(File pic of PAS flags by Danny Lim; moon by jcroatta / sxc.hu)
IN the midst of the 2009 Perak constitutional coup, embattled Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin won many Malaysians over with his moral courage, steadfastness and calm. He became the face of Malaysians who opposed an absolute monarchy.
Nizar was even hailed as a possible successor of Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim by some non-Muslim Malaysians. To my knowledge, he was perhaps the first ever PAS leader who gained such acceptance as premier material by Malaysians across ethnic and religious lines.
Does this acceptance of Nizar indicate that PAS has really changed? Is PAS genuine in reaching out to non-Muslims? Will the party revert to its old mould if it gets into federal power?
There is a caveat here: Those who cheer for the likes of Nizar, Shah Alam Member of Parliament (MP) Khalid Samad and Kelantan Menteri Besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat appear to be mostly from West Malaysia. We have rarely heard of Sarawakians and Sabahans who support PAS.
To many easygoing East Malaysians, any religious party is simply too heavy for them. And PAS cannot be a national party until it can be accepted by Malaysians from both sides of the South China Sea.
Nizar (File pic courtesy of theSun)Perhaps for this reason, the Sarawak United People’s Party thought it could dissuade Sibu voters from choosing the DAP by making them believe that PAS, the DAP’s ally, would threaten the beloved non-halal local dish, kampua mee.
Instead, the DAP brought Nizar to Sibu to help in the campaign. In one ceramah to a largely Christian audience, the audience laughed supportively when he said, “The largest sleeping Buddha in Southeast Asia lies in Kelantan where PAS has ruled since 1990. Have we awakened him or asked him to stand up?”
PAS is, indeed, more inclusive towards religious minorities now than many have imagined. However, one would not have been able to imagine the same PAS coming out so fearlessly to defend non-Muslim use of the word “Allah“, say, five years ago.
But if PAS has managed to establish its Christian-friendly credibility in the “Allah” row, its Hindu-friendly reputation was sealed even earlier in 2007. When the Hindraf movement took conversion and body-snatching issues head on, painting Hindus as victims of religious persecution, PAS initially labelled them “extreme”. But soon enough, PAS embraced Hindraf.
Siti Mariah Mahmud (Source:
drsitimariah.blogspot.com) That key decision sealed the victory for PAS in the 2008 elections in many mixed constituencies. For example, in the Kota Raja parliamentary seat, Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud won 68% of the popular vote — the highest for all PAS candidates — in a constituency with a 52% non-Malay Malaysian electorate.
Islamic state baggage
Even so, as late as 2001, PAS was still talking about establishing an Islamic state. In fact, this was the reason why the then opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif, fell apart — the DAP couldn’t stomach PAS’s Islamist ambitions.
Up until its 2007 muktamar in Kota Baru, PAS still attacked Muslim groups that held different opinions as enemies of the faith. In the 2009 muktamar, the Shah Alam division demanded that Muslim feminist organisation Sisters in Islam be “investigated”. However, things seemed different this time, because the motion was quickly challenged by PAS leaders themselves, such as Siti Mariah and Titiwangsa MP Dr Lo’ Lo’ Mohamad Ghazali.
Even so, after the watershed March 2008 elections, talks of a possible Umno-PAS unity government grabbed headlines intermittently. It was in this context that I asked once in this column: Will PAS turn blue? In other words, would PAS go out of its comfort zone, abandon the red ocean competition of Malay-Muslim nationalist politics with Umno, and go for the blue ocean of inclusive politics?
To me, the answer lies much in electoral incentives for PAS. If PAS can see its future in multiethnic politics, then it will interpret political Islam in the most liberal — still a dirty word for many PAS leaders— or inclusive way. This it has done on several occasions. It did so in the “Allah” row, risking the displeasure of nationalist Muslim groups. It did it again in the infamous cow-head protest in Shah Alam, with Khalid vowing to uphold justice for Hindus even if it were to cost him votes.
And so, it is interesting that in PAS’s upcoming muktamar, from 11 to 13 June 2010, non-Muslims will speak as leaders of the party’s newest wing. In fact, it is almost certain that PAS will field a few non-Muslim candidates in the next general election. After all, it already fielded an Indian Malaysian woman candidate for a state seat in Johor in 2008.
Can PAS lead?
And so, the question that many should ask regarding the upcoming muktamar is: Will an increasingly multiethnic PAS be qualified to lead the nation?
While some PAS leaders have denied any ambition to replace Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) as the leading party in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), it is actually worth pondering on this possibility. After all, PKR is still suffering from two problems.
First, as a party that hoped to benefit from defections from the Barisan Nasional (BN), it is now losing its own elected representatives. Unlike PAS or the DAP, which denounced crossovers of elected representatives in principle, PKR still refuses to delegitimise such acts by insisting that its 16 Sept 2008 plot did not entail material incentives.
Khalid Ibrahim Second, many of PKR’s leaders are still eyeing political appointments and government contracts. Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, who has been resisting such pressure so far, attracted the bulk of criticisms in the party’s recently concluded convention. For many, that’s a sign that PKR will likely become another Umno should it come to power.
A greater role for PAS in national politics may therefore be not only desirable but necessary should PKR lose to Umno in the defection game, or if it replaces Umno in the food chain of patronage.
PAS’s best bets
PAS would be silly if it thinks that setting up its Dewan Himpunan Penyokong PAS is sufficient. The fact is, non-Muslims in PAS are not full members and still cannot vote in party elections.
Possible obstacles from the Registrar of Societies aside, PAS is probably worried that allowing non-Muslims to vote would make it even more vulnerable to Umno’s accusations of “selling out Muslims“. But not doing more is not a viable option for PAS, especially as Malaysian politics keeps undergoing quantum speed transformation.
Therefore, there are two urgent issues that PAS should address in this muktamar.The first is its stand on bumiputeraism. After all, the Malay nationalism championed by Umno has two strands: the cultural strand emphasising the supremacy of Islam and the Malay language; and the economic strand that survives on bumiputeraism.
PAS has proven that it can counter the cultural strand when it wants to, but what about the economic strand? How can PAS convince poor Malay Malaysians that abandoning the asabiyah (communalism) mentality will benefit them? Would it be time to reaffirm the party’s appeal for a welfare state?
Second, is PAS willing to assure Malaysians that it will commit to multiparty democracy, and will not replace and replicate Umno even if it were to win the most seats in Parliament? If yes, as a starter, Malaysians need to know if and when PAS plans to introduce local elections and freedom of information enactments in Kelantan and Kedah, the two PR states it leads.
And until that happens, it’s left to be seen if a new moon will rise over PAS.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat loves the moon but is not lunatic about it.
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