ON 5 June 2009, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang said cooperation with Umno was the answer to the country’s problems during a press conference at PAS’s 55th muktamar. On 22 June, Hadi made a U-turn and said, “Umno has played up [the unity government] issue to try to say that PAS will leave [the Pakatan Rakyat] and join them … This is evil slander, designed to create conflict, instead of unity.”
Hadi’s turnaround is not without context. After the muktamar, on 13 June, DAP chairperson Karpal Singh called Hadi an “embarrassment to Pakatan” for pursuing the idea of uniting with Umno. On 17 June, PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat told party deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa to join Umno if he was so intent on forming a unity government with them.
NasharuddinBut after all of these outbursts within PAS and among its Pakatan Rakyat (PR) partners, PAS and the PR are now saying everything is fine again. Nik Aziz and Nasharuddin have made up, with Nik Aziz going so far as to laugh off their showdown as “miscommunication” played up as part of “Umno’s cheap political game”. But pointing fingers at Umno’s desire to break up PR does not answer the question — what is up with PAS?
After all, this wasn’t about some namby-pamby internal party spat — this was an issue that could have and still might determine the country’s democratic future.
Put to rest?
PKR vice-president R Sivarasa tells The Nut Graph, however, that the unity government issue has finally been put to rest.
“In politics there are no guarantees, but I sense this time that all the parties are much clearer about the issue,” he says, referring to the PR Council of Leaders’ statement rejecting any unity government with the Barisan Nasional (BN).
Sivarasa According to Sivarasa, PAS’s abandonment of its unity government agenda was the result of reservations expressed by PKR and the DAP, and also PAS’s own grassroots.
Shah Alam PAS chief Khalid Samad disagrees. “Pressure from PKR and the DAP had nothing to do with PAS finally abandoning the unity government agenda,” he tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
“It was the pressure from the grassroots and the spiritual adviser, which showed that there were many who were visibly against the idea, and this is what finally caused the about-turn,” he says.
Khalid, however, stresses that Hadi only mentioned the unity government proposal during a press conference, and it was not explicitly part of his keynote address to the muktamar.
Hadi AwangHe says that furthermore, it was the way in which Umno played up this proposal that opened the eyes of PAS’s grassroots and leaders to the true implications of forming a unity government.
In other words, Hadi backed down from the unity government idea not because of any effective negotiation by PKR and the DAP with PAS. He backed down because the party realises that it would be swallowed up by Umno if it were to pursue a unity government.
And strangely, this, according to historian Dr Farish A Noor, is actually the result of a newfound confidence among PAS’s grassroots.
“The party’s grassroots believe, for the first time, that the party can come to federal power on its own steam, so why work together with the Barisan Nasional (BN)?” he says in a phone interview.
Hatta RamliFarish, who is the author of Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of PAS (2004), however cautions that this confidence among the grassroots is a double-edged sword.
“They reject the idea of working together with Umno because they see it as secular and un-Islamic,” he says. “By the same token, they are also not necessarily supportive of the moderates in PAS such as (central working committee members) Dr Hatta Ramli and Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad.”
For example, he says, the call to investigate and potentially ban Muslim feminist non-governmental organisation Sisters in Islam actually came from the party’s grassroots women members in Shah Alam.
“In fact, the party’s grassroots in Selangor are the ones pushing for a ban on the open sale of alcohol, regulations compelling Muslims to perform obligatory prayers, and policing the private morals of politicians and civil society,” Farish says.
Farish says that this is where the so-called unity talks between PAS and Umno are suspicious.
Farish (Pic by Danny Lim)“When such talks are done in the name of Islam, what would be the basis of agreement?” he asks. “The basis would be a sectarian Islamist agenda, focusing on regulating personal morals and expressions of faith.”
In other words, if a unity government between PAS and Umno were to exist, it would only unite the conservative, Islamist factions of both parties.
“After all, the PAS refrain of Islam being under threat is nearly identical to the Umno refrain of Malay [Malaysians] being under threat,” he says.
Paradigm shift needed
Farish therefore stresses that it is the moderates or progressives in both parties who will help move Malaysians away from emotional and fear-driven politics to rational, ideology-based politics.
“For example, in his own way, (Umno Youth chief) Khairy Jamaluddin is genuinely attempting to transform Umno from a communitarian, race-based party to an ideological right-of-centre party akin to the UK’s Conservative Party,” Farish says.
Dzulkefly Similarly, it is moderates such as Hatta and Dzulkefly from PAS who will help steer the party away from knee-jerk and narrow religious rhetoric to a more rational, ideological approach. Thus, such a paradigm shift in both Umno and PAS would force them to compete on an ideological left-right spectrum. This would also force voters to vote based on this spectrum rather than on racial or religious sentiments.
It seems, therefore, that the problem with the unity government between Umno and PAS, or indeed between the BN and the PR, is not the political union itself. The problem is that it remains unsaid which factions of Umno and PAS would rule the roost, if they were to unite.
As it is, conservatives in both PAS and Umno have been vehemently equating a critique of public policies or social practices, such as the religious conversion of minors and the fatwa banning yoga, as an attack on Islam.
“My disappointment in PAS and Umno is that both do not give Muslims in Malaysia the space to critically reflect on norms in Islam,” says Farish.
Khalid SamadAbove and beyond this, it looks as though the issue of the unity government has not actually been resolved. After all, ever since the BN’s takeover of the Perak government in February, it has been clear that the coalition desperately wants to weaken the PR.
Khalid confesses, “To a certain degree, PR leaders will be on guard and cautious of any attempt to break up the coalition, especially by the BN.”
But that presupposes that there are none within a newly confident PAS who themselves would have no qualms breaking up the PR in order to rule the roost in the name of Malay unity and Islam.