BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 3 March 2008, 06:16 GMT
Malaysian voters wooed with Islam
As Malaysians prepare to vote in a general election on 8 March, the BBC's Robin Brant, in Kota Bharu, finds Islam to be an increasingly dominant issue in the campaign.

Sign in a Tesco supermarket, Kota Bharu, Malaysia
The PAS chief minister has said he will reinforce gender segregation

When customers come to pay at the new Tesco supermarket in Kota Bharu they have to queue separately - one till for men, another for women.

It is one of the regulations to ensure the sexes are kept apart in Kelantan - the only state in Malaysia run by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Enforcement of the rule is patchy - but as the election approaches, Kelantan's chief minister and PAS spiritual adviser, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, has been demanding a stricter approach.

Meanwhile, the neighbouring state of Terengganu has a new Islamic "edutainment" park where visitors can walk among miniature copies of some of the world's best known mosques.

It is far from finished but Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi officially opened it just ahead of the election.

Both these examples show just how important Islam - and in particular the ability to demonstrate Islamic credentials - will be as Malaysians prepare to vote.

Shifting ground

Ethnic Malays - who are all regarded as Muslim by the state - make up about 65% of the population, while ethnic Chinese and Indians - mostly Buddhist, Christian or Hindu - account for most of the other 35%.

Kelantan is a conservative state where political control is decided by a single seat.

The PAS has run Kelantan since 1990 - the only state where the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition is not in power.

Kelantan Chief Minister Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat
From childhood you are groomed about the danger of [males and females] being together
Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat

The National Front has dominated Malaysian politics since the country won independence 51 years ago.

It will win the forthcoming election, as it has all previous general elections.

But crucially, it wants to win back Kelantan.

Both sides have shifted ground.

The PAS needs to broaden its appeal so it has dropped any mention of its 2004 pledge to introduce a theocratic government, focusing instead on healthcare reform, racial equality and keeping prices down.

The National Front, meanwhile, is tempting people with promises of huge investment - more mosques are on the cards.

Moderate principles

But it is what has happened in the months before the campaign started which is more important.

The government reignited a row with a Christian Church by saying only Muslims could use the word Allah. And there has been a renewed spate of Bible confiscations by customs officials at the border.

Terengganu's "edutainment" park was opened by the prime minister

A recent divorce case involving a Hindu woman and her Muslim-convert husband ended ambiguously - he was allowed to go to the Islamic courts, she was allowed to go to the civil courts.

Professor Muddathir Abdel-Rahim, from Kuala Lumpur's International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation, says the current debate in Malaysia involves "very many different points of view".

"It is basically healthy and is bound sooner or later to give rise to something more coherent, more rationally understandable."

Many non-Muslims do not see it like that.

Some of the 35% of Malaysians who are not Muslim see a worrying trend of dominance, eroding Malaysia's constitutional guarantee of equal treatment irrespective of religion.

Prime Minister Badawi, an Islamic scholar, has promoted a philosophy of government called Islam Hadhari, which translates as Civilisation Islam.

The philosophy promotes a system of moderate government based on 10 principles ranging from the overtly religious "having faith in Allah" to the more broad encouragement of "cultural and moral integrity".

No way back?

The PAS rejects the philosophy wholeheartedly. Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat labelled it as "empty" with "no substance".

He defends PAS policies on keeping men and women apart, including clamping down on bars which attract tourists.

"From childhood you are groomed about the danger of being together," he said.

Islam is the dominant religion here. It is also increasingly the dominant culture. It influences the lives of everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim.

But whatever the rows about the extent to which Malaysia should embrace Islam, this is a country where the most conservative state has just welcomed the western retail behemoth that is Tesco.

There is no going back from that.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific