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Political Islam and Islamist Politics in Malaysia
 9789814519250

Table of contents :
FOREWORD
Political Islam and Islamist Politics in Malaysia
HISTORICAL SETTING
POLITICAL ISLAM FROM TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN TO ABDULLAH AHMAD BADAWI
ENTER NAJIB RAZAK
THE 13TH GENERAL ELECTIONS AND ITS AFTERMATH
CONCLUDING REMARKS
BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Trends in Southeast Asia

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The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) was established in 1968. It is an autonomous regional research centre for scholars and specialists concerned with modern Southeast Asia. The Institute’s research is structured under Regional Economic Studies (RES), Regional Social and Cultural Studies (RSPS) and Regional Strategic and Political Studies (RSPS), and through country-based programmes. It also houses the ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC), Singapore’s APEC Study Centre, as well as the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre (NSC) and its Archaeology Unit.

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2013 #02  

Trends in Southeast Asia POLITICAL ISLAM AND ISLAMIST POLITICS IN MALAYSIA AHMAD FAUZI ABDUL HAMID

ISEAS Publishing INSTITUTE OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN STUDIES

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Published by:

ISEAS Publishing



Institute of Southeast Asian Studies



30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace



Pasir Panjang, Singapore 119614



[email protected] http://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg

© 2013 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission. The author is wholly responsible for the views expressed in this book which do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.

ISEAS Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, 1969– Political Islam and Islamist politics in Malaysia. (Trends in Southeast Asia, 0219-3213 ; 2013 #2) 1.

Islam and politics—Malaysia.

2.

Islam and state—Malaysia.

I.

Title.

II.

Trends in Southeast Asia ; 2013 #2.

DS501 I59T no. 2(2013)

2013

ISBN 978-981-4519-24-3 (soft cover) ISBN 978-981-4519-25-0 (e-book, PDF) Typeset by Superskill Graphics Pte Ltd Printed in Singapore by Oxford Graphic Printers Pte Ltd

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FOREWORD

The economic, political, strategic and cultural dynamism in Southeast Asia has gained added relevance in recent years with the spectacular rise of giant economies in East and South Asia. This has drawn greater atten­ tion to the region and to the enhanced role it now plays in international relations and global economics. The sustained effort made by Southeast Asian nations since 1967 towards a peaceful and gradual integration of their economies has had indubitable success, and perhaps as a consequence of this, most of these countries are undergoing deep political and social changes domes­ tically and are constructing innovative solutions to meet new international challenges. Big Power tensions continue to be played out in the neigh­ bourhood despite the tradition of neutrality exercised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This series—now revamped and redesigned—acts as a platform for serious analyses by selected authors who are experts in their fields. It is aimed at encouraging policy makers and scholars to contemplate over the diversity and dynamism of this exciting region.

THE EDITORS Series Chairman: Tan Chin Tiong Series Editor: Ooi Kee Beng Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Francis E. Hutchinson and Daljit Singh Special Editor for this issue: Lee Hock Guan

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Political Islam and Islamist Politics in Malaysia EXECUTIVE SUMMARY • Najib Razak’s tenure as Malaysia’s sixth Prime Minister has witnessed vigorous drives towards multiple visions of political Islam, separately orchestrated by both overtly political groups and non-state activist clusters. • While Islam has always been a pivotal factor in Malaysian politics, interpretations of Islam have not uncommonly arisen among successive generations of Malaysian Muslims in both doctrine and practice. • In addition, the rich cultural diversity of Southeast Asia helped sway Malaysian Islam towards accommodating mores from various civilisational traditions, the latest manifestation being Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Islam Hadhari. • Since the assumption of power by Najib Razak, however, defining the Islamic framework of the nation has been effectively delegated to the official Islamic bureaucracy, whose horizons are coloured by visions of Islamist uniformity rather than a religiously acceptable Muslim plurality.

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Political Islam and Islamist Politics in Malaysia By Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid1

HISTORICAL SETTING Since gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia around the thirteenth century, Islam has been a major influence on political life in the region, notwithstanding the differences of scholarly opinions that have emerged regarding the ways, modalities, timing and other details of its transmission. Since the sources from whence Islam came and the identities of its purveyors had always been diverse, Muslims in Southeast Asia had never preferred monolithic traits. On the contrary, they carried the distinction of having accommodating mores from a variety of civilisational traditions, as is strongly reflected in the many religious practices of the various ethnocultural groups one may broadly categorise as Muslim. As long as the practices were not found to have transgressed the sharia – Islamic law as derived from the Quran, the Sunnah or the collection of words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, the ijma’ or consensus of scholars and qiyas or analogical deduction – they were not considered as falling outside the ambit of the Islamic religion per se.

Ideas and findings advanced in this issue formed the basis for a public seminar given by the author on 25 September 2013 at ISEAS, Singapore. The writer is an Associate Professor and Chairman of Political Science, School of Distance Education, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM, where he teaches undergraduate courses in political science and a postgraduate course, ‘Islam in Southeast Asia’, for the M.A. in Asian Studies at the School of Social Sciences. He has held visiting research fellowships in Singapore and Australia, and published in leading journals such as Indonesia and the Malay World, Asian Studies Review, Japanese Journal of Political Science, Asian Survey, Pacific Affairs and ISEAS’s own Contemporary Southeast Asia. 1



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As a matter of fact, Islamic scholarship in the Malay world has usually adhered to the spirit of wide interpretation, hence its consistent willingness to accommodate the intricacies of local customs (adat). A main factor behind this tendency was the pervasive role played by Sufis – Muslim mystics well-known for their penchant to offer layered interpretations rather than depend on a literal understanding of scriptural texts in the propagation of Islam (Ahmad Fauzi 2002). So accommodative was the Islamic terrain in colonial Malaya that different Muslim traditions not only peacefully co-existed but also absorbed from each other. Even with European colonialism in the region, indigenous Muslims adhered to the spirit of accommodation. It was only when colonial policies were seen as subverting the primacy of Islam as the definitive influence in their lives did anti-colonial resistance arise. Although the arrival of puritanism inspired by the reformation movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) from the Arab Peninsula initially caused friction as in the case of the Kaum Tua – Kaum Muda conflict in the early twentieth century, it was later accepted as one of the many doctrines contesting for the loyalty of the Malay-Muslim masses. While the Kaum Muda shared doctrinal affinity with the Wahhabi-Salafi trend that was gaining traction in the Middle East, as a movement it did not last long without political power, which was instead held by the Kaum Tua ulama (religious scholars) who filled official Islamic bureaucratic posts in Majlis Agama Islam (Councils of Islamic Religion) and Jabatan Agama Islam (Departments of Islamic Affairs) which were institutions sanctioned by colonial officialdom (Roff 1967, pp. 73-74). The beehive of activity for the Kaum Muda was the Straits Settlements, which were directly managed by the Colonial Office in London. The extent to which the Kaum Muda were tolerated in the Malay states where political power was mediated by ruling monarchies, differed from state to state. In states with a progressive Majlis Agama such as Kelantan, the Kaum Muda were allowed to publicly articulate their views, as in the celebrated debate on whether a dog’s saliva was impure or not in 1937 (Roff 1983). In states where the Majlis Agama was dominated by a conservative ulama, it was not uncommon for the Kaum Muda to be labelled infidel and deviant, and held parallel to the Qadianis who rejected the finality of the Prophet Muhammad’s revelations (Roff 1967, p. 80; Rahimin Affandi



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2006, p. 101). In the states ruled by sultans, the traditional ulama enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the ruling families who showered them with patronage, prestige, authority and even kinship through marriages (Mohamed Nawab 2008).

POLITICAL ISLAM FROM TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN TO ABDULLAH AHMAD BADAWI Upon the Federation of Malaya gaining independence from Britain on 31 August 1957, the newly inaugurated Federal Constitution installed Islam as the state religion via Article 3(1). But the precise implications of such a provision were never made clear, and perhaps were never intended to be clear. While the role of Islam in Malaya’s, and later Malaysia’s, political setup became ipso facto a fait accompli, the nature of and extent to which Islam should be allowed to assume overtly political functions have never been resolved. Documentary evidence can be put forward to support the view that the drafters of the Constitution had never intended the clause to mean Islam undertaking a comprehensive role in the running of affairs of the nation (Fernando 2006), but its vagueness also meant that political leaders were given a free rein over the employment or neglect of Islam as a political tool. Both courses of action – proclaiming Islam as the vanguard national ideology or sidelining it to the periphery of national affairs – have been resorted to by various Prime Ministers. The very generic understanding of Islam in the constitutional provisions also seem to disregard the possibility of there being many ‘Islams’ of diverse civilisational traditions and intellectual currents – a fact which has however never eluded segments of the ummah (global Muslim community), of which the Malay world is a part. Since medieval times, intra-Muslim contestation and conflict, as a sociological phenomenon, was not unknown in the supposedly gentle world of Malay Islam. Which version of Islam held sway among the population at large depended on its interpretation by the powers that be: either the rulers themselves if they felt competent enough to decide on religious matters, or the coterie of ulama entrusted with giving the political leaders religious counselling and



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issuing fatwas (religious edicts). The terrain of political Islam in the Malay Peninsula had invariably been pluralist. Historically, if there were times when the faith and practice of Malay-Muslims had appeared monolithic, that was only because the reigning political masters wanted them to look that way, for manifestly political purposes. Since the culture of letters had in the past been the exclusive domain of kings, princes, aristocrats, court loyalists and later ruling elites, such skewed history was later accepted by default as official history. Revisionist accounts and alternative writings using such unconventional sources as oral history were slow to make headway within Malaysia’s politically constricted milieu. This state of affairs has undergone significant change since the new millennium with the advent of the Internet. The information and communications technology (ICT) age finally broke the political masters’ stranglehold over locally derived information, knowledge and the media. Under the country’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman, Islam was politically marginalised in Malaysia. Tunku’s frank remarks: “Unless we are prepared to drown every non-Malay, we can never think of an Islamic Administration” (quoted in von der Mehden 1963, p. 611) and “this country is not an Islamic state as it is generally understood, we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the State” (quoted in Ahmad Ibrahim 1985, p. 217), were generally taken as symbolising the overall approach to Islam undertaken by the post-independence governments he led. In 1965, he notoriously clamped down on the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS: Parti Islam SeMalaysia) by authorising the Internal Security Act (ISA) detention of its President Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy and Vice-President Raja Abu Hanifah, for allegedly being involved in a highlevel conspiracy to set up a pro-Indonesia government-in-exile in Karachi, Pakistan (Al-Helmy 2006). Whatever Tunku seemed to lack at home, though, he sought to compensate with Islamist activism abroad. Tunku Abdul Rahman was arguably the first Muslim head of government to float the idea of an Islamic commonwealth, which he did in 1961, giving rise to a series of Islamic conferences which culminated in the establishment of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) under the patronage of King Faysal of Saudi Arabia (Mohamad Abu Bakar 1990, p. 6; Mokhtar 1991, pp. 83-93). As later head of the Muslim Welfare Association of Malaysia (PERKIM: Pertubuhan Kebajikan Islam SeMalaysia), Tunku expressed



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immense pride over missionary work undertaken under his auspices, which he related directly to the proclamation of Islam as Malaysia’s official religion (Tunku Abdul Rahman 1977, pp. 246-247). Tunku’s successor, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, sought to capitalise on Tunku’s ambassadorial qualities. Tunku’s inaugural leadership of the OIC in 1971-73 was reflective of the increasing importance Malaysia was giving to Islamic unity among Muslim nation-states in the wake of humiliating losses perpetrated by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 and its consequent annexation of Jerusalem (Al-Quds). Henceforth, Malaysia gave unrelenting support to the Palestinian quest for independent nationhood, although it was careful to spell out its pronouncements in a Third World pro-liberation idiom indicating that religion was only one and not necessarily the dominant aspect (Mokhtar 1991, pp. 99-102). Through Tunku’s initiative, Malaysia, via state-supported Islamic projects such as the Pusat Islam (Islamic Centre) and the Islamic Dakwah Foundation of Malaysia (YADIM: Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia) became major recipients of aid distributed under the overseas development programmes of oil-rich Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya (Nair 1997, pp. 62, 105; Hussin Mutalib 1990, p. 93). The outpouring of such petro-dollars helped to fund a cornerstone of Tun Razak’s domestic policy: the projection of a National Cultural Policy (Dasar Kebudayaan Kebangsaan), in which Islam was an unmistakably integral part of a triumvirate ethos. The two other planks pronounced on the importance of native culture, and the acceptability of non-indigenous cultural elements as part of national culture so long as they were appropriate (Mandal 2008, pp. 277-278). The public profile of Islam was thus foregrounded at the same time as the heat of global Islamic resurgence was beginning to be felt in Malaysia, disseminated among others by Malay-Muslim students who were socialized by international Islamist networks during their overseas sojourn. By the late 1970s, Prime Minister Hussein Onn was bold enough to initiate a government-funded National Dakwah Month – dakwah or missionary effort being the iconic term for the burgeoning Islamic revival in Malaysia, in an effort not to lose the Islamist initiative to independent Islamist movements (Tasker 1979). Upon assuming the Premiership in July 1981, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad swiftly announced a slew of projects which were deemed to Islamize the country once and for all. These included the introduction of Islamic



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banking, insurance and pawnshop systems (1981-83), the declaration of an official policy of ‘instilling Islamic values into the government machinery’ bearing the memorable slogans of kepimpinan melalui teladan (leadership by example) and bersih, cekap dan amanah (clean, efficient and trustworthy) (1984), the upgrading of the status of sharia courts and judges to be at par with their civil judiciary counterparts (1988) and the founding of Islamic think-tanks and educational institutions such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) (1983), the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) and the Institute of Islamic Understanding of Malaysia (IKIM) (1992), (Hussin Mutalib 1990, pp. 134-139, 142-144; Camroux 1996, pp. 860-862). In fact, so energetic was Mahathir’s Islamization drive that as early as 1983, former Prime Ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn were already calling for a check on it (Milne and Mauzy 1983, p. 631). But Mahathir was strongwilled enough not to turn the clock back. Not only was he determined that state-engineered political Islam was to stay, but he was also intent on enforcing homogeneity, harping on the theme of Malay-Muslim unity in the face of national and global challenges. Hence Mahathir’s long tenure was characterised by crackdowns on Islamist groups whose emergence in public space was considered to have eroded the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)’s legitimacy as the quintessential voice of Malay-Muslims. In this design, the rapidly expanding Islamic bureaucracy served faithfully the political elite’ demands for uniformity. As a follow-up to his campaign to inculcate Islamic values into governmental operations, Mahathir strove hard to effectuate administrative streamlining between the federal and states’ Islamic bureaucracies. In 1997, the nerve centre of the federal government’s Islamic policies, the Islamic Centre, which had already undergone massive expansion in function and staff numbers since 1982, was elevated to the Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia (JAKIM: Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia) under the Prime Minister’s Department. With a strengthened JAKIM at the helm of Islamic affairs in Malaysia, however, a reign of intolerance over non-conformist Muslims prevailed. For instance, in consequence of an arbitrary definition of Islamic faith being imposed on Malay-Muslims, Malay Sufis – exemplified most eloquently by the Darul Arqam movement (1968-94) (Ahmad Fauzi 2000), and Malay Shiites have been persecuted on theological grounds,



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in spite of both schools of thought having existed for centuries in Islam, with consequential roles in the early history of Malay Peninsular Islam (Al-Helmi 2005, p. 35; Marcinkowski 2008, pp. 37-47). Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, arguably went even further by promulgating Islam Hadhari or ‘civilisational Islam’ as a fundamental theme of his administration. However, by the time Abdullah Badawi succeeded Mahathir, the Islamic bureaucracy had acquired dynamics of its own, perennially slanted towards defending the religious status quo, and enveloped by a false pretense of sanctity bordering on infallibility (Ahmad Fauzi 2010, pp. 164-168; Maznah Mohamad 2010, pp. 512-519). The Islamic bureaucracy had turned ‘Islamist’ but in a skewed fashion, ever-prepared to act in adherence to politically slanted fatwas, transgression of which are criminalized in Malaysia, rather than to the sharia per se (Ahmad Fauzi 2009, pp. 181-183). Since its implementation was almost entirely at the behest of this coterie of religious officials, Islam Hadhari ended up being identified as a repressive mechanism which effectively legalised wanton abuse of powers against not only non-Muslims but also Muslims suspected of running afoul of Malaysianstyle sharia by subscribing to unorthodox beliefs and flouting morality regulations. In truth, although parroted out of deference to authority, Islam Hadhari never enthused ordinary Malaysians of all persuasions. At the international level, response to Islam Hadhari from Middle Eastern countries was similarly lukewarm, with only Malaysia’s Western allies recognizing the concept as reassuring evidence that it was not going down the path of extremism in a global order increasingly influenced by the United States of America (USA)-led Global War on Terror (GWOT) (Alles 2010, pp. 19-20).

ENTER NAJIB RAZAK Islam Hadhari was already a spent force before Abdullah’s tenure as Prime Minister expired. His command of Barisan Nasional (BN: National Front) and UMNO led to disastrous election results in 2008 which tarnished his reputation forever, thus practically putting a halt to Islam Hadhari. As soon as it became obvious that Islam Hadhari would not be able to



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survive Abdullah’s embattled Premiership, its death knell was sounded by outspoken figures from the religious bureaucracy and from all sides of the political divide.2 By February 2009, even Mahathir Mohamad was chiding his successor’s application of the concept as “confusing.”3 In his final press conference as Prime Minister, Abdullah candidly voiced disappointment that Islam Hadhari had metamorphosized into an apparently repressive tool of the state. He mentioned Indonesia though as a country that welcomed the idea.4 His contrasting the narrow-minded Islamist environment in Malaysia with that of Indonesia, where diverse Islamic discourses are more openly tolerated and even appreciated – a trademark of the success of ‘liberal Islam’ there (cf. Muhamad Ali 2005; Nurdin 2005), is telling in explaining why certain quarters among the UMNO old guard were inclined to view Islam Hadhari as no more than a reincarnation of liberal Islam.5 Indeed, when compared with experimentations of Islamic governance that have taken place in other Muslim countries, Islam Hadhari was arguably liberal in the sense of conferring respect for hitherto marginalised aspects of life and segments of the ummah such as women and minorities, without changing the face and integral character of Islam (Osman Bakar 2006). Unfortunately for Abdullah, however, the Islamist intelligentsia entrusted with making Islam Hadhari a success lacked both the intellectual sophistication and fortitude in portraying and applying the grand scheme in universal terms which transcended ethno-religious barriers, thus making a mockery of his previous assertion that Islam Hadhari was suitable for all ethnoreligious groups.6 The lamentable fact was that Islam Hadhari failed in large measure due to the rise of reactionary Islamist conservatives made

Cf. ‘Rasmi: Tiada lagi Islam Hadhari’, Malaysia Today, , 9 June 2008 (accessed 27 December 2010); ‘Mufti Perlis: Hentikan Islam Hadhari!’, mStar Online, 14 April 2008, (accessed 23 February 2011).

2

3

‘Islam Hadhari mengelirukan: Tun Dr Mahathir’, Siasah, 3-9 February 2008.

4

‘Pak Lah’s final interview with the media as PM’, The Star, 1 April 2009.

5

Cf. ‘Sanusi kritik Abdullah, Khairy’, Harakah, 16 July 2006.

6

‘Konsep Islam Hadhari sesuai semua kaum’, Mingguan Malaysia, 2 December 2007.



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up essentially of UMNO ultra-conservatives, religious bureaucrats and a nascent Islamist civil society which colluded as a united force against the inclusive Islamic message that Abdullah Badawi had wanted to champion. After assuming power on 2 April 2009, Najib Razak introduced the ‘One Malaysia’ scheme to reclaim support from non-Muslim voters disenchanted with the Islamist trajectory taken by Abdullah’s administration, as exemplified most perniciously by his Islamist bureaucracy. In Malaysia today, Islam Hadhari is unheard of as a government slogan, with only Abdullah Badawi speaking of it approvingly in intermittent statements to the media.7 Although Najib did assure his predecessor that he would continue Islam Hadhari, such talk was done more out of respect for Abdullah than for any programmatic reason.8 Najib is well aware of the need to maintain a semblance of Islamism which has by the day been increasingly entrenched in the state and organically related structures in government, UMNO, the bureaucracy and the mainstream media. Thus Najib has sought to justify his ‘One Malaysia’ vision on an Islamic basis, by categorically quoting from the Quran,9 whose verses also embroidered his inaugural speech as UMNO President during its General Assembly (Najib Razak 2009). But just as Najib’s era as Prime Minister was starting to gain momentum, Islamist conservatism continued to drive a wedge not only between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also between Malay-Muslims. Cyberspace was full of polemical debates pitting Muslims of different orientations against one another, divided along divergent lines of Islamic understanding and practice. Having to satisfy both sides for his own

Cf. ‘Kemiskinan, ekstremis cabaran utama dunia’, Utusan Malaysia, 19 January 2012; ’Islamic studies should comprise knowledge from various fields’, Borneo Post, 22 February 2012. 7

8

‘Najib pledges to continue Islam Hadhari’, The Star, 14 November 2008.

See excerpts of an interview with Najib, ‘Ikrar bawa pembaharuan’, Utusan Malaysia, 14 October 2009. The verse he specifically quotes – verse 5, chapter 5, reads: “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses, to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is next to piety, and fear Allah, for Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.” 9



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political survival, Najib has been at pains to mollify stances adopted by Islamist conservatives who at times seem to threaten the moderate and inclusive path of his One Malaysia scheme. Having witnessed at first hand Abdullah Badawi’s bitter removal by his own party comrades, Najib preferred ambivalence and rhetoric, emphasizing his reformist credentials on the one hand and placating conservative factions within UMNO and the Islamist civil society on the other. UMNO conservatives and Islamists are united in their stance that Malaysian Islam is under siege despite constitutional provisions safeguarding it, as allegedly indicated by the existence of a carefully designed plan to encourage Muslim youngsters to leave Islam. As stressed by long-time Perak mufti Harussani Zakaria, Malay-Muslims need to struggle, parallel with what the Prophet Muhammad had to do, to preserve unity, fend off any endeavour to draft a new constitution and defend Malay hegemony.10 It was no coincidence that during the UMNO General Assembly of 2010, Najib unabashedly appealed to such conservative sentiments by declaring he would defend UMNO’s hold over Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital, at all costs, even if blood had to be spilled, so as to prevent MalayMuslims from becoming victims of oppression in their own motherland.11 The clout of Islamist conservatives was earnestly demonstrated when, upon Harussani’s admonition of Najib for attending the Hindu Thaipusam festival in Batu Caves in February 2012, Najib had to seek an audience with Harussani to explain his actions, which Harussani originally thought had compromised Najib’s Islamic faith.12 It was quite obvious to Malaysians, however, that Najib was severely handicapped in terms of Islamic legitimacy. He lacked both the religious aura of his immediate predecessor Abdullah Badawi and the religiointellectual vision of Mahathir Mohamad. In contrast to both of them,

