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Having the kuih and eating it

Having the kuih and eating it
(Pic © Andrew Koh / 123rf)

“WE cannot afford to lose the plot again,” warns PAS central working committee member Dr Dzulkefli Ahmad. This is an important caution, not least because of the dizzying developments currently changing the landscape of Malaysian politics.

Consider the past two months. A second round of sodomy allegations against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim emerged in early July 2008. Barely three weeks later, another bombshell was dropped: PAS and Umno were already holding “secret talks” about Islam and Malay unity.

Then in early August, opposition leader Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail resigned as Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh, paving the way for Anwar’s possible, and likely, parliamentary comeback.

And all this amidst Anwar’s repeated declarations that he can engineer the requisite parliamentary defections to form Malaysia’s first Pakatan Rakyat federal government come 16 Sept.

Given the context, it was no surprise that the weekend of 16 and 17 Aug was so closely watched, it being when both PAS’s 54th muktamar (assembly) and the nomination day for the Permatang Pauh by-election were held.

The fairly consistent analysis of the by-election — that Anwar is a shoo-in — can only be evaluated after polling day on 26 Aug. It is what is happening with PAS now that raises questions.

At the muktamar, two positions were articulated by the party leadership. One, that PAS would remain in the Pakatan Rakyat, although party president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang repeatedly stressed that the Pakatan Rakyat is only a loose collective of parties, unlike the more entrenched Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

And two, that PAS will not join the BN or share power with Umno in any way, although the talks will continue in the interests of “Islam and Malay issues”.

The qualifiers — the althoughs — for each position are revealing, given the other recurring themes of the muktamar. Hadi Awang kept stressing PAS’s current role as the kingmaker in Malaysian politics, and refused to commit to any kind of endorsement of Anwar as the Pakatan Rakyat’s choice for prime minister (even though as recently as Saturday night, 23 Aug 2008, he was heard at a ceramah in Permatang Pauh declaring that he did indeed endorse Anwar as the Pakatan’s choice for PM should the coalition manage to form federal government soon.)

And this reporter, at least, lost track of the number of times PAS delegates announced, to thunderous cries of “Allahu Akbar” from the floor, that PAS would be forming federal government “in the very near future”.

Hubris, or confidence backed by evidence?

Lost the plot

Dzulkefly tells The Nut Graph: “We experienced quite a resounding victory in 1999. Then we lost the plot. Some of us convinced ourselves that everyone loved our Islamic state agenda, and forgot that the support we got was because of the uprising of the rakyat and their quest for justice for Anwar and all.

“But, having lost the plot, we went on to intensify our Islamic agenda and launched our ‘Islamic State Document’ at the detest of many, including our new well-wishers. Then in the 2004 elections, we got a bloody nose.”

The plot this time is unfolding a little bit differently. In 1999, PAS’s victory was not only unprecedented at the federal level; it also managed to wrest Terengganu and consolidate its grip on Kelantan. PAS was the undisputed leader of the pack in the then-Barisan Alternatif.

The Pakatan Rakyat’s political fortunes post-2008 elections are slightly more complex — although PAS holds the fewest parliamentary seats among the Pakatan Rakyat parties (23, compared with DAP’s 28 and PKR’s 31 seats), it has the lion’s share of the Pakatan’s overall state assembly seats (83, compared with DAP’s 73 and PKR’s 40).


In fact, one regret among the muktamar delegates was that if PAS had not “sacrificed” so many of its federal seats to PKR and DAP in the past general elections, PAS would be the one leading the opposition in parliament this time, too. This is a subset of a larger complaint: that PAS is being sidelined in the Pakatan Rakyat states, especially in Selangor and Penang.

This explains why Hadi Awang had to pacify muktamar delegates by assuring them that in Selangor, at least, the Pakatan Rakyat has given PAS full jurisdiction over the Selangor Islamic Religious Affairs Department (JAIS).

Paradoxically, it also explains why the party president had to simultaneously pacify the muktamar about PAS’s talks with Umno, which PAS refers to as “muqabalah”. The talks are important, he stressed, because already PAS is enjoying things like an upgrading of Harakah’s publication licence, from publishing fortnightly before 15 Aug to twice weekly now.

The point about Harakah may or may not be pertinent. According to PAS secretary-general Datuk Kamaruddin Jaafar: “I wrote a letter to the Home Ministry in late April this year after the minister approved [PKR organ] Suara Keadilan’s licence. I asked for Harakah’s licence to be upgraded from fortnightly to a twice-weekly publication. It was granted and we launched on 15 Aug.”

In other words, there may be more than one factor that contributed to the restoration of Harakah’s twice-weekly publication status. But the fact that Hadi Awang was pulling it out of the muqabalah goodie-bag is intriguing.

Eating, and keeping, the kuih

Is PAS trying to have its Islamic kuih and eat it too? To answer this question, one needs to look at the history of cooperation between PAS and Umno.

It is no secret that between 1973 and 1978, PAS was part of the BN. It is also no secret that after the 1999 general election, PAS and Umno held meetings to talk about Islam and Malay unity.

Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek tells The Nut Graph: “At that time, Umno’s secretary-general (Tan Sri) Khalil Yaacob met with PAS’s secretary-general Nasharudin Mat Isa. But the talks failed because PAS started to set some pre-conditions for the talks to even continue; for example, the issue of petroleum royalties and the licence for Harakah.”

Having the kuih and eating it
(From left) Nasharudin, Hadi Awang and Kamaruddin Jaafar
What are the demands this time, though? According to PAS deputy president Nasharudin, it was Umno that initially offered PAS three lucrative positions — chief minister in Selangor and Perak, and cabinet minister (portfolio unspecified) — which PAS rejected.

