The role of Islam looks set to dominate Malaysian elections like never before in the country's 46-year history, as a row brewed over an Islamist opposition leader's promises of heaven to Muslim voters.
New Prime Minister Abd Allah Ahmad Badawi vowed on Sunday he would not flinch from tackling the thorny issue of religion in a multi-faith nation, whose Malay Muslim majority accounts for about 60% of its 25 million people.
"This is an issue that we have to face. We cannot put it aside," Abd Allah, himself the son of a respected scholar, told reporters after a political rally in the southwestern state of Malacca.
"We have to have answers, explanations for the people. Otherwise, there will be views and edicts that are unsuitable, that will influence Muslims, if left unanswered," he said, a day after meeting with 2000 Muslim scholars, in Putrajaya, the country's new administrative capital.
Abd Allah's multi-cultural Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is sure of victory in the 21 March election, but his own United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is seeking to turn back an Islamic tide sweeping the northern Malay heartland.
The large Chinese and Indian minorities, who make up nearly one-third of Malaysia's population, can do little more than look on as UMNO does battle with Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS).
PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat was quoted by the Star newspaper on Saturday as saying the Quran states that "those who rally behind Islam are also those who want to live under divine laws laid down by Allah".
"And naturally, they will go to heaven for choosing an Islamic party, while those who support unIslamic parties will logically go to hell"
Nik Aziz Nik Mat,
PAS spiritual leader
"And naturally, they will go to heaven for choosing an Islamic party, while those who support unislamic parties will logically go to hell," he said.
Nik Azizhas said he will continue to highlight that issue until just before election campaign starts.
The Election Commission has warned that candidates who promise favours from God could lose their seats.
PAS wants to introduce Islamic law. The party governs two of Malaysia's 13 states, but its influence wanes outside the rural north.
Mahathir Muhammad, who retired in October after holding the premiership for 22 years, derided Nik Aziz's logic that a vote for PAS was a ticket to heaven.
The Malay Muslim majority
makes up 60% of the population
"In that case, rogues and rapists will also enter heaven if they are PAS members and had voted for the party," said Mahathir, who will campaign for UNMO but not stand for a seat.
The Islamists' religious agenda has dwarfed the imprisonment of opposition hero Anwar Ibrahim as an issue.
Mahathir sacked Anwar as his deputy in 1998. After mounting a challenge and allying with PAS, Anwar was sentenced to 15 years for sodomy and abuse of power. Anwar had rejected all charges, saying he was framed.
PAS was the main beneficiary from the subsequent protest vote in the 1999 polls, when less than half the Malays backed UMNO.
The Keadilan Parti, headed by Anwar's wife Wan Aziza Wan Ismail, currently holds just five seats and is expected to struggle in the coming polls.