Surge of conservatism threatens to put a stop to reforms in Malaysia

By Dan Martin ,AFP

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian conservatives are flexing their muscles in what analysts call a high-stakes fight for control of the powerful ruling party that is endangering reform and delicate race relations. Since elections last May that stung the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the government has moved rightward, mothballing a reform drive launched by Prime Minister Najib Razak. Meanwhile, religious tensions in the multi-cultural, Muslim-majority country are soaring, mainly in a dispute between Muslims and Christians over use of the word “Allah.”

On Monday, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Catholic church, raising fears of further strife. “It’s getting to be very divisive for the country,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the think-tank IDEAS, said of the conservative pressure. “It presents a bleak outlook, especially for multi-culturalism and multi-racialism.” Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said last weekend that racial discord over “Allah” and other disputes was the worst since deadly racial riots in 1969, threatening the “very fabric of our unity.” Political analysts blame desperation within UMNO, one of the world’s longest-ruling parties, following its election setbacks. UMNO’s governing coalition long presented a front of multi-cultural harmony, as depicted abroad in its years-old tourism campaign “Malaysia: Truly Asia” that portrays a relaxed Asian melting-pot. Authoritarian UMNO reserved political power and other perks for the Muslim Malay majority, however, and stands accused of routinely trampling rights in silencing critics. But voters, particularly from the economically powerful Chinese minority, have increasingly rebelled.