- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

KUALA TERENGGANU, Malaysia — Traveling up Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast — with its white-sand beaches, airy, brightly painted kampong houses, and old men in sarongs pedaling gingerly to mosques on rusty bicycles — there’s little trace of the election fervor that gripped the country a few short weeks ago.

Until one enters the oil-rich state of Terengganu.

Here, the logos of the hard-line Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) and the moderate Muslim-leaning ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) still do battle — spray painted on rocks, flapping from treetops and splintery porches, pinned onto cafe walls.

The conflict doesn’t appear in newspapers, which proves the BN, promising development and a more moderate Islamic rule, crushed the PAS, handily winning back Terengganu and taking 90 percent of parliamentary seats nationwide.

But it does at the bus station and central market, where incoming Chief Minister Idris Jusoh was booed during his first visit, and in the kampongs, where some family members stopped talking to each other or were kicked out of their homes for supporting the “wrong” party.

The BN won the state back on the perceived character and vision of new Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Casting himself as a devout, progressive Muslim, he promised to tackle corruption, inefficiency and rural poverty.

This contrasts sharply with the PAS, which during its five years in power, banned gambling, unisex hair salons, traditional female dancing and the sale of alcohol at most restaurants and hotels.

But not everyone likes the change.

“We vote for PAS for religious reasons,” said Shukri bin Long, 35, as he whittled a handle for a traditional keris (dagger) beside a rusty refrigerator outside his tin-roofed house. For 19 years he has cut about three handles a day, for which he earns about $200 a month.

The BN “is promising an airport and a highway, but this isn’t important to our welfare. There is no greater investment in our future generations than religion.”

Mr. bin Long said that when PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang was chief minister for Terengganu, he would hold spiritual town gatherings on Wednesday nights. “Now we ask ourselves about what [Idris Jusoh] will do on Wednesday night. Can he teach us, can he teach our children — the values we need to be good people?”

The BN, led by Mr. Badawi’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), promises change, Mr. bin Long said, “But why should we believe that?”

UMNO, he said, ruled Terengganu for 40 years, before PAS wrested it away in 1999, buoyed by voter disgust with the BN’s corruption, inefficiency and rural neglect.

Terengganu remains one of the country’s poorest states, despite the fact it has 60 percent of Malaysia’s known reserves of crude oil.

There are persistent charges of voter fraud, which UMNO officials dismiss. “Some people just cannot take the reality [of defeat]” said the party’s new youth and culture executive, Haji Din bin Adam.

That does little to explain why some polling booths remained open past the official hours, while people were prevented access at others. Stacks of used voter cards were found in a trash heap.

And one election result was overturned by a 33-vote majority when it was discovered that one candidate’s 10 stacks, by which votes were to be tallied, actually contained 11. The Election Commission, which says it is investigating the charges, is widely considered to be a puppet of UMNO.

Syed Azman, head of international affairs for PAS, said: “People still cannot accept the results, and I predict a lot of change in the next few years.” He conceded that for this to happen, PAS’s approach might need to change, as it alienated more than a few voters.

Meanwhile, UMNO officials say they are busy trying to integrate people here into Mr. Badawi’s brand of moderate Islam, called Hadhari, which calls on Malaysians to embrace the information age and attend secular rather than religious schools. Most jobs to be found in Terengganu are in handicrafts, fishing, and palm oil.

UMNO has already lifted the ban on traditional female dancing and unisex hair salons. And there’s talk of reopening some legal gaming centers, karaoke pubs and even nightclubs.

“If we move too quickly, we run the risk of pushing people away,” said Mr. bin Adam, the UMNO youth and culture chief.

Some have already been pushed away. “Where they’re headed makes me stand behind PAS more,” said Haji Wan Ngah, a father of five and husband of two, from a seat at his family-run restaurant, 007, famous around the state for its keropok, a flour-and-fish sausage. “There’s a sense now among people that they are free, but that’s not what was intended for us.”

PAS may also be gaining momentum from Mr. Badawi’s early moves. His new Cabinet is filled with holdovers from the era of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr. Badawi has already clamped down on the press and announced his support for the Internal Securities Act, which permits the jailing of dissidents without trial. To some people, he’s becoming indistinguishable from the old guard he replaced.

It’s a feeling not shared by all — particularly among the younger generation.

Johari Mohamad, 19, complained: “PAS is always accusing people of being non-Muslim and not praying, but religion is an individual thing.” Mr. Johari adds that there was little development under PAS.

Mr. Johari cares most about having work and earning money. After UMNO’s election victory, he said, UMNO gave him and 15 of his friends work packing chickens for about $80 a month — something, he said, all PAS’s calls for prayer and devotion hadn’t brought.

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