Religion Vs Money in Malaysian Polls & News Agencies


With 94 percent of its population are Muslims, Kelantan has an appearance of piety and austerity

KOTA BAHRU, Malaysia — With Muslim-majority Malaysia gearing up for general elections, the political battle lines in the northern state of Kelantan are quite clear: religion versus money.

"Kelantan is strongly religion-orientated," Syed Husin Ali, a leader of the state's ruling Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), told Reuters on Wednesday, February 6.

"As far as they are concerned, what is important is not material things, but the spiritual. PAS, of course, appeals to this kind of religious conservatism."

Malaysians are likely to go to the polls for federal and state elections in March.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's ruling coalition has promised millions of dollars of investment in a bid to win Kelantan back from PAS, which has ruled the state for 18 years.

It unveiled a $34 billion plan to create a farming, energy and tourism hub encompassing the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang and parts of Johor.

The blueprint pitches a vision of Kelantan as a booming farming center with thriving goat, fish and kenaf farms.

A small farming area of 1.4 million people, Kelantan has seen few fruits of the country's rapid economic growth in the last decade.

Official figures show that a tenth of its people lived in poverty in 2004, the third highest rate among Malaysia's 13 states.

With an estimated 800,000 members, PAS is the main rival of Abdullah's ruling coalition in the coming elections.

Once a growing opposition force, the party suffered a humiliating defeat in general elections in 2004, leaving it in control of only Kelantan state.

PAS currently has seven seats in the 219-seat lower house of parliament, down from 27 seats in 1999.

Religious Kelantan

The government's mouthwatering offers are unlikely to win over Kelantan's religious voters.

"Islamic rule is very generous," said Mrs Tan, a tiny 50-year old ethnic Chinese, as she peered over her half-moon glasses while poring over newspapers in her modest auto spare parts store.

"They follow religious laws. There is no corruption and they are more fair and honest."

With 94 percent of its population Muslims, Kelantan has an appearance of piety and austerity.

Many villagers live in rickety wooden homes and till the land, go to sea or sell farm produce for a living.

The state, which has more Islamic religious schools than other parts of Malaysia, bans gambling joints and nightclubs.

Alcohol can only be sold to non-Muslims.

PAS has lifted a 15-year ban on the popular games of snooker and billiards and allowed cinemas to operate -- although with the lights on to prevent any unseemly behavior.

"What we're doing now is trying to narrow the gap between PAS and the non-Malay, non-Muslim community," said PAS deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa.

"We're going to defend the culture of all minority groups, the language, the schools."

Muslim Malays comprise about 60 percent of the country's 26 million population.

Ethnic Chinese and Indians - most of them Buddhists, Hindus and Christians - make up about 35 percent. The rest are indigenous people and Eurasians.


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