The split within this country's dominant Malay community can be summed up from two small but telling snapshots from Monday's general election--two scenes on the same stretch of narrow sidewalk in a traditional Malay neighborhood in the shadow of the world's tallest building.
Idris Tulis, 55, a Malay businessman and a member of the ruling party for two decades, was brimming with pride as he explained why he was once again casting his vote for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. "If Mahathir wasn't prime minister, we wouldn't have this tallest building in the world," he said, pointing to the twin Petronas Towers. "We wouldn't have the nicest airport in the world. . . . You can't find any person in Malaysia who hasn't eaten. You can walk anywhere at night and feel safe."
Speaking about the prime minister, in power for 18 years, Tulis said: "He's a very great man. . . . There's nobody who can take his place."
But a few feet away, a 20-year-old woman wearing a pale green Muslim head scarf was seated at a table handing out literature for the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, known as Pas. She asked that her name not be printed because, she said, she fears post-election reprisals from security officials. And although she was too young to vote this time, she knows whom she supports--and why she dislikes Mahathir and the ruling coalition.
"They are so cruel," she said. "Mahathir is a selfish man. He just gives all his friends, all his family members, the businesses.
"We want to be an Islamic country. But they don't want that. Most of us are Islamic. . . . We want [Islamic] law, yes. Because it is in our Koran. But it does not mean we want to chase out the Chinese and the Indians."
The split, between the Mahathir supporter and the young woman who favors the Islamic opposition, spilled out into the open after Monday's general election, which was the most hard fought--and many agree, the dirtiest--in the country's history.
Malaysians awoke this morning to find that Mahathir and his National Front coalition had been returned to another five-year term with their two-thirds parliamentary majority intact. But the country's main opposition party now is an Islamic group whose leaders have declared as their ultimate goal the establishment of Islamic law in multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia.
Mahathir said after the vote that the result showed Malaysians were satisfied with his rule and that the National Front remained the "party of choice." But another, potentially more damaging, outcome can be read in the numbers--and particularly in the defection of huge numbers of Malay voters from Mahathir to Pas.
Pas kept control of Kelantan state, which it has ruled since 1990, and seized control of the state government of neighboring Trengganu, wealthy with oil and gas reserves. In Kelantan, Pas won 41 out of 43 state assembly seats, and 28 out of 32 in Trengganu, making it a virtual rout of Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the National Front.
The Islamic party increased its number of seats in the national parliament from eight to 27, making it the largest opposition party in the legislature, replacing the traditional opposition party, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party. And Pas picked up around a quarter of the 394 state assembly seats up for grabs.
There is more to the Islamic party's dominating performance, especially in the Malay heartland. Four of Mahathir's serving cabinet members lost their seats, the first time that has happened. Also, many of his party's incumbents who did survive won by the narrowest of margins. Education Minister Najib Tun Razak--often mentioned as a successor to Mahathir--squeaked through with a margin of 241 votes.
"We need to study in detail the reasons for this," Najib said after the vote.
The main reason for the surprising Pas showing among Malays is the case of Anwar Ibrahim, the popular former deputy prime minister who was Mahathir's heir apparent until Mahathir fired him and had him put on trial for corruption and sodomy. He was beaten while in custody. Anwar is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power and is currently on trial for sodomy. His case galvanized the previously fragmented opposition, and fueled anger in the Muslim-Malay community, where Anwar had cultivated an image as a pious Muslim.
But Anwar mainly provided the rallying cry; Pas has also been working for years to build up its grass-roots network in the Malay heartland.
"This was a great victory for the ruling party in terms of Dr. Mahathir," said Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. "But at the same time, it was a defeat for UMNO, which is the backbone of the ruling coalition."
"A sizable number of people in the Malay community rejected UMNO, and that's a telling tale" he said. Among all the opposition parties contesting the elections--including the new National Justice Party formed by Anwar's wife--Pas, according to Baginda, "is more organized, they have a better network, they've been on the ground for a long time. . . . They picked up the silent majority of Malays."
A Western diplomat analyzing the results said, "I'm not surprised by Pas making gains, but I didn't expect this."
"The overwhelming trend is that the opposition has become increasingly Islamicized," he said. "The big story is Pas, and what this means for the future of the country."
One big loser was the National Justice Party, or Keadilan, which fared worse than expected, even as Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, easily won his old parliamentary seat. But the party failed to win any seats in Kuala Lumpur, where it should have been able to count on urban, educated voters.