Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Malaysian politician's 'no handshake' stirs row

For politicians, shaking hands and mingling with people is very normal.

However in Malaysia, a female politician has caused a stir by declining to shake hands with her male supporters.

Normala Sudirman, 38, the politician in question is shown above in this promotional video of her candidacy.

She did this while campaigning in a tight by-election in Johor, triggering debate across Malaysia's racial and religious divide.

Normala Sudirman (second left pic above) , a rising star within the conservative Islamic party (PAS) which belongs to the opposition alliance, said her faith prohibits close contact between unrelated men and women.

Normala, a former teacher and the Labis PAS women's chief, faces Mohd Azahar Ibrahim, 39 of the Barisan Nasional, BN coalition in the January 30th, 2011 by-election.

The battle in Tenang between BN and PAS was brought about by the death of the BN assemblyman Datuk Sulaiman Taha on Dec 17, 2010.

This is the 14th by-elections in Malaysia sinc the March 2008 General Elections and the first this year in 2011.

After the Tenang by-election, Malaysia is expected to see 2 more by-elections following the death of the Merlimau Assemblyman in Malacca state and possibly another byelection in the state of Selangor constituency of Pelabuhan Klang.

Now back to the Normala non-shaking hands issue.

She said "We (Muslim women) do not even shake hands with Muslim men,", defending her stance against allegations that it was a sign of the rising 'Islamisation' of the multicultural state.

Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, is ruled by a coalition of race-based parties including the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), whose leader Chua Soi Lek stoked the controversy by criticising Normala.

"We respect her choice, and likewise she should also understand why the people are baffled by her actions," Chua was quoted as saying by the Star newspaper.

Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who follow Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism among other religions, complain their rights are being trampled by the imposition of Muslim values on their way of life.

Chua, an outspoken figure who was forced to resign as health minister in 2007 after being caught in a videotape sex scandal, said that as a non-Muslim he would be seen as arrogant if he refused to shake hands with certain people.

As the furore unfolded on news portals and across the blogosphere, Normala -- who wears a traditional "tudung" headscarf and flowing outfit -- softened her position by donning gloves to shake hands on the campaign trail.

But the controversy raged on, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, from the UMNO party which leads the coalition and represents majority Malays, to rebuke Chua.

"We leave it to the voters to decide. We will not exploit her personal stand as it is her choice," he was quoted as saying by the Star newspaper.

The debate has dominated the lead-up to Sunday's by-election for a seat in the assembly of southern Johor state.

Observant Muslims in Malaysia, both men and woman, sometimes prefer not to shake hands with an unrelated person of the opposite gender, but working politicians generally take a more relaxed view.

James Chin, a political scientist at Monash University's Malaysian campus, said the Johor constituency has a large number of elderly ethnic Chinese and Indian voters who would consider Normala's policy extreme.

The controversy "will reinforce their fear of growing Islamisation in Malaysia," he said, tipping a win for the ruling coalition in the poll.

Meanwhile, the election scenes in Tenang is filled daily with packed activities, from morning till midnight by election machineries and party workers who came from all over Malaysia, including BN Leaders from Sabah, as shown in the pictures below.

Hope "Tenang" (calm) will prevail in Tenang.

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