`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."

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