10 ‘Harussani says Malays must defend their land’, , 21 February 2012 (accessed 12 March 2012). 11 ‘We must defend Putrajaya at all costs: Najib’, , 21 October 2010 (accessed 12 March 2012). 12 ‘Najib’s presence at Thaipusam not unIslamic after all, says Perak Mufti’, ,16 February 2012 (accessed 11 March 2012).

10

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his frolics during his youth, before his abrupt induction into politics upon the untimely death of his father Tun Razak in 1976, seriously dented his image among the Muslim masses (cf. Mohd Sayuti 1998, pp. 59-60, 80). Rumours circulated through the grapevine that he had once even been on the receiving end of Malaysia’s morality laws, but was duly released without being dragged to court on account of his position in government.13 His ascent to the highest political office in the country was dogged by macabre allegations of his possible complicity in the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaaribu, whose former beau was reputedly Najib’s advisor when he was Defence Minister (cf. Vijay and Wong 2011). Najib’s reputation also incurred damage through the antics of his wife Rosmah Mansor, whose allegedly spendthrift ways and domineering style were consistent targets of malicious jokes in cyberspace.14 Hence it would not have been surprising if many Malay-Muslims would regard Najib’s intermittent references to Islam as mere lip service meant to allay fears in the Islamist constituency that he would be more sympathetic to a liberal understanding and practice of Islam. Furthermore, no significant mention of Islam can be traced in Najib’s iconic policy declarations. The word ‘Islam’ itself is conspicuously absent from his policy statements on One Malaysia,15 the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) roadmap16 and the recent Bumiputra Economic Council (MEB: Majlis Ekonomi Bumiputera).17 Najib seeks to project himself as a moderate Muslim leader, but while Islam was mentioned on the occasion of the launching of the Global Movement of Moderates, it was not linked at all to Najib’s domestic policies.18 13 Cf. ‘Pecah berita! Najib ditangkap khalwat ...!!!’, , 28 March 2013 (accessed 13 October 2013). 14 Cf. ‘Rosmah’s Gifts and Ethics’, , 28 April 2013 (accessed 13 October 2013). 15 (accessed 23 September 2013).

(accessed 23 September 2013).

16

(accessed 19 September 2013). 17

(accessed 23 September 2013). 18

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It is very likely that Islamists and UMNO conservatives alike are cognisant of Najib’s weaknesses. They therefore take it upon themselves to champion causes which they see as defending Islam’s interests, their skewed understanding of the global religion notwithstanding. Particularly worrying is the report that some young religious scholars previously identified by the security force as enjoying affiliation with extremist groups with organic links to the international Al-Qaeda network, have chosen to join UMNO in a deft masquerading exercise (Al-Ghari 2011, p. 94). Welcoming them with open arms, Najib sought to allay fears that such an influx would turn UMNO into an extremist party.19 Although it may be too fanciful to believe that UMNO will turn into a terroristsupporting party through the influence of a handful of Wahhabi-oriented scholars, it is the overall discursive turn of UMNO’s religious wing in a more puritanical direction that deserves attention. In this, it is supported by a slew of Islamist non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which have emerged in response to what they perceive as the whittling away of Islam’s sovereignty, as partly signified by the proliferation of liberal Muslim and secular humanist NGOs fighting for the human rights of groups marginalised in Malaysia’s increasingly Islamist polity. Apart from representing non-Muslims claiming to have been victimised by the Islamist slant of Malaysia’s judicial bodies, these rival NGOs speak on behalf of Muslim women, the LGBTs (lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, trans-sexuals) and followers of unorthodox Muslim sects, all of whom have been victimized by the country’s sharia legal system. The Islamist NGOs, on their part, invariably support the unofficial dogma of Malay supremacy, which Najib neither clearly disowns nor espouses. Najib understands that verging to one of the extremes would be politically suicidal. He therefore prefers to maintain the middle ground, contributing to the prevailing state of what Shamsul Amri Baharuddin once called ‘stable tension’, as pertaining to other socio-political relationships in Malaysia as well (cf. Shamsul 2004, p. 121). In the meantime, different interpretations of Islam, with varying perspectives regarding Malay ethno-centrism, have emerged as an

19

‘PM: Ulama in Umno will not make party extremist’, The Sunday Star, 27 June 2010.

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important fault line in contemporary Malaysian civil society (Lemiere 2010). With political Islamists in the government, UMNO, and Islamist NGOs taking the upper hand, ethno-religious relations in Malaysia have taken a worrying downturn. Issues involving Malaysian Christians are a case in point. The High Court decision of 31 December 2009 to permit usage of the nomenclature ‘Allah’ in the Catholic Church’s Malay language publication, The Herald, triggered arson attacks on churches around the Klang Valley in January 2010 (Maznah Mohamad 2010, pp. 521-523). Christian discontent arose out of the Home Affairs Ministry’s confiscation of Malay language bibles, which were finally released but only after being stamped with the words ‘For Christianity’ in large fonts.20 Following Utusan Malaysia’s headline news on a conspiracy by an opposition party and a group of priests to turn Christianity into Malaysia’s official religion, the Organisations for the Defence of Islam (PEMBELA: Pertubuhanpertubuhan Pembela Islam) issued a statement claiming that Islam was under grave threat from aggressive Christian evangelizing.21 Raising tension further, the Malay rights NGO, the Organisation for Empowered Indigenous Peoples of Malaysia (PERKASA: Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia) declared its readiness to launch a crusade against subversive Christian influence.22 Although its President, Ibrahim Ali, a former UMNO Deputy Minister in Mahathir’s administration, later qualified his jihadist fervour as a personal statement not representative of the Malays in general,23 by then mistrust of the ruling coalition had grown so large that columnist Karim Raslan, while advocating Najib’s One Malaysia agenda, admitted that “there is a mounting consensus within Umno, especially after the Sarawak state polls, that non-Malay votes, especially the Chinese, will not return to Barisan Nasional” (Karim Raslan 2011).

