Malaysia often claims to be a well-developed Muslim country, with its skycrapers and well-organised city gracing postcards and tourist brochures. Some of this is not propaganda: of Muslim countries, it is the most developed in terms of standard of living and health, and to a certain extent has had a home-grown industrialisation not matched by any other Muslim-governed nation-state. Yet it has its share of the problems that come with Western-style development. One of its most serious problems –” indeed, a crisis –” is drug-abuse among its young people, mostly aged between 15 and 39.
When, in February last year, the Malaysian government hosted the non-aligned movement (NAM) summit in Kuala Lumpur, a silent war had just been fought. Hundreds of drug-addicts were rounded up and temporarily ‘quarantined’ in a huge disused prison-complex in the capital. After the NAM summit, little is known about what happened to the addicts, who are mostly in their twenties, and most whom are Malay Muslims (who comprise just over 60 percent of this southeast Asian Muslim country). What is clear, however, is that they were released, and not sent to one of the rehabilitation centres set up by the government.
A report from the official National Drug Agency (NDA) has revealed that a total of 26,739 addicts–”13,321 first-time addicts and another 13,418 ‘relapsed’ addicts –” were registered with official agencies nationwide during the first six months of this year. In a country of just over 20 million, the figure is appalling, and means almost 4,500 addicts every month. What is even more worrying for Muslims is the report’s observation that 66 percent of these are Malay Muslims. This trend continues the usual annual increase of new addicts: the total number of reported new addicts last year was 36,996 or an average of 3,083 a month; two years earlier, in 2001, the figure was 31,556, or 2,629 per month.
These figures have also been given in khutbas during jumu’ah (Friday) congregations, when many Muslims would not take any serious notice. When the figures were released last September in parliament, eyebrows were raised, mainly because Muslims are the majority of the population, with leaders in both government and opposition making Islam their main political theme. But in a country that either its own leaders or other Muslims have touted as a “model Muslim nation”, the latest report is a major embarrassment.
Malaysia has some of the world’s most stringent laws against drug-trafficking and abuse. Yet the death penalty, which is routinely carried out on traffickers, does not seem to act as a deterrent: more drugs are available and the number of addicts goes on rising. In 1996 the government admitted its failure in the battle, despite the enormous budget allocated to fight drugs. As much as 90 percent of drug-addicts going through ‘rehabilitation’ centres relapse upon release, and almost half return to these centres. The centres are ill-equipped to deal with the problem, and many condemn the military-style ‘rehabilitation’ process for making things worse, making addicts ‘obsolete’ as human beings.
The alarming figures have brought into question the role of the ulama, Muslim NGOs, da’wah groups and Islamic youth organisations. But the ones in the spotlight will certainly be the country’s two largest political parties, which claim to represent the Malay Muslims’ Islamic aspirations: the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Islamic Party (PAS) (almost all Malays in the country are Muslim, so the two terms are usually used interchangeably). Although PAS may claim that the present drug-crisis is partly due to the secular trend, the figures may not bear this out. A state-by-state census of the same six-month period has shown that, out of 13 states in Malaysia, Kelantan, which has been under PAS control for the past fourteen years, has the fourth-highest number of addicts. The top three were large cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Sabah, whose coastline border with the Philippines has, not surprisingly, made it easy to smuggle goods, arms, humans and drugs. By contrast Kelantan has always been a rural state with only a few commercially active towns.
So why many Muslim addicts even in a state governed by the ulama? The question is difficult to answer, as other factors are also involved. But the recent habit in the country of not paying much attention to the social costs of ‘development’ may be a shortcoming that Muslim leaders should seriously consider trying to rectify.
The drug problem is part of a wider social and moral crisis facing young Malay Muslims, particularly the men and boys. Statistics show that Malay-Muslim girls and women far outnumber their male counterparts in institutes of higher education. This is not the case among other communities in Malaysia, namely the Chinese. On this former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad made a remark not long ago to the effect that it was due to too much politicking by Malays. He may have a point, although he cannot be absolved of blame for transforming the Malays from a conservative society to one that can talk freely about the vilest scandal. Some critics have argued that Mahathir’s highly-publicised allegations against Anwar Ibrahim, in which this Muslim people heard charges of sodomy and all sorts of obscene details, have somehow made social ills no longer seriously frowned upon. Today Malays continue to dominate the news about sexual crimes, baby-dumping, drug-abuse and juvenile delinquency.
What is clear is that the drug menace is part of a larger decline among young Muslims, both in the rural and urban areas. However, its grave nature makes it vitally important that Muslims give it special attention. A recent report by malaysiakini.com, an online daily, suggests the lack of interest among Muslim leaders in addressing the drug problem. The allegations were immediately refuted by a government official and PAS youth leader. Both claim to be doing their part, setting up programmes in mosques and rehabilitation centres. So one wonders why the increase goes on. The Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) has perhaps come close to an answer: “We are looking at the overall decline in morals. We cannot isolate the drug problem from that,” its secretary-general recently said.
Earlier this year British prime minister Tony Blair hailed Malaysia as an exemplary ‘moderate’ Muslim country. All over the Muslim world, governments have been trying to reconcile their secular ambitions with their peoples’ Islamic preferences, and Malaysia is no exemption. While it builds imposing mosques and Islamic centres, and provides huge funding for ‘intellectual’ Islamic exercises such as conferences, publications, education and the arts, the government-controlled media ‘balance’ these with other ‘youth’ programmes. In the last few years, concerts and entertainment programmes (a large number of which are officially organised) have mushroomed, and the majority of attendees are young Malay Muslims. A recent ‘entertainment roadshow’ by a private television station earned the wrath of government muftis, who advised Muslims not to patronise the event. The muftis’ advice was immediately blacked out by the media.
Today, ‘reality TV’ shows have invaded Malaysian living-rooms to an extent never before seen; the participants are almost all Malays, and the sponsors are mostly Chinese-controlled multinational companies. The general stereotypes of the ‘natives’ being lazy and entertainment-driven are fuelled by these programmes. The irony of Malaysia’s “model Islamic nation” image could not have been better illustrated than when, recently, one television channel had live transmission of the annual international Qur’an-reciting competition, while the next TV remote-control button took viewers to another live event: the “Malaysian Idol”. The programme is patterned on an American ‘talent’ show, with celebrity-style emotional outbursts and hedonistic behaviour thrown in. Almost all the cheering crowd consisted of Malay Muslim teenagers, who used tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of SMS messages to vote for their ‘idol’.
All this may or may not point to declining standards, particularly among young Muslims. Whatever the signs say, since the country’s drive towards rapid industrialization in the eighties, young Malays are being faced with a challenge to morality and identity that their forebears never experienced.
Muslim politicians are now burdened with a challenge that is much more difficult than winning an election or forming a government. The increasing drug-abuse and other ills will spell a severe decline in the Islamic movement in the country, if serious efforts are not made by activists. Failure to do so will also give more opportunity for the activities of Christian missionaries, who are already active in tackling drugs and other problems in their own heavily-funded way.