Keen observers of Malaysian politics will be the first to tell you that there has been a perceptible change in the political terrain of the country of late. Evidence of such change can be found everywhere, in practically all areas of social, political, economic and cultural life in the country. It manifests itself through a multifarious array of epiphenomena which often slips through our analytical lenses for the simple reason that much of it seems so mundane, yet these signs are ever-so-important if one knows how to read them.
Witness, for instance, the lacklustre response to the trial of the al-Maunah 'deviationist cult' group who are currently accused of wanting to overthrow the government and install an Islamic state by force of arms. One would have thought that something like this would grab the attention of the entire Malaysian public, but all evidence points to the contrary. If anything, the public's response has been one of general indifference and apathy, compounded by the fact that the opposition movements in the country have glibly dismissed the whole event as yet another 'sandiwara' on the part of the State in order to demonise the Islamist opposition.
Then there was the clumsily managed 'Suqiu affair' where leaders of the Youth Division of the Conservative-Nationalist UMNO party tried in vain to rally the support of the Malays in general by crying out that Malay rights and the special position of the Bumiputeras were in danger. Instead of winning the support of the Malay populace, their calls for mass mobilisation were also met with indifference. Some Malay-Muslim youth groups even went one step further and dismissed the whole affair as yet another 'sandiwara' and came out in support of the Chinese associations instead.
These incidents, and many others like them, should convince us that something is afoot in the country. It appears as if the old catchwords and rallying slogans of 'Malay rights' and 'Malay dominance' no longer resonate among the Malays in general. A growing number of Malays it would seem have begun to switch to a new register altogether: one which focuses on Islam and the unity of the Muslim Ummah instead of the unity of the Malays. It is probably too early to write the epitaph for the communitarian politics of race and nation at this stage, but the signs are that the old register has given way to a new one, complete with its own final moral vocabulary based on Islam.
Linked to this is the growing popularity of key concepts and politically loaded signifiers like 'transparency', 'accountability', 'democracy' and 'civil society'. A small but significant (not to forget vocal) section of the Malay community has begun to articulate these concerns both on the local and international level, competing and contesting for right of entry into a discursive space that was once the exclusive purview of the managers of the State. Suddenly we see an interesting convergence taking place: Young Malay-Muslim students, activists and professionals have begun to attack the record of the government and the State on the grounds that it is both un-Islamic and un-democratic. Calls for Islamisation of Malaysian society are being accompanied by equally vocal calls for openness, transparency and accountability. There is much talk of reform and change, but this is often based on two separate yet interlinked registers: Islam and Democracy. So what is happening in this country?
Now the response from the powers that be has, sadly, been predictable. Politicians from the ruling party and government have come out condemning these 'young Turks' roaming the streets and the campuses as 'Western-influenced' upstarts who have been watching too much CNN or BBC. They have been accused of wasting their time reading Al Gore's speeches instead of dutifully memorising the words of wisdom churned out in the editorials of the mainstream media. They are, in short, accused of being the products of 'Western' notions of democracy and human rights which have no place in our Asian society that prides itself with its Asian values.
But such blanket accusations ring hollow when we consider the evidence that is at hand. The young 'upstarts' who were marching in the streets and supporting the calls for reformasi were not exactly the sort who would spend their evenings in that notorious 'den of sin' called Bangsar. They don't seem to be the sort who would spend what little money they have on expensive Western newspapers and magazines. One wonders if they can even afford to have cable TV in their homes for them to watch CNN or BBC. Where then does all this talk of human rights, democracy and transparency come from?
The answer to the question might come to us if we care to look at the material that is read, distributed and reproduced by these disgruntled individuals themselves. A cursory overview of much of the local vernacular reformasi material (including not only magazines and books but also websites, cassettes, Videos and VCDs) would suggest a strong Islamist flavour present. There is invariably the often repeated references to change and reform, overhauling the structure of the State and even opening the way for the introduction of an Islamic government- but surely none of this could have come from the editorial board of CNN. Working on the assumption that Al Gore is not a closet Muslim who hands out fatwas on Islamisation while Bill Clinton is not looking, we need to look elsewhere for the source of inspiration behind the whole reformasi-Islamisasi phenomenon we are witnessing in the country today. Funnily enough, the source of it all is surprisingly close to home, for it happens to be none other than UMNO itself.
Irony of ironies, the singlemost important factor behind the emergence and rise of this new generation of Islamically-conscious Malay-Muslim youth has been the UMNO-led state itself. For it was the UMNO-led state that really paved the way for the Islamisation of society in its effort to out-Islamise its arch rival, PAS.
During the 1980s and 1990s, it was UMNO (and not PAS, mind you) that really opened the way for the creation of a more Islamic society in Malaysia. It was the UMNO-led government that tried to blend Islam with an essentialist 'Asian work ethic' in order to make the Malays more productive. It was also the UMNO-led government that opened the International Islamic University, the Islamic think tanks, research centres and dakwah centres that now dot the landscape of the country. It was UMNO that also helped to create and reinforce the Malay-Muslim dominated parallel bureaucracy that operated under the auspices of the Islamic Centre which was under the PM's office. It was also UMNO that helped to rationalise and centralise this Islamic bureaucracy in its efforts to counter the growing influence of Islamist movements like PAS, ABIM and Darul Arqam- and by doing so they had effectively handed over considerable power and influence to the Ulama of the State.