‘New stamp for Bible copies’, The Star, 23 March 2011; ‘Society accepts solution to resolve Bible issue, others still cautious’, The Star, 4 April 2011. 20

21 ‘Pembela blames ‘aggressive Christians’ for Muslim siege mentality’, , 7 May 2011 (accessed 17 May 2011). 22 ‘Perkasa ready to crusade against ungrateful Christians’, , 15 May 2011 (accessed 17 May 2011). 23

‘Kenyataan jihad bersifat peribadi – Ibrahim’, Utusan Malaysia, 18 May 2011.

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On 14 October 2013, the Court of Appeal momentously overturned the High Court’s 2009 verdict, enforcement of which had been delayed pending the government’s appeal against it. In ruling that the word ‘Allah’ cannot be used by Christians as a reference to God in the Malay language section of The Herald, the three-judge bench opined that the term ‘Allah’ was not integral to the faith and practice of Christianity. The judicial decision immediately put the vast numbers of Bumiputera Christians of Sabah and Sarawak in a dilemma, as they had been using the term in their native language liturgies for generations, even before the incorporation of their states into Malaysia. Catholic Archbishop Murphy Pakiam was forthright in denouncing the ruling as amounting to a persecution of Christians.24 Fearing a massive loss of support from indigenous Christians who had overwhelmingly backed BN in the two most recent elections of 2008 and 2013 (see below on GE13), cabinet members from the Borneo states sought to assure them that the verdict applied only to The Herald, without affecting their religious practices in local churches.25 The Home Minister and later the Prime Minister joined the damage control exercise by affirming the limited applicability of the verdict,26 but such antics were dismissed by opposition figures as desperate attempts to salvage the

‘Statement on the Court of Appeal ruling – Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam’, , 21 October 2013 (accessed 22 October 2013).

24

‘Allah not exclusive to Muslims, government declares ban only applies to Herald’, , 15 October 2013 (accessed 16 October 2013); ‘Court’s ruling on Allah does not affect East Malaysia, say Sabah ministers’, , 17 October 2013 (accessed 18 October 2013); ‘Okay for Bahasa services in peninsula churches to continue using Allah in worship, says minister’, , 21 October 2013 (accessed 22 October 2013). 25

‘Home Minister insists Allah ban exclusive to Herald’, , 21 October 2013; ‘Najib breaks his silence on Allah issue, reiterates 10-point solution for East Malaysia’, , 21 October 2013 (accessed 22 October 2013). 26

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Sabahan and Sarawakian vote banks,27 besides being disputed by retired legal experts including former Attorney General Abu Talib Othman.28

THE 13TH GENERAL ELECTIONS AND ITS AFTERMATH Malaysia’s highly anticipated 13th General Elections (GE13) dealt a heavy blow to Najib Razak and the ruling BN coalition. While BN managed to retain power at the national level and snatch back the state of Kedah from opposition hands, its success was made possible only by the skewed nature of Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system. BN’s holding on to the reins of government, winning 122 out of the 221 parliamentary seats contested – still short of the desired two-thirds majority, was quickly over-shadowed by figures which showed that this was achieved with slightly more than 47 percent of popular votes, as compared with the 51 percent of popular votes bagged by the Anwar Ibrahim-led Pakatan Rakyat (PR: People’s Pact) alliance. However, the performances of BN component parties were unevenly distributed across the ethno-religious board. While support from the Malays, Indians and native Sabahans and Sarawakians continued to prop up BN, hence delivering victorious results to its candidates from UMNO in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, from the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) in constituencies populated strongly by Indians and from the Parti

Cf. ‘Wan Junaidi’s remark on Allah issue is “complete trash”, says Tony Pua’, , 16 October 2013 (accessed 16 October 2013). 27

28 ‘Allah judgment flawed, can jeopardise Najib’s job, say jurists’, , 16 October 2013 (accessed 16 October 2013); ‘Allah decision binding on all Malaysians, says retired AG Abu Talib’, , 19 October 2013 (accessed 26 October 2013); ‘Putrajaya desperately back-pedalling over Allah issue, say constitutional lawyers’, , 21 October 2013 (accessed 22 October 2013).

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Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB: United Traditional Bumiputera Party) in Sarawak, ethnic Chinese voters deserted BN in droves such that Najib unhesitatingly employed the term ‘Chinese tsunami’ to describe the outcome of GE13 (Tan 2013).29 In fact, as a BN component party, UMNO actually improved on its performance, contributing 88 out of BN’s 133 victorious seats in 2013 as compared to 79 out of 140 in 2008 – an increase from 56 percent to 66 percent of BN’s total seats. It became almost immediately apparent therefore that UMNO had actually benefited from its discursive slide towards Islamist conservatism, which struck chords among Malay-Muslims who resided in semi-urban and rural areas, which were favourably represented in terms of greater electoral weightage (Chin 2013). UMNO personalities’ antics during the GE13 hustings served to highlight the party’s increasing willingness to not only tolerate such a socially divisive turn towards conservatism, but also to espouse it. Of all people, it was Najib Razak himself who endorsed PERKASA Deputy President Zulkifli Nordin’s candidacy as BN-UMNO’s candidate in a high-profile duel against PAS leader Khalid Samad for the Shah Alam parliamentary seat, at a time when controversy surrounding Zulkifli‘s purported statement demeaning the Hindu religion, which went viral over the Internet, was still fresh in many minds.30 Later, during nomination day, Najib appeared to have tacitly approved Pasir Mas BN-UMNO candidate Che Johan Che Pa’s astonishing failure to submit his nomination papers, in what seemed to be a deal struck with Mahathir Mohamad to allow his protege, PERKASA President-cum-incumbent Ibrahim Ali to defend the Pasir Mas parliamentary seat. In fact, so satisfied was Mahathir that he voiced out his willingness to defend Che Johan should Che Johan be referred to the UMNO Disciplinary Committee.31

