KOTA BAHRU, Malaysia (Reuters) - The political battle lines are clear in Malaysia’s predominantly Muslim state of Kelantan: religion versus money.
The federal government has promised millions of dollars of investment in a bid to win the state back from an Islamist party that has ruled the rural backwater for 18 years.
But for many of Kelantan’s voters, expected to go to the polls for federal and state elections in the next few weeks, material wealth — or the lack of it — may not count for as much as religious piety and a corruption-free environment.
“Islamic rule is very generous,” said Mrs Tan, a tiny 50-year old ethnic Chinese, as she peered over her half-moon glasses while poring over newspapers in her modest auto spare parts store.
“They follow religious laws. There is no corruption and they are more fair and honest.”
The vote is a test of whether a moderate, secular Muslim government can defeat a hardline Islamist party with promises of economic progress.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Barisan Nasional coalition is targeting poor voters in Kelantan in a bid to shake them off from the grip of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) that governs the northeastern state.
The sole state under opposition rule, Kelantan, is the only real contest for power in the elections which are widely expected to return Abdullah’s coalition to power, although with a reduced majority.
A small farming area of 1.4 million people, Kelantan has seen few fruits of the country’s rapid economic growth in the last decade.
In 2004, a tenth of its people lived in poverty, the third highest rate among Malaysian states, official figures show.
The government hopes to change this under a $34 billion plan to create a farming, energy and tourism hub encompassing the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang and parts of Johor.
The blueprint — the first large scale development involving the country’s east coast — pitches a vision of Kelantan as a booming farming centre with thriving goat, fish and kenaf farms.
But for many the “purist” appeal of the PAS remains the biggest draw.
“Kelantan is strongly religion-orientated,” said Syed Husin Ali, an opposition party leader and former university professor specializing in rural poverty.
“As far as they are concerned, what is important is not material things, but the spiritual. PAS, of course, appeals to this kind of religious conservatism.”
Due to its population make-up — 94 percent of its 1.4 million people are Muslims — Islam plays a big role in Kelantan.
Historically part of the Thai kingdom of Patani and the ancient seat of Islamic civilization, Kelantan has an appearance of piety and austerity.
Many villagers live in rickety wooden homes and till the land, go to sea or sell farm produce for a living. With its strong emphasis on the afterlife, the state has more Islamic religious schools than other parts of Malaysia.
Gambling joints, cinemas and nightclubs are not allowed in the state and alcohol can only be sold to non-Muslims.
Dikir barat, a group recital of catchy poems, is said to be a typical pastime. But some locals say real entertainment — illicit drugs and cheap sex — abounds across the Thai border.
Central to PAS’s appeal is its 77-year old spiritual leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who is also chief minister of Kelantan.
An iconic figure garbed in flowing robes and a skullcap, the bearded Egyptian-educated scholar is seen as morally upright and accessible to the common folk, living in a modest brick and wooden home in a traditional Malay village.
This is in stark contrast to what many locals see as the opulent lifestyles of the ruling coalition’s leaders.
“A more effective approach for Barisan Nasional is quite simply to spend more time, more money and more planning based on Kelantan’s situation,” said Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, the founding director of the government-created Institute of Ethnic Studies.
“They should not use the approach that is seen from outside.”
But the PAS, too, is struggling to broaden its appeal. The party has long campaigned to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.
“What we’re doing now is trying to narrow the gap between PAS and the non-Malay, non-Muslim community,” said PAS deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa. “We’re going to defend the culture of all minority groups, the language, the schools.”
Ultimately, the outcome of the battle for Kelantan may be decided by indifferent locals such as toy store owner Lim.
“It doesn’t matter who wins,” he said over a simple meal of fish and rice in a cramped corner of his shop. “No one will help us, we just have to make our own living.”
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani