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PAS’s next step

multi-coloured towels
Towels with “PAS for all” slogans

MUCH has been made about PAS’s 55th muktamar (annual general assembly) and the elections tomorrow, 5 June 2009, as a battle between the conservatives, represented by the ulama, and the moderates or professionals.

But labels aside, the issue at hand is about PAS’s future. And the muktamar which begins tomorrow will tell party members and observers how PAS, from being a rural-based party on the fringes, will seal its hold on mainstream politics.

Indian Malaysians campaigning for PAS

The ulama camp has been labelled as pro-muzakarah (dialogue), being in favour of unity talks with Umno to restore Muslim-Malay strength and unity. The professionals have been labelled the “Erdogans” or pro-reform and are comfortable with the idea of working with Parti Keadilan Rakyat and DAP to promote a politics of multiracial inclusiveness.

The issue then is about power and whether it lies in the Malay-Muslim base with Umno, or in the multiracialism of Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s new politics.

Husam Musa giving a ceramah
Husam Musa

Will the muktamar pave the way for bridges to be built with Umno? Or will it further entrench the party’s current centrist position within the PR?


Unity with “the enemy”

Lately, there have been efforts to reassert the concept of “kepimpinan ulama” in an apparent attempt to pre-empt victory by non-clerics contesting the top posts of deputy president and vice-president. (All top posts, with the exception of president, are being contested.)

Clerics have consistently held the top two posts although challenges by non-ulama are not new. In 2003, Datuk Mustafa Ali, a non-cleric, ran for deputy president but did not win. This time, the threat is in the form of incumbent vice-president Datuk Husam Musa, who is in the fray for the party’s number two spot.

Khalid Samad
Khalid Samad

Given that the idea of a unity government between PAS and Umno was president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang‘s, the stakes for the ulama group if they can consolidate power would be the opportunity to pursue this further.

But news of the talks caused a backlash of protest from PAS members, especially from spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat who likened it to “sleeping with the enemy”. Recently, Hadi himself withdrew the idea after Datuk Seri Najib Razak became prime minister.

But the matter is by no means dead and has become an election issue, especially in the deputy president’s race.

Husam, in announcing his intention to contest, made it his manifesto to end any cooperation with Umno if he was elected. He even added that the time had come for PAS to replace Umno. “To be liberal towards Umno is unacceptable, PAS should remain centrist,” he said.

And in a direct challenge to incumbent Nasharuddin Mat Isa, a cleric, who was a party in the unity talks, Husam added: “I believe he is better than me, that is why for two terms I supported him, but recent developments turned this contest beyond personalities and relationship.”

Campaigning for Wahid Endut in KT
Chinese Malaysians campaigning for PAS

A third contender, vice-president Mohamad Sabu, will make the number two race a three-cornered fight but the main battle is expected to be between Husam and Nasharuddin.

PAS needs Pakatan Rakyat

Political analyst Assoc Prof Dr Mohamad Agus Yusoff believes the majority of PAS members are against the idea of a unity government with Umno, although they still accept Hadi, its proponent, as president.

“The members don’t want to rock the boat as there is confidence PAS could win more seats in the next general election. With that in mind, they feel it’s best not to disturb things at the top-most level,” says Agus in a phone interview.

Despite their endorsement of Hadi, Agus believes most of the grassroots are pro-Erdogan. “They have seen that being in Pakatan Rakyat is the best option for them if PAS wants to rule at the federal level,” he observes.

Nizar frying char kuey teow while happy hawker watches
Nizar fries some char kuay teow

Although PAS won the least parliamentary seats (23) compared to DAP (28) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (31) in the 2008 general election, it won the most number of state seats (83). PAS now has 24 parliamentary seats after winning the Kuala Terengganu by-election in January 2009.

The recent Bukit Gantang by-election has proven that many non-Malay Malaysians have shed their fears of the Islamist party.

The MCA-backed Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (Insap) observes that PAS has succeeded in using moderate leaders to directly reach non-Malay Malaysians so much so that DAP’s help as intermediary is no longer needed.

“That is why you see [Datuk Seri Mohammad] Nizar Jamaluddin so comfortable frying char kuay teow with Chinese [Malaysians] in Bukit Gantang, and why Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad goes to church services. It’s a matter of grooming more leaders like these,” Insap director Fui K Soong tells The Nut Graph.