Cf. ‘GE13: Najib: Chinese taken for a ‘good ride’, ‘GE13: Najib calm when pestered for comments on Utusan Malaysia’s front page headline’, The Star, 8 May 2013. 29

‘After Hindu insult, Zulkifli Nordin says ‘keling’, , 5 April 2013 (accessed 13 October 2013). 30

31 ‘Dr M praises Che Johan, ready to defend ‘hero’ against Umno’, , 28 April 2013 (accessed 13 October 2013).

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Since GE13, the discourse strewn by the UMNO-linked vernacular media has dangerously slid down the path of ethnocentrism and intolerance. Several tense episodes related to alleged intensification of Christian missionary activities in the country and the misuse of Muslim prayer facilities for non-Muslim worshipping purposes were interpreted by spokesmen of official Islam as being pre-meditated, in spite of arguments by open-minded Muslim scholars and public figures cautioning against the Islamic officialdom’s over-reaction.32 The siege mentality was cultivated by using official channels such as Friday sermons, with increased emphasis being given to the demand for stricter legal safeguards to defend the sanctity of an Islam threatened by the rising brazenness of non-Muslims purportedly claiming religious equality.33 In the words of Dr. Abdul Shukor Hussein, Chairman of the National Fatwa Committee, “Denigration of Islam is rising in this country because of lax law enforcement. As a result, adherents of other religions are not afraid of mocking Islam which is this country’s official religion”34 (Berita Harian, 13 August 2013). The coterminous nature between Islam and Malay ethnicity has meant that such anti-Muslim tirade was bound to be inexorably tied to the spectre of an anti-Malay conspiracy to undermine the Malay basis of the nation. This sentiment got off the ground as soon as it became apparent that votes for BN and PR in GE13 were broadly polarized along ‘rural Malaycum-Indian versus Chinese-urban Malay’ lines, especially in Peninsular Malaysia. The Chinese, being depicted as an ungrateful lot, immediately

‘Strategi murtad terancang’, Berita Harian, 18 August 2013; ‘Surau demolition not a good idea, say groups’, 17 August 2013, ; ‘Muslims should emulate Prophet Muhammad in religious tolerance, says scholar’, , 17 August 2013 (both accessed 19 August 2013). 32

33 ‘Jakim uses Friday sermon to attack non-Muslims over use of Allah’, , 6 September 2013 (accessed 9 September 2013). 34 In the original Malaysian language, “Penghinaan terhadap Islam semakin menjadi-jadi di negara ini kerana penguatkuasaan undang-undang yg lemah. Berikutan itu, penganut agama lain tidak takut untuk mempersendakan Islam yang menjadi agama rasmi di negara ini.”

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became the scapegoat for the decline of BN-UMNO hegemony. Its once dominant status in national politics now painfully at stake, UMNO’s mouthpieces in the Malay language mainstream media sang a swan song of divorce with the Malaysian Chinese. Rather than chiding Utusan Malaysia for flashing the racially inflammatory headline, ‘Apa lagi Cina mau?’ (What else do the Chinese want?), Najib Razak sought to divert attention to the equally divisive statements issued by the Chinese press, thus absolving Utusan of effective blame.35 In the very same of issue of Utusan, one Sharif Tojan exhorted his fellow Malays: “Forget National Reconciliation. On the contrary, strengthen Malay Unity. Re-activate the National Civics Bureau. This is our last fort against these racist Chinese. Also, learn and adopt Mahathir’s strategies”36 (Utusan Malaysia, 7 May 2013). In conjunction with a post-election roundtable discussion organized by the National Professors Council, a Berita Harian editorial columnist who goes by the pseudonym ‘Belalang’ questioned the alleged Chinese lack of interest in national unity: “National unity is an issue for all communal groups in this country. Hence discussions on it should be conducted at various levels. Until now, as far as Belalang knows, only Malay organisations, NGOs and thinkers have been eager to discuss it. Where are the Chinese organisations, NGOs and thinkers?”37 (Berita Harian, 30 June 2013). In urging the UMNO Youth and Women’s Section to be more aggressive in defending Malay rights, another columnist alluded to the Chinese as having betrayed the Malays: “There is no use in pacifying

‘GE13: Najib calm when pestered for comments on Utusan Malaysia’s front page headline’, The Star, 8 May 2013. 35

36 In its original imprint, mixing English with the Malaysian language, “Lupakan National Reconciliation. Sebaliknya, Strenghten Malay Unity. Gerakkan semula Biro Tatanegara, This is our last fort against these racist Chinese. Also, Learn and Adopt Mahathir’s strategies.” 37 In the original Malaysian language, “Penyatuan nasional adalah isu semua kaum di negara ini. Oleh itu, perbincangan mengenainya perlu dibuat pada pelbagai peringkat. Setakat ini, setahu Belalang hanya organisasi, badan bukan kerajaan (NGO) Melayu dan pemikir Melayu saya yang beriya-iya berbincang mengenainya. Di mana organisasi dan pemikir kaum Cina.”

