslim legitimacy that eludes him. His political and Islamic programs mirror PAS. Will he dump the DAP & PKR, which annoy him, on behalf of voters who believed in him?
Some speculate that as the United Malays National Organization reinvents itself – it must, to purge the shame of the disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak and Najib’s equally stained deputy Zahid Hamidi – Anwar could return as leader. UMNO remains the richest political party in the country. It enjoyed the longest run of loyal voters till Najib stole the bank. The faithful wait for a cleansed UMNO. Anwar could nudge that for stable Malay Unity rule with PAS.
The DAP, like the Malaysian Chinese Association in the corrupt Barisan Nasional alliance that ruled unbroken for 61 years, finds its power and perks in government too attractive. Its leaders are defanged and silent. DAP & PKR voters pray for closure to racial and religious apartheid. There is anxiety in the ranks about the reality of betrayal.
Anwar has circled back to where he started in politics – leading Muslim youth in noisy rallies against injustice. He is at his best stoking protests. This time he performs on a global stage, using his Muslim Brotherhood networks with Hamas, Erdogan of Türkiye, and others. Several Islamic countries box Hamas as a terrorist outfit, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Malaysia maintains an open policy.
The United States has formally asked the Malaysian government twice to reverse its welcome of Hamas and to classify it as a terrorist organization. The Malaysian ambassador has been summoned in Washington. The US is serious. Several of the key figures involved in the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks were believed to have plotted at the al-Qaeda summit 2000 in Kuala Lumpur.
The US has announced sanctions coordinated with the UK to choke the financial tunnels of Hamas and its junior ally Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). The sanctions target money transfers for Hamas and PIJ and arms purchases. Like the drug cartels, they will find creative workarounds.
Anwar offered Palestinian students scholarships at local universities and declared an RM100 million donation. Alarmed by the prime minister’s ardor for Hamas, 12 NGOs from the Borneo states advised the strictest vigilance. Social activist Peter Jaban of the Sarawak Association for Peoples’ Aspiration, urged the Sarawak government “not to follow the federal administration blindly.” The Dayak Daily quotes him saying “any suggestion that Hamas members can gain asylum in Malaysia should be rejected, especially by the Sarawak government...If their Arab neighbors deny them asylum, what business does Malaysia have ...?”
The Palestinian cause allows uncontested, safe bombast and swagger for Islamic status for a polity constantly reminded that race and religion are existential threats. That same mindset harbors Indian fugitive preacher Zakir Naik, wanted by his country for money laundering, terrorist funding, and more. He is made a permanent resident, and Malaysia does not extradite him to stand trial.
Cyril Pereira, former publisher of Asia Magazine and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel, has been based in Hong Kong since 1985