Columnists :: The Nutmeg Verses - By Himanshu Bhatt
Tussle over the critical Malay base
 SEVEN months after the Pakatan Rakyat took control of Penang, there was a curious little incident, when local editors were alerted on the afternoon of Nov 11, 2008 that the chief minister was heading from his office in George Town to a distant surau that had been gutted by fire. Journalists, including the writer, rushed to Permatang Buluh on the mainland to find Lim Guan Eng inspecting the site of an old wooden building in a rural backwater, trying to comfort worshippers. No one had been in the surau when it caught fire.
While some reporters wondered why the chief minister had to visit such a remote area for what was not a major tragedy, the incident now appears rather significant on hindsight. For it was an important political indicator of the early measures being adopted by Lim’s administration to be endeared by the local Malay-Muslim population.
In the two years since that day, the DAP-led government has taken great pains to implement policies to benefit Muslim individuals and institutions in the state. From its bid to establish an international halal hub in the state to its unusual decision to confer monetary awards for all huffaz or people who memorise the Quran; from its move this year to increase allocations for Islamic affairs to RM24.3 million from RM12.5 million last year to its recent announcement to give RM400 duit raya to every civil servant under its ambit; the Pakatan government seems to have undertaken some extraordinary steps to be favourable on Muslim affairs.
One can understand how the Barisan Nasional (BN), which was routed in the state in the last general election, would be concerned over such developments in the political picture.
Most notably, in January, the state administration formed the first ever shura council for any government in the country. Some 30 persons from Islamic agencies and NGOs, as well individuals like syariah lawyers, were brought together in a consultative grouping of elders and community leaders.
I had noted in this column soon after, that the formation of the shura council in the only state in Peninsular Malaysia with a non-Muslim majority population was a landmark move for Lim and the ties that now bind secular DAP, Muslim PAS and multi-ethnic PKR.
The state then recently organised an international integrity conference, centred on the teachings of medieval Islamic leader and scholar Khalifah Umar Abdul Aziz, drawing praise from Muslims.
So it came as an intriguing turn of events when Umno last week alleged that Lim’s name had been somewhat sacrilegiously mentioned during sermons at a mosque. Police reports were lodged and the case was classified under the Sedition Act.
The khatib or sermon reader at the centre of the controversy has come out to lambast the issue as being unduly politicised. All he had done, he stressed, was pray that Lim and non-Muslims be given spiritual guidance to embrace Islam.
What is important to note from all this is the huge political stakes involved in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Malay-Muslim population in the state. The DAP’s great advantage has been the abiding support of PAS and PKR.
So one can see how it is critical for BN to monitor any surging popularity that Lim and his administration may be drawing from the simple rural folks who make up the bulk of the electorate that all parties rely on to survive in Penang. As it is, all the five parliamentary and 15 state assembly seats last contested by Umno in the state are in rural or semi-rural Malay-majority areas. (Umno had then won two parliamentary seats and ten state seats).
There was also an initial mystique about Lim soon after the election of March 2008. Here was the man who was jailed a decade back while trying to defend a Malay-Muslim girl in an alleged statutory rape case. And just days after he assumed power, he attended the state-level Maal Hijrah celebration, becoming the first non-Muslim government leader to attend the religious event.
But much of the aura surrounding Lim has dissipated since then, principally over allegations, mostly made this year, that Malays in Penang were being marginalised under his watch, and that the consultative process so envisaged from his government has not lived up to expectation.
But the drama has not ended, and it remains to be seen who eventually gains the edge over this intriguing power tussle to win the favours of the crucial Malay-Muslim population of Penang.

Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

Updated: 09:50AM Thu, 26 Aug 2010
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