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others and neglecting our own race when later they sideline us without any sense of guilt”38 (Razak Rashid Ghows 2013). Ironically, half a century after competing for the loyalties of the MalayMuslim masses, UMNO and PAS have changed positions in the ideological spectrum. While UMNO appears to be contented with securing and further solidifying its Malay-Muslim base as a regime preservation strategy,39 PAS has made inroads amongst non-Malays by virtue of its participation in the multi-racial PR alliance. In contrast with UMNO’s perceived hostility to non-Malays who seek to mobilize their communities along religious lines, PAS has been busy building bridges with non-Muslim community leaders (Netto 2013). Some of its more progressive leaders such as Mujahid Yusof Rawa, son of PAS’s first President under its post-1982 ulama leadership, have gone to the extent of risking traditional Muslim sensitivities by conducting inter-faith dialogues in churches.40 This is a far cry from the prevailing state of affairs since the early post-independence years, which saw a liberal UMNO being pitted against a PAS which was constantly portrayed as racist. Observing the interaction between religion and politics in the 1960s, K.J. Ratnam concluded that PAS was “undoubtedly the most extreme communal party in Malaya.” Belying its seeming preoccupation with religion as indicated by its name, PAS was “a communal party in a more general sense, in that its activities cover all aspects of Malay welfare. It is unwilling to concede that the non-Malays have a legitimate place in the country and sees its goal of protecting Malay rights primarily as an effort to stave off the “non-Malay threat”” (Ratnam 1969, p. 356). As we translate Ratnam’s words into the postGE13 scenario, his depiction would better fit a description of present-day

38 In the original Malaysian language, “Tiada gunanya kita cuba menjaga hati orang lain dan mengabaikan bangsa sendiri sedangkan mereka mengenepikan kita tanpa ada perasaan bersalah.” 39 ‘Why Umno leaders are singing such a vile tune these days’, , 8 October 2013 (accessed 14 October 2013). 40 ‘Why this Muslim goes to churches to build goodwill’, , 5 October 2013 (accessed 14 October 2013).

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UMNO rather than PAS. This shift in ideological positions between UMNO and PAS, even if it has yet to be completed, deserves to be remembered as one of the striking paradoxes of modern Malaysian politics.

CONCLUDING REMARKS By virtue of historical antecedents which led to unique constitutional arrangements as Malaya approached independence in 1957, the central place of Islam in Malaysian politics has been and will continue to be a fait accompli. It is left to successive Prime Ministers to manage Islam in the way he feels best reflects the constitutional provisions pertaining to it. As we have seen, the approaches and techniques by which each Prime Minister operationalized the matter differed, from Tunku Abdul Rahman’s depoliticization of Islam, to Tun Razak’s cultural elevation of Islam, to Hussein Onn’s playing along with the burgeoning Islamic resurgence, to Mahathir’s overt Islamisation policies, and to Abdullah Badawi’s Islam Hadhari. By the time Najib Razak inherited the mantle of leadership from Abdullah Badawi in April 2009, Islamism i.e. the political face of Islam, was a force that had stealthily made its way deep into the structures and institutions with organic linkages to the state, government and ruling party. From a pariah movement shunned by Western-educated Malays who dominated the levers of power via UMNO, the civil service and the UMNO-linked media, political Islam has today emerged as a pivotal political force intent on changing the face of Malaysia towards a more Islamically inclined polity. For some of its proponents, such an entity necessarily takes the form of a juridical Islamic state. It would not be too far-fetched to say that at present, if there were any cries for an Islamic state to materialize in the near future, it would come from UMNO and its religious proxies in state institutions rather than from PAS and its allies in PR. Unfortunately, if present manifestations of bureaucratic Islamism are to be taken as indicative of what an Islamist-driven Malaysia would look like, a rosy picture can hardly be imagined. To all intents and purposes, political Islam as a movement fostered by the state and bred in the official corridoors of Malaysia’s ruling establishment does not bode well

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for not only non-Muslims who are bound to get a raw deal in the evolving social contract, but also Muslims who do not subscribe to the officially sanctioned notion of Islam. As articulated by Dr. Syed Farid Alatas of the National University of Singapore, in view of recent penetration of puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi thought into the heart of Malaysia’s Islamic officialdom and UMNO, a politically driven Islamic state imposed from above may not even be good for Muslims (Loone 2013). Such is the repressive environment of Malaysia’s new Islamic-turned-Islamist political landscape that new Islamist actors such as the Islamic Renaissance Front and Hizb at-Tahrir, support for whom comes from elements disappointed with both UMNO and PAS for allegedly betraying true Islamic principles, have disavowed the very notion of an Islamic state deriving from the womb of Malaysia’s present secular system (Mohamed Nawab 2010; Ahmad Farouk 2012). Lately, the scenario has been further complicated by periodic appearances of millenarian movements which, while relatively small in size, have raised security concerns. Examples are the reassertions of the supposedly defunct Darul Arqam organisation and the latent Shi’ite movement, both of which have been officially banned and had its leaders arrested under the now repealed Internal Security Act (ISA) in 199497.41 The emergence of these actors arguably demonstrates growing discontent among the Muslim masses of established configurations claiming to speak on behalf of Islam in Malaysia, and this includes an increasingly centrist-leaning PAS.

Cf. ‘Polis sentiasa pantau kegiatan Al-Arqam – Bakri’, Kosmo, 11 June 2013; ‘Putar belit Ummu Jah sesat ribuan pengikut’, Berita Harian, 17 June 2013; ‘Pengikut Syiah di Malaysia cecah 250,000’, Berita Harian, 6 August 2013; ‘Kedah to step up efforts to curb spread of Shi’ite sect teachings’, , 29 August 2013 (accessed 14 October 2013). 41

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