So why is PAS continuing to talk with Umno?

According to Nik Aziz, it is to “convince Umno to fully accept Islam.”

According to Nasharudin, it is not about politics, “but rather about Islam and Malay unity.”

According to Hadi Awang, it is to benefit PAS and its Pakatan Rakyat partners, “including talking about things like the ISA (Internal Security Act), which also affects groups like Hindraf.”

Numerous attempts to reach Nasharudin for further clarification were unsuccessful.

Are these explanations mutually consistent? Shabery explains: “There is no contradiction [among Nik Aziz, Nasharudin and Hadi Awang]. It’s true, we are not discussing politics. We are exploring our ability to sit down and discuss common issues that affect Malays, from Islam to the economy.

“So, forming a governing coalition with PAS is not even the issue. After all, if PAS can cooperate with DAP, why can it not talk with Umno?”

Does it surprise us that it is a prominent Umno leader who is defending the consistency of PAS’s position?

Not much difference

Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi, Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) law professor and constitutional expert, is not surprised at all.

“There are many commonalities between PAS and Umno. One places religion first, the other gives eminence to ethnicity… except that since the 1980s, Umno has tried to out-Islamise PAS,” he tells The Nut Graph.

“One example of this was when former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared Malaysia an Islamic state in 2001. This played right into PAS’s agenda. Mahathir might have made that declaration as a means of halting the Islamic state debate, but he released some unanticipated forces and we are dealing with the repercussions today.”

But if Umno is trying to out-Islamise PAS, why is it courting PAS with these talks right now? Nik Aziz put it quite bluntly to reporters during the muktamar: “It is because they (Umno) are immoral. They only ever come to us when they are in trouble.”

Is that all there is to the meetings between an embattled Umno and a resurgent but resentful PAS? Again, Shad has a different theory.

“PAS and Umno are probably going to use these talks as bargaining chips with their non-Muslim, non-Malay partners in the Pakatan Rakyat and BN respectively.

“Any cooperation between [Umno and PAS] is unlikely to lead to drastic changes to the constitution. What is likely are administrative adjustments here and there, which could exacerbate a climate in which our constitution is being informally and silently rewritten in favour of more ‘Islamic’ and ‘Malay’ policies that are given administrative preeminence over laws,” he argues.

And this is probably the ultimate concern about continuing talks between PAS and Umno. What will this do to the democratic landscape of Malaysia, vis-a-vis Islam?

Malaysians already witnessed a possible preview on 9 Aug, when threats of the ISA and the Sedition Act were targeted at organisers of the Bar Council forum on religious conversion. These threats were issued by high-ranking members of Umno, PAS and PKR in a rare show of solidarity among the three parties.

Given the larger landscape of political Islam and democratisation in Malaysia, does this mean that increased cooperation between PAS and Umno could lead to the formation of an Islamic state?

Having the kuih and eating it
What will the PAS-Umno talks mean for the democratic landscape of Malaysia? (File pix by Danny Lim)
According to Shad, if “Islamic state” were merely a label, there would be no difficulty in cooperation between the two parties.

“But if the next logical step is planned — in other words, an overhaul of the constitution is to be attempted, and substantive transformation of the administrative, political, economic, electoral and social laws and policies is drawn up — massive implications will need to be realised,” he said.

“I don’t think either PAS or Umno will go that far. The implications for the constitution, the judiciary, the position of the Malay rulers as head of the religion of Islam, the pre-eminence of the secular educated civil service, [and] the monopoly of the Attorney-General’s Chambers in law-making will have to be changed drastically. The present electoral system and the system of parliamentary democracy will have to be reviewed.

“We will have to determine whether parliament then becomes a secondary legislature after a central religious council, like in Iran. And what will happen to our adat, our indigenous, traditional institutions, our entrenched provisions for Malay privileges (considering that race-based policies will be questioned on religious considerations)? What about implications for the federal-state relationship with Sabah and Sarawak?

“The reality is that 40% to 45% of Malaysians are not Muslim. If PAS and Umno want to set up an Islamic state, it is going to pose political, strategic and economic challenges that need to be discerned in a level-headed way,” he adds.

Shad notes that the Islamic state is a very rich and complex phenomenon. “But the implications for being true to an Islamic state are massive. And labels are deceptive. I can label myself a democrat but I can be intolerant of dissent. Are we a nation of labels?”

Even PAS’s Dzulkefly agrees: “The rakyat’s reaction against the BN is not about wanting more Islam or an Islamic state, so there is no need [for PAS or Umno] to outdo one another on this. PAS’s Islamic credentials speak for itself, throughout the past 50 years. The rakyat want good governance, transparency and real democratic reforms. We in PAS need to be able to read the pulse of the nation in this way. This is what should guide PAS’s strategy, and this is what will speak for our Islamic agenda, in substance, not in form or rhetoric.”

Not so surprisingly, it is the Permatang Pauh by-election that will probably determine the direction that the PAS-Umno talks will take, and how each will hedge its bets.

And as much as the PAS leadership has tried to convince the rest of the country that there is no split in the party, the opposite may be far more truthful.

The most important question now is this: whose Islam and whose version of Malay rights is dictating the agenda of the PAS-Umno talks?

Says Shad: “Islam is a mansion with many rooms. There is diversity in both Umno and PAS, and both parties have learned members who refuse to use Islam as a political bargaining chip. But the dominant discourse in both parties is in the grip of their more extreme leaders.” End of Article

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One Response to “Having the kuih and eating it”

  1. aidan says:

    Good report and analysis. Main issues and concerns of many Malays in Malaysia highlighted and explored.

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