US cable: Debate remains on Najib’s real aims


By K Kabilan, FMT

KUALA LUMPUR: US diplomats had expressed their reservations on Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s ability to steer Malaysia as a moderate voice in the Muslim world amid ongoing religious issues in the country.

They noted that the controversies arising from the use of the “Allah” term in the Bahasa bible, the Kartika caning case, the cow-head incident and other less prominent events showed there were limits as to how far Najib will go to promote the concepts of toleration and moderation.

“The conventional wisdom among most non-ruling coalition Chinese and Indians, for example, seems to be that the ruling party has orchestrated the ‘Allah’ issue so as to increase support among Malay voters by fomenting division between Muslims on one side and Christians or secularists on the other in the opposition coalition,” added the diplomats in a confidential cable sent to the US State Department in Washington.

Details of the cable – believed to have been sent in early 2010 – were leaked by WikiLeaks to popular blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin who had reproduced the cable in his Malaysia Today website today.

The cable added that “few in the opposition credit the government with a sincere commitment to freedom of religion or the rule of law”.

“The popular view widely and deeply held among non-Malay, non-Muslims is that the government is antagonistic toward other religions and is engaged in a long-term effort to expand Islam’s primacy in Malaysian society,” added the cable.

The US diplomats also noted that there remained a debate on Najib’s real intentions – if he “genuinely intends to enact significant political reform” or whether “he is merely giving lip service to reform objectives so as to coax as many conservative Malay voters as possible back (to Umno)”.

The cable did, however, state there was evidence that Najib “wished to liberalise the economy and recognise the concomitant requirement to achieve at least a minimal level of political reform”.

The cable added that Najib has taken small steps to open up the economy and was on record suggesting the country must change or perish.

“But his failure thus far to record much in the way of tangible results, beyond more forward-looking and liberal rhetoric, leads to popular suspicion,” added the US cable.

A major outstanding issue was Najib administration’s unwillingness to stand clearly for freedom of religion, stated the cable, giving an example on how the government banned the use of the word “Allah” by a Catholic newspaper, published in both English and Bahasa Malaysia.

(Although the government ruling was struck out by the court, the home ministry immediately obtained a stay of the court decision.)

The cable added that there had long been a conflict between Umno’s commitment to freedom of religion in principle and toleration of diverse views in practice.

“Christians and Hindus, especially, find it hard in some states at some times to build places of worship or keep them from being plowed under in the name of development,” added the cable.

Fundamental issues

The US cable noted that the “Allah” controversy brought to focus two fundamental issues in Malaysia – freedom of religion and independence of the judiciary.

“Despite its extensive efforts to reassure expatriate and foreign audiences, the Malaysian government has focused only on protection of property and persons, foregoing an opportunity to make a clear statement on the maintenance of freedom of religion in the country,” stated the US diplomats in the cable.

It added that the government’s intervention to obtain a stay order was not solely to promote and protect order and social stability.

“The government has underlined the tenuous nature of judicial independence in the country by intervening to arrange a stay of the judge’s order that the Catholic publication was allowed to use the word ‘Allah’ in its vernacular text.”