The 88-story Petronas Twin Towers stand 452 meters high in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. They are the tallest skyscrapers in Southeast Asia. A glass bridge connecting the two towers on the 41st and 42nd floors was commissioned when the new millennia was welcomed in 2000. Ever since, this bridge (often referred to as the “Sky Bridge”) has been seen as a symbol of development linking the rich history of the country with the new millennia.
Malaysia’s economy has grown by an average of 6.5 percent every year since 1957, and reached 375 billion USD in 2015. Malaysia has become an industrialized economy, where GDP per capita is 12,000 USD. Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia ranks third in terms of GDP, behind Indonesia and Thailand.
Although their economy has grown consistently with ongoing infrastructure development since 2000, Malaysia’s public governance has not been very transparent and there have been limited opportunities for people to find jobs, improve their livelihood, and have the freedom to express themselves. It has become increasingly difficult for minority groups to have the freedom of religion outside of Islam.
Malaysia has a territory of 330,000 square kilometers (almost five times smaller than Mongolia) and can be divided into two landmasses: Peninsular Malaysia to the west and East Malaysia. Malaysia’s population is now 31 million, which is 10 times greater than Mongolia’s population. Approximately half of the population is Malay, 22 percent are Chinese, 12 percent are indigenous people, and seven percent are Indians.
In the 19th century, England brought Chinese and Indians into Malaysia to make tin and rubber. When Malaysia declared its independence in 1957, Chinese residents controlled most businesses in urban areas, and Malays were in control in rural regions. Due to the smaller proportion of people controlling the majority of economy, political conflicts started occurringwith more frequency. The day after elections held in May 1969, Kuala Lumpur had a riot linked to the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the winning party. It resulted in the deaths of almost 600 people, and most of the victims were Chinese.
Two years later, a new economic policy and an affirmative action plan was implemented and gave preferential treatment to Malays. As the influence of Islam grew stronger, it found its way into legislation. Sharia Law came into effect in 1991, which brought about conflicts between ethnic groups in Malaysia – the only federal state in Southeast Asia.
Islam was declared the state religion of Malaysia, which meant that many criminals were punished under Sharia Law rather than their criminal law. While laws in many other countries are designed to regulate people’s behavior in public, Sharia Law dictates how people should behave in public and in private. In other words, it states how people should act and what they should believe in.
Sharia Law allows a man to have up to four wives, but allows a woman to have one husband only. Women are not allowed to speak or show their face to anyone other than their husband or their family members. There are police officers who specifically check whether people are following Sharia Law. These officers have the right to enter any venue at anytime, and can ask for documents if a man and a woman are holding hands or sitting too closely beside each other. Those who have broken Sharia Law can be imprisoned for up to two years.
Tensions were raised again in Malaysia when the Head of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party pushed for a controversial bill to introduce the hudud punishments referenced in the Quran. The bill, which was supposed to be discussed by the Malaysian parliament last month, would introduce severe punishments for crimes. These would include chopping off the right hand of a person who has committed theft, stoning women to death when they have cheated on their husband, punishing a woman for committing an act of indecency if she claims she was raped but does not have the witness statements of four men, and imposing capital punishment upon those who have doubted, denied, or rejected Islam. The law would not consider a man beating his wife to be a crime.
Non-Islamic people in Malaysia, especially the Chinese and Indians, are increasingly worried that Sharia Law could soon be imposed on everyone, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
If you obtain power in Malaysia, it does not seem to be lost too easily. The most powerful political party in Malaysia established the Barisan Nasional party (formerly the Alliance), and it has ruled the country for almost 60 years without interruption. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is a part of Barisan Nasional and is now the country’s largest political party.
During the administration of Mahathir Mohamad, who led the UMNO and held the office of Prime Minister for 22 years, Malaysia’s economy developed rapidly and many infrastructure projects were implemented. Prime Minister Mohamad had the Internal Security Act passed, and imprisoned his political opponents, including his Deputy Minister.
Najib Razak, Malaysia’s current Prime Minister, has previously held ministerial office and served as Deputy Minister before becoming the Prime Minister in 2009. Although he reduced some taxes, softened restrictions on foreign investment, and improved the freedom of non-Malays, Najib Razak is currently linked to a few infamous crimes.
It is believed by many that he was linked to the murder of Sh.Altantuya, a Mongolian citizen, with a bomb set off in a forest outside of Kuala Lumpur ten years ago. The investigation of this case is said to be ongoing at an international level. He is also linked to corruption cases involving the embezzlement of public funds through a firm named 1MDB, and the transfer of Saudi Arabian donations to his private account. However, Prime Minister Razak has had the National Security Council bill passed and consolidated his oversight of law enforcement.
Malaysia’s political parties, which form the government and the coalition that has ruling power, now exert full control of national media. The government started limiting the publishing rights of newspapers in 2007, and has instructed the media to not disclose messages from opposition parties.
In the new millennium, Malaysia has not still crossed the “sky bridge” that gives every Malaysian citizen the opportunity to exercise freedom, regardless of their ethnic background, religion, or spoken language. Only time will tell if such opportunities will become available to everyone.
Translated by B.Amar