As election fever takes hold in multi-religious Malaysia, which goes to the polls tomorrow, the world has a stake in seeing that the country continues to remain a model of a moderate Muslim democracy that does not tolerate Islamist-based terrorism and integrates a multi-faith, multi-ethnic society.
While the ruling Barisan National Coalition has remained in power since Malaysia's independence half-a-century ago from the British, balancing the relationships among the country's multiple racial, religious and linguistic groups remains an ongoing, and delicate, process. Sixty percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are Muslim Malays. Some 25 percent are ethnic Chinese and 7.8 percent are ethnic Indians. Sensitive issues regarding education, language and religion periodically stir racial and religious sentiment. Malaysians still remember the traumatic ethnic strife that took place in May 1969, making the goal of stability a central factor in the almost certain re-election of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.
One major factor maintaining support for the Badawi government is the country's continued strong economic growth, averaging some 6.5 percent annually for the entire 50 years since Malaysian independence. Once one of the poorest countries in the world, Malaysia is today a middle-income, multi-sector economy, one of the world's largest exporters of semiconductor devices and information technology products. Many Malaysian voters continue to focus on rice-bowl issues - avoiding inflation and maintaining low unemployment - even as they press Mr. Badawi to continue to strengthen his initiatives to combat corruption.
But the larger issue for Malaysia and the world for the long term is whether a moderate Muslim government can use an economic and social strategy that is creating prosperity and a broad middle class as an effective counter to religious and political extremism at home and abroad.
The threat of such extremism has been real enough, especially immediately prior to Mr. Badawi's taking office in 2003. Two of the 9/11 hijackers passed through Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, hosted by an alleged member of the Al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Two USS Cole bombing plotters also spent time in Malaysia courtesy of JI. Key figures in the Bali and the JW Marriott hotel bombings in Indonesia prepared their attacks while living in Malaysia. Malaysian police still periodically find cells linked to JI terrorists with illegal firearms and bomb making equipment or materials.
The current Badawi government in Malaysia has zero tolerance for militant or terrorist activity from whatever source. By comparison, the record of the opposition is more complex. The Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) controls one of Malaysia's 13 states and has called for banning nightclubs and alcohol and for imposing shari'a-associated "hudud" punishments, such as amputations and stoning for certain crimes. In the city of Kota Baru in Kelantan state, governed by PAS since 1996, queues in supermarkets are by law strictly gender-segregated to prevent opposite sexes from touching and committing the Islamic "crime" of khalwat. Women are also subjected to strict Islamist dress codes.
While the vast majority of Malaysia's people do not want this type of government, the PAS has in the past controlled a second Malaysian state, and this election season is vigorously contesting elections in five states overall. The most internationally visible leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, of the People's Justice Party (PJP), depends on his alliance with PAS for his electoral clout, together with a left-leaning Chinese ethnic group, called DAP. By using PAS to leverage his own small political base, currently just one seat held by his wife, Ibrahim has locked himself into an alliance with a party that called for Jihad against the west following the 2001 military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and offered rhetorical support for Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime.
Balancing Malaysia's disparate social and religious agendas continues to require great care on the part of the Badawi government, with some critics contending the government has been permitting creeping Islamicism as a sop to militants and others accusing it of not going far enough to integrate religion into the country's governance. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made a more positive assessment last year, when he argued that Malaysia's "enviable system of religious pluralism" had enabled the country to build "a robust middle class, a viable social protection system and reasonably advanced human security infrastructure." Mr. Badawi's Malaysia, Mr. Annan said, "offers a more accessible and appropriate model for less developed countries in Africa to learn from."
Can Mr. Badawi maintain the system extolled by Mr. Annan? As Malaysia's voters prepare to sort out their priorities at the polls, the Badawi government appears to be seeking to steer a middle course that simultaneously is tough on terrorism, protects the special status of the majority Muslim population, and promotes economic and social opportunity for all other groups. If he can achieve these goals then he will truly merit the applause of fans like Mr. Annan.