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Will PAS turn blue?

(© Leofoo / Free Images Collection; source:

THE Kuala Terengganu by-election was a relief for many Pakatan Rakyat well-wishers. Not only did PAS win, it went all out to praise the DAP’s contribution to the campaign despite the latter’s failure to capture more Chinese Malaysian votes. PAS’s generosity is also notable given DAP national chairperson Karpal Singh’s open threat to leave the opposition coalition should PAS insist on implementing hudud law.

The DAP has twice left multiethnic opposition coalitions (Gagasan Rakyat in 1995 and Barisan Alternatif in 2001), effectively ending them. So, the positive interaction between PAS and most DAP leaders seems to be an assurance that the Pakatan Rakyat will not be meeting a similar demise anytime soon.

Hence this is the best time for the Pakatan Rakyat, specifically PAS, to do some soul searching. If not, within months if not weeks, PAS and the DAP will trade barbs again — over alcohol, gambling, pop concerts, social ills, and gender relations. In this case, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) may again find itself caught in friendly fire.

Pro-Umno versus Erdogan?

Where should the analysis begin? Perhaps with a more nuanced understanding of PAS’s factionalism.

Factionalism can differ in degree and form. Every party has factions, so there is nothing wrong or astonishing with PAS having them also. What may be wrong — or more precisely, misleading or inaccurate — is the labels that are being used. After March 2008, we were told that PAS has two factions, and it was a case of one naming the other with derogatory intent. The “progressives” labelled their opponents “pro-Umno”, and the “pro-Umno” faction labelled the “progressives” the “Erdogans”.

R T Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey
(Public domain; source: Wikipedia)
The pro-Umno faction wants a return to a more insular Malay-Muslim orientation, and is wary of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s multiethnic political agenda. This is the faction that attempted to negotiate with Umno, post-March 2008, on power-sharing, and comprises the dominant faction in Terengganu, and others like deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa and Selangor commissioner Datuk Hassan Mohd Ali.

The Erdogan faction, on the other hand, is aligned to Anwar and his new politics platform. They look up to Turkey’s moderate Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a source of inspiration. Among them are the majority of the party’s Kelantan leadership, and leaders from the west coast of the peninsula who won in mixed constituencies, such as Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, Khalid Samad and Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud.

But look back at the Kuala Terengganu by-election and the hudud controversy, and you will realise how misleading these labels are. In Kuala Terengganu, Umno was defeated by none other than the pro-Umno faction’s candidate and core machinery. It is the pro-Umno faction that also praised the DAP and Pakatan Rakyat after the victory.

On the other hand, the hudud controversy was triggered not by the oft-perceived “hardline” pro-Umno faction, but by a top Erdoganite and media darling, vice-president Datuk Husam Musa.

Blue ocean, red ocean?

The factions are divided by positioning issues, not as much in the ideological sphere as in the party’s electoral marketing. The current  formation of PAS’s factions is informed by the use of business buzzwords, the “blue ocean” and “red ocean” strategies. A “red ocean” refers to the crowded, known market where cutthroat competition turns the ocean bloody, or red. In contrast, a blue ocean is the unknown marketplace, in which rules of the game are waiting to be set, and which provides ample opportunities for growth.

(© Quentin Houyoux /

For PAS, Malay-Muslim politics is the red ocean. The “Terengganu faction” was keen to talk with Umno, not because they like Umno, but because championing Malay-Muslim interests is a game both this faction of PAS and Umno know well. They opted for the comfort zone rather than uncharted waters. So, the “pro-Umno faction” is actually the “red ocean faction”, if you like.

Is the Erdogan faction the “blue ocean faction” then? Yes and no. The blue ocean for PAS here is clearly multiethnic and multireligious politics. The pay-off from the blue ocean comes in two forms: real prospects for PAS to share federal power, and to win in mixed seats.

The peninsula west coast Erdogans are eager to realise both prospects, so they are likely to be the “deep” blue oceaners. In fact, if the party abandons the blue ocean strategy completely, these deep-blue oceaners will be the first to be abandoned by non-Muslim voters.

Siti Mariah Madmud (Source:
Take Dr Siti, for example. She won 68% of the vote in March 2008, the highest for any PAS candidate. Yet her constituency, Kota Raja, has a 51% non-Muslim Malaysian composition. If PAS is content with staying in the red ocean, Dr Siti can bid farewell not only to her dream of becoming PAS’s female minister, but also of retaining her incumbency.

In contrast, the peninsula east coast Erdogans’ priorities are to take federal power, albeit on a shared basis, without much concern for mixed constituencies. Why? Mainly because their constituencies are not mixed but are of Muslim majority, where an Erdoganite cannot afford to embrace multiracial, multireligious politics too enthusiastically for fear of losing Malay/Muslim support. A complete abandonment of the red ocean may end these Erdoganites’ political lives prematurely. They are therefore “light-blue” oceaners.

This explains why Husam made his “Freudian slip” on hudud in his own home turf when cornered by Umno’s Khairy Jamaluddin. It also explains why Husam merely conceded that hudud laws can only be implemented upon consensus of the entire Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Apparently, he has turned down more innovative discursive exits for his gaffe, such as promoting the intent of hudud laws rather than adhering rigidly to the form of hudud.

True blue ocean

The strength of intra-Pakatan cooperation during the Kuala Terengganu by-election and the subsequent weakening of Umno may have persuaded the red oceaners to move closer to the light-blue oceaners. But there is a real problem with the blue ocean strategy, which the deep-blue oceaners haven’t yet found a viable solution for. If PAS moves too much to the centre, how would it differ from PKR? What would be PAS’s selling point?

This is in fact the flaw in the original “Erdogan” tag. In Turkey, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had a wide open field to capture when they moved to the centre. There were hardly any other viable centrist parties in Turkey’s political landscape. In Malaysia, if there is such an Erdogan equivalent, it is Anwar. Hence, PAS can never be Malaysia’s AKP. This is one legitimate concern of the red oceaners post-March 2008.

Is there a solution? Yes, PAS can transform itself from an Islamist party to a Muslim-led but multireligious conservative party — the Muslim version of the Christian Democrats. This means giving up its “representative” claim on the entire Muslim ummah, including liberal Muslims, whom it never managed to co-opt successfully anyway. But this means that, in addition to conservative Muslims, PAS can also focus on conservative non-Muslims, which it has already made some inroads with.

Just refer to the comments by non-Muslim Malaysians supporting bans on alcohol and gambling, and even supporting hudud, citing broken families and rising crime rates. You can just see what a lucrative market lies in wait for PAS.

That would mean the Pakatan Rakyat or, God willing, all major Malaysian parties would eventually evolve into two multifaith camps: one appealing to conservatives and the other to liberals. They would then meet in the centre like in a tug of war, with their electoral strength determining how conservative or liberal Malaysia should be.

(© Homestudiofoto / Dreamstime)
No religion, however, would threaten to suppress or marginalise dissenters by invoking the displeasure of the divine.

This is my dream ang pow for the Year of Ox — a green boat sailing towards a true, deep blue ocean, insya Allah.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat thinks opportunism can be a virtue for politicians because they will change their behaviour if you can provide the right incentives. He is currently based in Monash University’s Sunway Campus.

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4 Responses to “Will PAS turn blue?”

  1. rommelc says:

    Wow. I got that warm tingly feeling after reading your solution to PAS’s centrist transformation. I too hope that it comes true.

  2. Andrew I says:

    Great piece of journalism.

    Eventually, it will become like that because life is a struggle between the haves and have-nots, the pious and the not-so-pious. Factors like race come into the equation because of sore losers and people who are “aow ban”, and we know of quite a few in our political scenario.

    Ever tried applying for the other Wong’s job, the one who once argued on national TV that democracy works in America because it is a homogeneous society?

  3. anwarzakaria says:

    Hope the dream will come true, with the non-Muslim membership being a real good start.

  4. sans says:

    So in essence all those who are conservative in Umno and PAS should converge.

    But how does this reconcile racial and religious conservatism? They are not the same.

    Will you have tugs of war between race and religion in the conservative camp?

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