Malaysian state's Islamic rule skin deep - for now

Malaysian state's Islamic rule skin deep - for now

The teenage shelf-stacker wearing lipstick and a headscarf jokes and giggles with a male colleague, happily oblivious to rules segregating the sexes in supermarkets in the north Malaysian state of Kelantan.

The Islamic state government clearly has its work cut out curbing human nature if it wants to limit contact between unmarried men and women.

The signs at supermarket checkouts tell women to queue here and men there. But nobody in downtown Kota Baru, Kelantan's sleepy state capital, really cares.

Single men and women queuing at taxi stands in the city don't hesitate to squeeze into the backseats together rather than wait and pay more.

Society here is traditional, but people flout rules that raise the bar on conservatism too high.

The Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) has a vision of enforcing hudud, or Islamic penal code, in a state it has ruled for the past decade.

That would entail punishments for believers ranging from amputation for thieves to the stoning to death of adulterers.

But PAS, the main opposition party to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, cannot enforce its hardline policies just yet - it would need a two-thirds majority in the national assembly.

This is a rural state, far away from the bright lights and vice of Kuala Lumpur, and a lot less multi-cultural than Malaysia's southern states, where the minority Chinese and Indian communities are more numerous.

Around 95 percent of the 1.5 million people living in Kelantan are from the Muslim Malay community.


But the youth watch television and outlooks are changing.

Many young women shun orders to cloak their bodies and forego lipstick. But the tudung (headscarf) stays.

On a scorching Sunday afternoon, outside an Internet cafe, boys and girls loll around, trading glances.

Both sexes sport T-shirts and jeans. The girls wear their colourful tudungs.

Inside, Net surfers check their email and 'chat' to friends in the Malay language.

The order "Strictly No Porno Web Site" is pasted atop each computer.

At the colourful night market at least a third of the video compact discs displayed are racy and highly popular Bollywood movies from India, recently singled out by Malaysian muftis, or Islamic leaders, as a source of immorality.

A computer salesman who has returned to Kota Baru after years working near Kuala Lumpur says life is not more Islamic with PAS.

"You see the old people in the villages, they are concerned with religion, but look at the young people - they don't live differently than in Kuala Lumpur," he says, sitting inside the entrance of 'Billion', an air-conditioned, multi-storey shopping mall.

Away from the big city is where PAS has its most loyal following. A favourite activity in the sleepy, palm-shrouded villages are the nightly "ceramahs", or teachings, where PAS politicians stand at pulpits like country preachers.

They swing their arms, exhorting thousands of followers sitting cross-legged before them to reject the national government. The crowd whoops in support.

A senior member of the state government says PAS is slowly building an Islamic society.

"We start from a relaxed situation, we do it in stages... sooner or later people will realise what's done is good for them," says Executive Councillor Takiyyudin Hassan.

A local journalist says people vote PAS mainly because they reject Mahathir's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, which ruled the state from 1978 to 1990.

PAS has even managed to draw support from the few Chinese who live in the area. The party's religious views and taboos are not imposed on minorities.

"I like this place because it's peaceful and friendly," says Lau Siew Lan, aproned and working the cash register at one of two vegetarian restaurants, and four bakeries, she and her husband run in Kota Baru. The couple moved from Kuala Lumpur to Kelantan five years ago.

A Buddhist, Lau is unfazed by PAS dictates.

"Our Chinese teaching says the female and the male have to be kept apart before marriage," says Lau, who has triplet girls aged 14 and a son of 16.

Outside a Chinese restaurant a handwritten sign beckons tourists looking for beer.

Inside, a notice above the cooler reminds Muslims that beer is 'haram' - forbidden.

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