PAS has tasted acceptance by the masses that cuts across racial and religious barriers. The prospect of winning more seats in general elections is bright if the party can maintain its centrist appeal.

close up of Hu
Hu Pang Chaw


Central committee member, Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud, downplays the leadership struggle between ulama and reformists as capital for party “outsiders” to use.

“The professionals have good Islamic grounding and a solid, macro view of things. The ulama have in-depth, micro knowledge of Islam. The two sides are mutually enhancing.”

Ultimately, she believes a mix of clerics and reformists are necessary for the party’s health. It’s a view echoed by the PAS Supporters’ Club (PSC) co-founder Hu Pang Chaw.

“I am okay with the party president being an ulama. But there should also be professionals to bring balance and new ideas. Ulama are also needed to provide moral leadership and prevent things like corruption,” Hu says.

Hadi Awang close-up
Tok Guru Hadi Awang

Central committee member and PAS treasurer Dr Hatta Ramli adds that the professional group shouldn’t get all the credit for developing PAS’s multiracial appeal.

“The ‘PAS for all’ slogan was decided upon unanimously by the party. In fact, the strongest proponent was the party’s national unity committee head Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, an ulama. Tok Guru Hadi Awang also reaches out to non-Muslims. So I won’t agree with the perception that only the professionals are making PAS more appealing to non-Muslims,” Hatta says.

No absolute power


“Even if Nasharuddin is returned as deputy president, I believe it will be fine. There will never be absolute power within PAS as there is the Dewan Harian, Dewan Ulama, the Majlis Syura Ulamak and the central leadership to provide a balance of views all round. In the end, PAS is a party that listens to its grassroots,” Agus argues.

He notes that PAS is structured in such a way that there is check and balance, more than there is in Umno, at least.

Nik Aziz at the mic
Nik Aziz in Bukit Gantang

Internal check-and-balance, however, will depend on whether the ulama or professionals emerge stronger in the elections.

Insap’s Soong feels the only difference between conservatives and reformists in PAS is a matter of strategy. “Neither camp has backed off from their Islamic state agenda,” she cautions.

As such, calling the party election a battle between the “pro-muzakarah” and pro-Erdogan” factions is on one level, just politics. On a deeper level, it is a question of identity about what PAS, as an Islamist-Malay Malaysian party, should be in a plural society post-March 2008.

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4 Responses to “PAS’s next step”

  1. Singam says:

    The ulama group, supposedly the more religious group, favours closer cooperation with Umno. Does this mean:

    1. They support racial segregation, which is forbidden in Islam?
    2. They endorse the corruption rife in Umno, which is anathema to Islam?

    This make me wonder, which is in fact the more religious group. Or am I totally mistaken about what is seen as right and wrong in Islam?

  2. Jamil says:

    Salams. AS for the unity-with-the-enemy theme, I feel what the president or any right-thinking Muslim will feel is that we all as humans cannot live without the other. If we feel the other is wrong then it is only Muslim to educate the enemy as the prophet did until his time came. So educating the others is the primary agenda of all Muslims.

    It was Nasaruddin who was the incumbent, then Mat Sabu jumped into the fray, only much later Husam joined. What took Husam so long to make a decision?

    As I see it neither Nasaruddin nor Husam has the pulse of the grassroots. They are either listening to their friends or waiting for their friends to do the job for them. It is Mat Sabu who is in the thick of action all the time.

    May it be Bersih rally or any other form , it is Mat Sabu all the time. He was the one who was arrested for inciting people to go to Ipoh for prayers [during the 7 May assembly sitting].

    Since when has it become criminal to encourage people to pray?

    The only person I see among the deputy president contestants who is worth his salt is Mat Sabu.

    This is just sharing a grassroot member’s thoughts.

  3. Kenny says:

    Is there a proposal to rename PAS to PUS (Parti Untuk Semua)?

    Like it or not, PAS holds the key to PR’s success and eventual control of the federal govt. May God help us!

  4. YS says:

    I have no problem with whosoever run the country, PAS-Umno, PR or PAS alone as long as there is justice and peace for all.

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