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Malaysia’s Islamic theme park fails to impress

Farish A. Noor (Asian Edge)
Filed on March 8, 2008

THE merry-go-round is painted in bright hues of pink, yellow, green and blue; the slides and rides shine in the sun as the little girl contemplates which of the two plastic horses to mount first. Her mother sits by the swing in the near distance, her eye firmly fixed on the pride of five boys and girls frolicking around the sand pit and climbing ropes.

It would appear like any other children’s playground in any other suburban setting, save for the fact that the plastic palm trees are there to lend the place a somewhat exotic, middle-eastern feel to it: Welcome to the kiddies playground in the Islamic Civilisation theme park, one of the latest innovations bestowed upon the people of the state of Trengganu in Malaysia, as part and parcel of the Malaysian government’s attempt to promote its brand of Islam Hadari (Civilisational Islam). The banner that hangs in front of the visitors complex carries the image of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the slogan: “Thank you for bringing Islamic civilisation to Trengganu”. (Though one would have thought that the Muslims there were already civilised long before…)

Other attractions to the park include model replicas of famous mosques from around the world: As one drives through the main entrance the first sight that greets you is a replica of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, save that this model is diminutive in scale and ambition; and that the gilded dome gives the uncanny impression that it is made of gold-painted plastic instead. I asked the construction worker how long it will take for the park to be completed, but he could not understand me as he only spoke Bengali.

Right at the end of the park stands the so-called ‘crystal mosque’ that is meant to be the main attraction of the theme park; save that the mosque is not made of crystal, but rather sheets of glass that line its domes and minarets. A crowd of Malay women meander around the floating mosque complex and laze about indifferently. I ask them where they are from and why they are here. One of them answers me in Kelantanese dialect: “We are from Kuala Lumpur and heading to Kelantan to vote”. I ask her if she and her friends are impressed by the crystal mosque. “It’s pretty, like a crystal toy. But it also looks a bit plastic to me. Is it finished yet?”

It is election season and the flag and poster war is being fought in earnest: The streets of Besut, Marang, Kuala Trengganu are lined with hundreds of posters and banners proclaiming the achievements of the ruling UMNO party and the leadership of Prime Minister Badawi. Since he came to power in 2004, Badawi has pushed ahead with his agenda of inculcating the values of Islam Hadari – said to be an approach to Islam that is moderate, pluralist and progressive – to win the hearts and minds of Malaysia’s Malay-Muslim voters in particular.

The state of Trengganu where the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is strong is certainly a key state in the election, and here the election campaign has returned to the old ways of the past, with both UMNO and PAS claiming to be more Islamic than the other. The UMNO banners proclaim that over the past two years alone the UMNO government in Trengganu has built 62 mosques all over the state. (A boast that has gained the state government a place in the Malaysian book of records, no less.)

PAS on the other hand retaliates by noting that the instances of absolute poverty in Trengganu is higher now than ever before, and that building mosques will not feed the stomachs of the people or give them a better future. Right in front of the main entrance to the Islamic Civilisation theme park, the Islamists of PAS have erected a banner that reads: “250 Million Ringgit for a Mosque built for Tourists: What for?”

While the tone and tenor of the election campaign on the more urbanised, multiracial states of the west coast reflect the concerns of the urban middle-classes, here on the northeast coast of Malaysia another election is being fought altogether. The leaders of UMNO and PAS continue doing what they do best, which is to assume the holier-than-thou posture beloved by Islamists and conservatives. UMNO claims that thousands of children below the age of eight have read and memorised the Quran in Trengganu thanks to the efforts of Badawi’s Islam Hadari programme. PAS in turn responds by noting the cases of drug abuse, violence, prostitution and casual sex among the young of the state at the same time. Neither side really talks about the issue of democracy, human rights or an election campaign that is free, fair and transparent for all to see.

The few exceptions to the rule seem to come from the younger leaders of PAS who are more reformist-minded and policy oriented. In the state capital of Kuala Trengganu the PAS firebrand Mohammad Sabu goes round the local market and fishing villages calling for the return of democracy and the right to equal development: For once, the common slogans of Islam, Shariah and Hudud laws are not mentioned. But such attempts at injecting some degree of political education into the campaign are few and far between, and sadly the election campaign that has been fought in the predominantly Malay-Muslim states of the Northeast reflect the same parochial concerns of the 1980s and 1990s, with a more than a little hint of communitarianism thrown into the bargain.

One wonders to what extent the campaign in Trengganu and the other Malay states has really been shaped and informed by the Civilisational Islam project of Prime Minister Badawi. Thus far little effort seems to have been made to civilise the conduct of the campaign, or to introduce ideas and themes that are really modern and progressive. With only a few days to go before the votes are cast on March 8, the Election Commission then announced that it will drop the idea of using indelible ink to mark the hands of voters, to ensure that fake votes are not cast. How such irregularities can be reconciled with the glittering empty mosque in the vacant theme park is anyone’s guess.

Dr Farish A Noor is Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.





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