Malaysia defuses caning issue – only to confront new threats to stability

Communal tensions over a Hindu temple and the death of an ethnic Chinese while in antigraft investigators' custody pose tough tests for the multiracial government.

Having quieted a controversy over a caning sentence for a Muslim woman caught drinking beer, Malaysia's multiracial government faces fresh challenges to its stability.

These include communal tensions over the relocation of a Hindu temple, a widening port scandal, and the death of an ethnic-Chinese political aide in the custody of antigraft investigators.

How Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took power in April vowing to revamp the governing coalition, handles these crises has implications for Malaysia's multi-racial neighbors. Political instability could also thwart US efforts to engage Malaysia on global issues such as climate change and regional trade.

Muslim-Hindu tensions

Tensions are still simmering over an Aug. 28 protest outside a statehouse by a group of Muslims opposed to a Hindu temple opening in their neighborhood. The protesters kicked and spat on a severed cow's head in what appeared to be deliberate attempt to provoke ethnic-Indian Hindus, who consider the cow a holy animal.

The temple row echoes communal uproar in 2007, when Hindu activists, angered by temple demolitions, led mass protests in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and clashed with riot police, whose ranks are dominated by the Malay-Muslim majority. Five activists were later detained under an antiterrorist law.

Mr. Najib's government has played down the cow's head incident amid claims that Muslim politicians were involved. But the plan to relocate the Hindu temple to the mixed-race area may now be shelved after a weekend community meeting to soothe tensions ended in clashes.

While many commentators have focused on the plight of Kartini Shukarno, the female model whose caning sentence was suspended for Ramadan, the latest stoking of communal tensions is much more dangerous if it goes unchecked, say political analysts and Western diplomats.

Corruption scandals

The Chinese community has been rocked by separate scandals that have dented the credibility of the government and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), a new independent body set up to fight graft.

In July, a political aide to a state councilor died after falling from a window while in the MACC's custody. Officials had been questioning Teoh Beng Hock over alleged irregularities in contracts as part of a wideranging probe into statehouse corruption.

At an inquest into his death, experts differed over how he fell from the window, amid claims of bullying tactics by MACC investigators. Officials have denied wrongdoing, but have said they are changing how they question suspects. The inquest is expected to reach a verdict later this month.

The tragedy has political and racial overtones. Tony Pua, a lawmaker from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), says the MACC is targeting his opposition party, which is overwhelmingly Chinese, in order to discredit it, while ignoring government-linked corruption cases. "They're going on a fishing trip against the opposition," he says.

Among those overlooked cases is a port project where auditors found that years of mismanagement had left the operating company facing bankruptcy, despite nearly $1 billion in taxpayers' money. Mr. Pua said the police had been told since 2004 of irregularities. The MACC is now investigating the port.

The port scandal has rocked the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second largest in Mr. Najib's coalition, which had direct oversight of the project. A subsequent power struggle within the MCA has raised doubts about its cohesion and ability to deliver Chinese votes to an unpopular government.

As a result, the Chinese business sector faces a dilemma, says James Chin, a political scientist at Monash University's campus in Kuala Lumpur. "The Chinese community is at a crossroads.… Do they allow the MCA to serve as their voice in government? Or do they throw in their lot with the DAP?" he says.

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