Put together all these educational, administrative and pastoral institutions helped to create the Malay-Muslim constituency that we see today. To cap it all off, one could even say that the younger generation of Islamist-inclined anti-establishment youth who are clamouring for reform on religious grounds are the final product of two decades of Islamisation under UMNO. (This is not all that far-fetched if we take a quick note of the mathematics behind it all. Most of the youngsters who support the Islamist opposition today are in their 30s. This means that they grew up and reached political maturity during the 1980s and 1990s when State-sponsored Islamisation was reaching its zenith).
If traditional notions and values of Malay politics like Malay rights and Malay dominance are now on the wane and seem set to be eclipsed by the Islamist register, who is to be held responsible for this?
One can only look to those institutions that played the crucial pedagogic role of educating and forming the hearts and minds of the young in the country over the past few decades. This would include the mainstream mass media, which was at the forefront of promoting 'Islamic' forms of entertainment like Nashid instead of the 'evil, corrupting' influence of the Western media. One would also have to look to the local universities that were popularising courses like Islamic law, Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology and Islamic political science and history. Anyone who has read the writings of any Islamic thinker of note- from al-Ghazali to Ali Shariati, from Iqbal to Sheikh al-Hadi- will know that concepts like accountability, transparency, freedom and fundamental human rights are cardinal values and ideas in practically all schools of Islamic socio-political thought. Hardly surprising, then, if all these young Malay-Muslim students end up getting all hot and bothered about issues like human rights and social justice after their lectures.
To sum up, it would not be too radical for anyone to suggest that the phenomenon of youthful unrest we see around us has more to do with the Islamisation programme of the State than the frothy pontifications of Western news editors or Vice-Presidents. If our young today have grown overly concerned about the need for transparency, accountability and democracy, they are just as likely to have learnt about these things from reading al-Ghazali, ibn Khaldun, al-Afghani or Abduh at school. This would also help to explain why all this talk of social and political reform is flavoured with generous doses of religious sermonising and promises of hellfire and divine punishment- again, something you don't really get from CNN.
UMNO's success has therefore become its own undoing, in a sense. The emergence of this generation of young Malay-Muslims who no longer regard Malay dominance or Malay rights as key political issues is proof that the Islamisation programme of the State has worked. It has, in fact, created something else that was totally unexpected and most likely beyond its control. Taking into account the host of other variables like the internet, the growing transnational links between Islamist movements and parties world wide, the growing tide of civil unrest in other parts of the Muslim world, this local phenomenon is set to grow even bigger in the years to come.
How then can the State cope with these changes?
The problem is that States and political parties happen to be large, lumbering objects that often suffer from institutional inertia. States are always slow to respond to changes around them, even when the need to do so is paramount. If all things remain equal and UMNO keeps to its time-tested ways, the likelihood is that it will end up doing all the wrong things.
It must be remembered that this entire phenomenon was the result of UMNO's feverish attempt to out-Islamise PAS and by doing so the UMNO-led state had effectively helped to up the stakes in the Islamisation race in the country. Now that UMNO's own Islamist credentials are shot to pieces, the last thing it needs to do is to try to return to the Islamisation race all over again. This would merely lead to the inflation of Islamic discourse in the country and serve as a bigger handicap for UMNO.
The other alternative would be to return to the developmental agenda of the past and try to rescue it before it is wiped off the map altogether. Malaysia was once the model state in the ASEAN region which had managed to build sound and credible institutions such as the Judiciary, Police force, Armed forces and an efficient bureaucracy. It did not have so many mega-projects then, but at least its skyline was not littered with ugly skyscrapers and the government enjoyed considerably more respect and recognition both locally and abroad. This was also the time when the Islamist opposition had been cowed into submission and brought into line, for the simple reason that the State had got things right and seemed to be doing what was necessary to run things.
It is not too late to go back to this earlier, more sober and pragmatic model of hands-on government. Meritocracy remains a value to be admired, like efficiency and professionalism. These are not beyond the reach of the present leadership should it opt to go for them. The trouble is, many suspect that the powers-that-be at the moment do not have the political will to make the necessary changes that are so crucial for its own survival.
One thing is certain though: There is the pressing need to recognise that the political terrain of the country has shifted for good. Islam- and political Islam in particular- is now here to stay. It is something that has to be dealt with with intelligence, sensitivity and wisdom. Harping on about the machinations of the 'evil West' does not resolve any of these problems and difficulties and it does not address the immediate realities at hand. And one crucial thing must be remembered in the midst of all this: Those Malay kids who have turned down your Malay agenda are not the products of Western propaganda or brainwashing. They happen to be the products of your own success in development and nation-building. They are the children of more than four decades of uninterrupted UMNO rule and state-sponsored Islamisation.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of Islamic Studies, Frei University of Berlin. He is also researching on Islamist movements in the ASEAN region and writing a book on PAS.