`True Malays' cling to tradition

Malaysia booms, but its `backward' state votes its own way, writes Raymond Whitaker in Kota Bharu

Kuala Pak Amat is a Malay kampong (village) straight out of Somerset Maugham, with wooden houses on stilts shaded by tall palms from which coconuts hang like green udders. Goats nose through the husks below, while a few yards away the sea, source of the villagers' living, pounds on the sand.

The traditional Malay way of life is precious to the people of Kelantan - "Land of Thunder". The rest of Malaysia tends to regard this north-eastern state as parochial and isolated, but Kelantanis say they are preserving customs and folklore which have died out in the rush for money. If loyalty to their sultan and their mullahs has made them the poorest state in peninsular Malaysia, so be it.

The men of Kuala Pak Amat are wary of giving their names to a stranger, but have no hesitation in declaring their support for the Islamist PAS party.

Since 1990, when PAS regained power, Kelantan has been the only one of Malaysia's 13 states out of the control of the National Front, led by the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. The Chief Minister is an austere Islamic preacher, Nik Aziz, who dresses in a sarong and sandals, lives in a simple stilted house and deplores the national leadership's failure to adhere to Muslim principles. Although the National Front may win back a few state and parliamentary seats in next week's elections, after being wiped out five years ago, Mr Nik Aziz is expected to keep his hold on Kelantan.

What of the Front's promise to spend 1bn ringgit (£250m) on development, as well as building a university in the state, if they win? "We had them in power for 12 years here, and all we heard was promises," growls a wizened fisherman. "If we're backward like they say, it's their fault. Kelantan is different - this is where the true Malays live." Another old man agrees: "We just don't like following other states, where there are so many races."

Their instinctive chauvinism demonstrates the problem for Dr Mahathir. In the rest of the country he can campaign on his record of explosive economic growth, which has created an expanding middle class among the Malay majority. That has reassured the wealthier Chinese, who constitute about a third of the 19 million population, that there will be no return of the envy which led to bloody riots in 1979.

Appealing to Malay sentiment in Kelantan, whose agricultural economy has been left behind by industrial expansion elsewhere, would cost non- Malay votes in other states. Kelantanis also have reason to be suspicious of attempts by the federal government to boost local development. Several mooted investment projects have turned out to be nothing more than excuses for timber interests to carry out uncontrolled logging before departing, while bad harvests have left many tenant farmers on a federal land project in the south of the state heavily in debt.

For them as well as for the rest of Kelantan's one and a half million people, Islam has been a way of asserting their distinct identity. Since 1990, PAS has imposed stricter Muslim rule - while other states follow the Western weekend, Kelantan takes Thursday afternoon and Friday off, although attempts to bring in sharia law were ruled unconstitutional by Kuala Lumpur. Sitting in Kota Bharu's PAS headquarters after one of his Friday religious classes, 64-year-old Mr Nik Aziz, who bears a startling resemblance to Edward G Robinson, dismisses suggestions that Islam is incapable of implementing development or modern administration: "That is purely Western and Zionist propaganda."

The truth is that they, like Dr Mahathir, must make compromises. To control Kelantan they have to work with Sultan Ismail Petra, whose playboy habits do not seem to lessen the devotion of his Muslim subjects, as well as his relative, Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister who quit the ruling party only because he narrowly lost a leadership contest against the Prime Minister in 1987.

Nor can they maintain tradition in isolation from the Malaysian boom, whose effects are beginning to trickle down even to a fishing hamlet like Kuala Pak Amat. The kampong is flanked by beach resorts, and even the meanest hut has electricity and water. Younger men wear T-shirts and trainers instead of traditional dress, and there are grander brick houses built by Kelantanis who have made their money outside.

"But that doesn't mean they will be accepted as opinion-makers," said one veteran of local politics. "They will have to spend time back home, eat budu - fermented fish- and get their Kelantan accent back first. This place will always be difficult."

News
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballMan City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Sport
Enner Valencia
footballStriker has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame via winning the title with ‘The Blue Ballet’ in Ecuador
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities