Some Malaysians may have forgotten that it was during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister that religion was used, with a passion, to win votes.
When the Iranian Revolution swept across Iran at the end of the 1970s and experienced an Islamic revival, PAS became stronger as a political party.
Mahathir was afraid of the rising influence of PAS on the Malays, so he tried to appeal to them by making Malaysia more Islamic. A new dress code and a ban on the use of certain words by non-Muslims were started during his tenure.
One could add the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) or the National Civics Bureau, the dumbing down of the learning of English in schools, and Project IC in Sabah. In Project IC, or Project M, hundreds of thousands of immigrants of Muslim origin, mostly from the southern Philippines, were given ICs to change the demographics of the state.
In her interview with FMT, former minister Rafidah Aziz, who was sacked from Umno in 2018, claimed that she was sick of the “toxicity” of Malaysian politics. She also said she feared for Malaysia’s future because religion was used as a political tool.
Many Malaysians breathed a sigh of relief at her frank remarks. She is a straight talker and her views would have carried a lot of weight. Here was a veteran politician who empathised with them. They had been forced to live with the toxic combination of religion and politics for decades. It is a view that is shared by both Malays and non-Malays.
Some people did wonder why it took Rafidah a few decades to open up. Others said “better late than never”, and a few said “talk is cheap, she should have spoken up when she had the power to act and do something about it”.
Malaysians have been saddled with this problem since the 1980s. Some of those who were critical of the use of religion have found themselves punished under the strict laws of the country.
Perhaps, the real tragedy of Malaysia is the failure of Umno-Baru to admit its culpability in the current state of the nation.
Religion is allegedly used to undermine the people of other faiths. Non-Muslims cannot use certain words in their bibles. There have been cases of Muslim converts allegedly allowed to insult people of other faiths and are not punished. Moral policing became the norm. Jakim grew in influence and power. All this had its roots in the early 1980s, when both PAS and Umno competed for votes.
Today, there are PAS politicians who flaunt their wealth unashamedly. One only has to look at Kelantan to see the disparity between the life led by these politicians and the ordinary Kelantanese.
The heady combination of religion and political power has also clouded the judgment of many Muslim politicians. They ride roughshod over the ordinary Malaysians, and some break the rules with impunity. Not surprisingly, religious controversies such as those surrounding the demolition of temples arise.
Our failure to deal with each corruption scandal over the past four decades successfully laid the foundation for 1MDB. Or have we forgotten about 1MDB?
Put simply, the corruption catastrophe and toxic politics hitting Malaysia is not an overnight phenomenon. The seeds were sown during Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister. We need to look at the crux of the problem. It is ironic, that what Mahathir started in the 1980s caused his and Umno-Baru’s downfall.
What are the views of other veteran politicians who served alongside Rafidah? Do they disagree with her?
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.