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Gaming Center Latest Hotspot in Muslim Malaysia

Islamic party accuses government of placing profit before religion in permitting resort to have slot machines.

September 07, 2003|Sean Yoong | Associated Press Writer

BUKIT TINGGI, Malaysia — Perched in Malaysia's central highlands, the Bukit Tinggi resort is a playground for the prosperous to play golf and unwind at karaoke lounges while their children ride horses and stroke rabbits in a petting park.

But for all its peaceful surroundings, the hill retreat less than an hour's drive from the capital is a new hotspot in the highly sensitive arena of religion and politics in heavily Muslim Malaysia.

A decision by the government to let the resort operate 250 slot machines has fueled complaints from fundamentalist Muslims that authorities are loosening decades-old curbs on casino gambling and failing to protect Islamic teachings.

Islam, which forbids gambling, forms the main backdrop to politics in this Southeast Asian country, 60% of whose people are ethnic Malay Muslims. Ethnic Chinese and Indian Buddhists, Christians and Hindus are the largest minorities.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's United Malays National Organization, leader of the ruling coalition, vies for support with the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the country's largest opposition group, which often accuses the government of placing profit before religion.

The opposition group, which wants to harden Malaysia's moderate form of Islam and make the country an Islamic state, has made inroads in recent years into support for Mahathir's party, which is accused of cronyism and corruption.

The Bukit Tinggi resort is modeled as an 18th century French chateau. Like Malaysia's sole existing casino at a mammoth resort in Genting Highlands, its slot machines would be off-limits to Muslims, and ethnic Chinese Malaysians would be the main customers.

Still, the political undercurrents are obvious. The Genting and Bukit Tinggi resorts are in Pahang state, which the Islamic party hopes to wrest from the federal government in general elections that must be held by November next year. Stronger in the countryside than the cities, the Islamic party already governs two of Malaysia's 13 states, both neighboring Pahang.

Even though Pahang is 75% Muslim, the party stands little chance of winning here. The fundamentalists have traditionally done well in states where the ruling party suffers from infighting, but in Pahang, the ruling party is stronger.

But the issue is sensitive enough that the new casino's opening, originally scheduled for May, has been delayed indefinitely.

These are uncertain times for the nation of 24 million people.

In October, an era will end when Mahathir, the former physician known for his peppery anti-Western criticisms, is to retire after 22 years in office and hand power to his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Meanwhile, the country has been shaken since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by the arrest of about 80 suspected members of a militant group with alleged ties to Al Qaeda.

The Genting Highlands casino was opened by a Chinese immigrant in 1969, when Islamic credibility was less of a political issue.

The government refers to Bukit Tinggi as a gaming center. But in speeches and pamphlets distributed nationwide, the Muslim party has accused the government of allowing a full-blown casino here and denounced it for allowing gambling at all.

"We have to defend the teachings of Islam, as we cannot depend on Mahathir's party," said Mustafa Ali, the Islamic party's vice president. "If we come to power, we would close gambling dens and places of vice."

In the states it governs, the party has banned gambling outlets, halted the open sale of alcohol, and segregated men and women at supermarket counters.

Gambling is legal in Malaysia in forms such as lotteries and horse racing, although it is forbidden for Muslims. Illegal betting on soccer is rampant.

At the Genting casino, a prominent sign at the entrance warns that Muslims are barred, and casino employees enforce the ban. Since Malaysia's Muslims are predominantly ethnic Malay, they would be easily spotted among the overwhelmingly Chinese crowd.

But Bukit Tinggi has the government and the resort on the defensive. "We are not encouraging gambling," Pahang state's chief minister, Adnan Yaakob, said recently. "What we're doing is to coordinate the gambling centers for non-Muslims ... to ensure that gambling does not spread to other areas."

Mahathir insists that the government would not approve a second casino and says the Bukit Tinggi slot-machine center was meant for club members only.

"It's not a casino," Mahathir said. "It's not like Genting."

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