Malaysia’s opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) has won the support of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) to strengthen the country’s Syariah Courts, in what looks like the start of cooperation between the traditional rivals ahead of the next general election, due in 2018. What is life like under a PAS-led, or at least PAS-influenced, government? TODAY spent three days talking to non-Muslim residents of Kota Bharu, Kelantan — where PAS has been in power for over 20 years — on living under the Islamist party and what possible changes in the Syariah law means for them.
KOTA BHARU — A steady stream of Muslim men converge on the Muhammadi Mosque built almost 150 years ago. Some are seen performing the ablution in the mosque compound, while those unable to get a spot in the hall lay out prayer mats on the pavement outside. One feels like one is in a city in the Middle East, and that feeling extends beyond the mosques. There are no cinemas in Kelantan. In supermarkets, men, women and families have to line up at the cashiers in three separate queues.
Yet despite the outward appearance of Kelantan as a state governed strictly by an Islamist party, the non-Muslims here say they are generally happy with life under PAS rule and enjoy harmonious ties with those from other races and religions.
The east coast state is home to 1.8 million people. Malays make up 95 per cent of the population, with the minority made up of Chinese, Indians and Thais. The main religion is Islam, but there are also many Chinese and Thai Buddhist temples.
Kelantan has been under the rule of opposition Islamist party PAS for more than 20 years despite the state having one of the slowest economic growth rates in the country. PAS won Kelantan comfortably in the last general election in 2013, winning 32 seats out of 45 seats contested in the state legislative assembly. It did even better in the 2008 contest, sweeping 38 seats out of 45.
PAS has also long made it a goal to introduce the Islamic criminal code in the state, and last month, party president Abdul Hadi Awang filed a controversial private member’s Bill in Parliament to strengthen the powers of Syariah courts.
The Bill proposes to increase Syariah punishment caps to a maximum of 30 years’ jail, a RM100,000 (S$32,400) fine and 100 strokes of the cane. (The maximum penalties now are a jail term of three years, a fine of RM5,000 or six strokes of the cane.) Mr Hadi’s motion has been deferred to the next parliamentary sitting due in March 2017.
The Bill has been supported by the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), prompting an uproar from non-Muslims and politicians from minority parties. These include the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), an ally of Umno in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Both Umno and PAS leaders have stressed that the Bill does not apply to non-Muslims and has nothing to do with Islamic criminal law, or hudud.
Despite this, Kelantan residents interviewed by TODAY said they are concerned about how the proposed law might affect their daily lives.
“If it applies only to the Muslims, then I will be less worried. But there is also fear in us that things may take a different route,” said Mr Gan Yeong Shuoh, 30, a hotel manager.
Another resident, Ms Lin Mei Li, 44, said the state government should explain more about the Bill and its position on hudud.
“Most of them (local people) do not understand the Bill or its implementation even though they know that it is related to Islamic laws. Personally, I feel that our nation is developing to be a progressive nation. I am not willing to see the Islamic penal code being implemented, even though it is limited to the Muslims only,” she added.
Punishment under hudud law includes the cutting off of one’s hands for theft, as well as stoning to death for extramarital sex.
There is also concern among some Malaysians that Mr Hadi’s Bill will create a two-tiered legal system.
“How will punishments be carried out if it involves a Muslim and non-Muslim?” said Mr Wee Pock Sun, president of The Federation of Hokkien Associations of Malaysia, raising a common concern of non-Muslims in the country.
Mr Wee, 55, said that the Kelantan government should focus more on measures to develop people’s livelihoods instead.
“They need to look at problems that involve the people. Find measures to tackle social ills and uplift the Kelantanese people. We have problems such as school dropouts and our education standard is still low. These are the problems that they need to address.”
Mr Yap Cher Leong, 62, a businessman dealing with hardware and construction materials, agrees and said that two areas the PAS government can focus on are ecotourism and agrotourism.
“Half-a-million Kelantanese are living in other cities because of employment. This itself speaks of the economic situation in the state,” he added.
Kelantan recorded economic growth of 3.5 per cent last year, lower than the 5 per cent nationally. It was the third-slowest-growing state in the country, doing better only than Terengganu (3.3 per cent) and Perlis (2.3 per cent).
It is reliant on services and agriculture. The services sector in Kelantan is driven mainly by the public sector, wholesale and retail, food and beverages, as well as hotel and accommodation. Agricultural products include paddy, palm oil, and fruit and vegetables.
Kelantan MCA Public Services and Complaints Bureau representative Ong Han Xian, 56, said that while relations between the various races and religions in the state have been good, investments have been hard to come by.
“There is no economic development and investment from companies. Investors are afraid because of the negative perception they have of Islamic rules. Instead of focussing on religion only, PAS must think of ways to develop Kelantan,” Mr Ong said.
He hopes that the upcoming East Coast Rail Link — a RM55 billion railway project that will span four states on the east coast and ends in Kelantan — will give a boost to the state’s economy when it is completed in 2022.
Despite slower economic growth and uncertainties over hudud, Kelantan presents a picture of multiracial harmony for now.
It is common to see Chinese and Malays dining together in halal Chinese-owned coffee shops.
At the Pokok Pinang market in Kota Bharu, rows of open air stalls sell pork alongside businesses run by Malays.
Residents say that when the state was under BN rule, pork sellers were constantly harassed and the trade was hidden from public view. The Chinese were also not allowed to purchase houses built on Malay reserve lands.
However, when PAS took over, all these changed — Chinese markets were improved, and 30 per cent of houses built on Malay reserve land were allocated for sale to the Chinese community.
Local businessman Michael Ong, 58, said that he feels proud of being Kelantanese and that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are good because of mutual respect.
He added that, as a non-Muslim, he does not feel restricted living under a PAS government even though there are some restrictions when it comes to entertainment.
“We are used to leading a simple life and our entertainment is in the form of interactions with our neighbours and friends. For example, attending dinners or joining various associations — these keep us occupied,” Mr Ong said.
Residents say another key factor in the good communal ties in Kelantan is a common local dialect known as “Bahasa Kelate” (Bahasa Melayu Kelantan). Everyone in the state, regardless of their race, is able to converse fluently in it.
Mr Oie Poh Choon, president of the Federation of Chinese Associations Kelantan, said that people who have not visited Kelantan may have a somewhat distorted view of life under a PAS government.
“Once you have experienced and visited Kelantan, you will know that it is different from what has been reported (in the media). The PAS government has taken good care of all the races living in the state,” said Mr Oie, 57.
Another reason for the strong support for PAS is the huge respect the non-Muslims have for the late chief minister Nik Aziz Nik Mat, fondly known as “Tok Guru” (Grandmaster). Despite his conservative outlook, the humble lifestyle of the PAS spiritual leader — often dressed in a simple turban and white robe — won the hearts and minds of Kelantanese.
Mr Michael Ong, the local businessman, said: “Tok Guru took care of everyone under his governance. He used Islamic values to care for the well-being of the people.”
Politically, PAS has also practised mutual tolerance, said Kota Bharu Islamic City Municipal Council councillor Lim Guan Seng. “During muktamar (the PAS annual general assembly) the leadership would never voice out their dislike for the non-Muslims or play the race card,” he said.
“Tolerance for other races came from the teachings of the late Tok Guru. The government has truly administered the state with true Islamic values.”