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Non-Muslims for PAS

AFTER 20 years with the MCA, Hu Pang Chaw switched camps to give his allegiance to PAS. The former Kelantan MCA Youth secretary quit the Chinese-based party a week before the general election in 1999.

“I got tired of the MCA’s infighting and personal agendas,” says Hu. Living under PAS rule in Kelantan, he felt that the Islamist party was well organised, and its leaders and members friendly and humble.

“I accept the reality in Malaysia that Malay politics will be dominant. The choice between Umno and PAS is obvious. Umno divides people but PAS is more sincere about treating people fairly,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Hu, a Christian, also reconciled his position with PAS’s Islamic stance. “They say that in Islam, there is no racial superiority. And there is no mention of setting up an Islamic state in the PAS constitution. I have studied the constitution and there is nothing there that is against any other religion.”

As the constitution only allows Muslims to become members, Hu decided to set up a supporters’ club. It was launched a week before the general election in March 2004 with 100 members. Hu, the club president, said they now have an impressive 18,000 members after four years.

Hu finds PAS’s message of equal treatment for all races under Islam
more appealing than Umno’s ketuanan Melayu
Clubs are active in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Perak and Selangor. When first launched, most supporters were Chinese Malaysians, but Indian Malaysians now comprise 70% of the club after Hindraf’s emergence on the national scene in late 2007.

The club has been credited with PAS’s victories in the 2008 general election, especially the wresting of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) stronghold of Kedah, where the party now rules the state government. PAS also retained Kelantan, and holds 22 of the 82 opposition coalition’s seats in Parliament.

Now, the club is on the threshold of being elevated to a dewan, or wing, in the main party. The top leadership agreed to this in principle at a November 2008 party retreat. The matter will be raised at the party muktamar (annual congress) around the middle of 2009 for delegates’ approval, but PAS deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa is eager for their acceptance. “I hope for a much bigger role for the club than what they are now,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Advantageous for PAS

If the delegates approve it, PAS will be the first Islamic party in the world to admit non-Muslims, says the party’s unity bureau chairperson Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa.

“It would be wonderful, in this hostile climate of Islamophobia, for PAS to set a good example of inclusiveness,” says Mujahid, whose bureau oversees the club.

But public relations aside, the political stakes at national level are clear. Opening PAS is strategic for its evolution from being the Islamic fundamentalist bogey to a national ruling party.

“It will be advantageous for PAS. The club has got so much support from non-Muslims and they are one reason we did so well in the general election,” Nasharuddin says.

DAP elections strategist Liew Chin Tong, who researched PAS for his honours degree thesis in Asian Studies, says the supporters’ club was a party milestone. This was because of the internal struggle between its moderates and hardliners in defining its future and relevance to the electorate.

“PAS has realised that the way forward is to be inclusive. That’s how they won big in the 2008 general election.

“Instead of focusing on the Islamic state issue, they focused on people’s stomachs. This helped them win in areas where non-Malays were the swing voters, such as in seats in south Kedah,” says Liew, who is also the Bukit Bendera Member of Parliament.

Liew says the idea of making PAS multiracial dates back to the 1960s, but that did not take off until after 1999. The catalyst was the reformasi movement following Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking as deputy prime minister and jailing for sodomy. PAS joined the opposition coalition, then known as Barisan Alternatif (BA) for the 1999 general election. It was forced to moderate its stand on its Islamic goals in order to appear palatable to its secular allies, DAP and PKR, then known as Parti KeADILan Nasional.

“Before the reformasi, PAS was on the fringes with 450,000 members. A year after Anwar’s sacking, they had 800,000 members. Today, they have one million,” Liew notes.

Faster than the BN

PAS is responding to growing interest in multiracial political parties faster than BN is able to reinvent its model of racially segregated representation under Umno dominance. How this will impact national politics will perhaps only be known at the next general election, due at the latest in 2013.

How PAS treads the middle path will also be closely watched. The party has always had tensions between those seeking to gather mass appeal for PAS beyond the Muslim electorate, and those who adhere to “purer” Islamic ideals for the whole country.

In 2002 and 2003, the party was divided over definitions of what constituted an Islamic state. According to Liew’s research, there was also a policy split between conservatives who wanted an Islamic state at federal level, and mainstreamers who favoured syariah law only in PAS-governed states (Kelantan and then Terengganu). This fracture left PAS unprepared for the 2004 general election, in which the party performed disastrously, barely retaining Kelantan by a whisker.

Will the admission of non-Muslims drive a deeper wedge between the moderates and conservatives?

Party leaders seem able to justify it, at least to themselves. Mujahid, the unity bureau head, said PAS’s Islamic ideologies are viable in a multiracial context. “PAS will actually become more Islamic with a non-Muslim wing, because Islam is multicultural,” he says.

PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat tossing yee sang with Chinese Malaysian
community leaders in Kelantan in February 2008 (Source:

Balancing act

While admitting non-Muslim members can seem as simple as changing the party constitution with a stroke of the pen, there’s more to the fine print.

Hu has big hopes for the non-Muslim wing. He wants to propose that they be given three seats on the PAS central committee. “We must have representation, or we might as well remain a club.”

Mujahid, who is tasked with studying the technicalities involved in setting up the wing, has a cautious response. “We still have a lot to discuss. There are issues whether non-Muslims will be given full or associate membership, and whether there will be any conditions regarding their eligibility to vote and to have representation.”

Nasharuddin also acknowledges the sensitivities involved. “If they become members, they shouldn’t be treated as second-class. But we are not sure how the traditional PAS members will receive them, so we are getting feedback.”

The crux is whether PAS sees itself as a party for all Malaysians. Liew believes the party can handle this balancing act, even with its Islamic stance, by being inclusive while ensuring that it stays “clean, competent and friendly” — aspects that the rural grassroots value.

Liew believes PAS can balance its Islamic stance and multiracialism
Can PAS become a centrist, multiracial party, yet uphold its Islamic ideals? What bearing will a multiracial Islamist PAS have on its opposition partners, the DAP and PKR, which both espouse multiracial secularism? And how would it impact on the BN?

PAS’s promise to be fair to all races must be matched with deeds, and it must avoid the Umno pitfall of equating race with religion. It waits to be seen, but if PAS can pull it off and get the support, serious changes may well happen to Malaysia’s race-based political landscape.

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