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SCMP: Ethnic Chinese targeted for votes

20/5/2001 7:28 am Sun

[Jika PAS berjaya mendekati kaum Cina, BN dijangka akan kalah teruk dalam pilihanraya umum nanti. PAS harus lebih agresif dalam hal ini kerana Mahathir sudahpun mula mengorak langkah untuk mendapatkan sokongan kaum Cina melalui perlantikkan penasihat khas nanti. - Editor]

The South China Morning Post, HK
19th May 2001

Ethnic Chinese targeted for votes

Islamic opposition party leader wades through pig farm in bid to win electoral support


Bearded and wearing a turban, the leader of Malaysia's powerful fundamentalist Islamic opposition party recently visited a piggery and chatted amiably to ethnic Chinese farmers.

Yesterday, aides to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad confirmed he will appoint one new staff member, maybe two, to advise him directly on ethnic Chinese concerns.

With three years to go before the next general elections, the battle has begun for the support of one of Malaysia's most important political constituencies - the more than 30 per cent of the country's 22 million people who are ethnic Chinese.

The community's political clout has skyrocketed since a split emerged in the Malay Muslim community, which has eroded support for Dr Mahathir's United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and strengthened the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS).

The split was triggered by Dr Mahathir's firing of his deputy Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, and Anwar's subsequent trials for s###my and corruption. Anwar was convicted and is serving a 15-year prison term. He claims the charges were part of a conspiracy to stop him from challenging Dr Mahathir, who has led Malaysia since 1981. Dr Mahathir denies it.

At general elections in 1999, Malays - more than 60 per cent of the population and Umno's traditional power base - delivered control of two states to PAS, which also tripled its seats in Parliament and made inroads in several other provinces including Dr Mahathir's home state of Kedah.

More than 60 per cent of ethnic Chinese votes went to Dr Mahathir's coalition Government, which includes two parties with strong ethnic Chinese links, delivering it the two-thirds majority in Parliament it needs to rule.

Umno has tried to paint PAS as extremists and play on fears among ethnic Chinese about how they would be treated by a government led by Islamic fundamentalists. Candidates from the Democratic Action Party, PAS allies in an opposition coalition, lost heavily to government candidates at the 1999 elections.

Since then, the DAP and PAS have worked hand in hand to soothe ethnic Chinese concerns. While it maintains its basic tenet that Malaysia should become an Islamic state, PAS insists it will not discriminate against non-Muslims and has softened its ideological line in some areas.

"We must win the hearts of the non-Muslims, especially the Chinese, if we are truly to be an alternative to the Government," said Nasaruddin Mat Isa, the party's secretary-general.

When leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat toured Malaysia's pork-producing heartland in March, it signalled his party's strategic shift and set alarm bells ringing for Dr Mahathir. Pork is taboo in Islam. "Be careful of this party," Dr Mahathir told Umno members last week. "PAS is willing to even wade through pig farms just to win the Chinese support."

In the two states where PAS governs, liquor sales are restricted to non-Muslims and gambling and unisex pubs are banned. Muslim women are required to cover their heads, and supermarket checkout queues are segregated by gender. But Ronnie Liu, DAP's national spokesman, said that non-Muslims have not been discriminated against.

"Yes, the DAP is still against an Islamic state," Mr Liu said. "But we can work together on common interests such as justice and equality and show the Chinese that PAS is not against non-Muslims."

The political jockeying comes amid simmering dissatisfaction among ethnic Chinese about government policies which give special privileges to ethnic Malays in education, government jobs and business. The policies, instituted after race riots in 1969 triggered by Malay resentment at the economic dominance of ethnic Chinese, are questioned by ethnic Chinese who say advancement should be based on merit.

While Dr Mahathir earlier this year branded Chinese pressure groups communists for demanding an end to positive discrimination, PAS officials held unprecedented talks with Chinese community leaders. When Dr Mahathir sought talks with PAS leaders on Malay unity, it imposed preconditions, which scuttled the talks.