PAS at the crossroads

By Wong Chin Huat
PAS is now at the most important historical juncture in its 58-year life.

Partnering Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the DAP, the Islamists are now only 29 seats away from taking over the federal government.
Winning nearly 80% of Chinese Malaysian support in the recent Bukit Gantang by-election, PAS has superseded the MCA and Gerakan to be the third largest choice for Chinese Malaysian voters after the DAP and PKR. It long overtook the MIC as the third largest party of choice for Indian Malaysian voters, also after PKR and the DAP.
It is telling that in the 2008 general election, PAS won every battle against the MIC outside Johor and Malacca, including the Kota Raja parliamentary seat, which has the highest percentage of Indian Malaysian voters.
For the first time, non-Muslim Malaysians are enthusiastically talking about the possibility of a future prime minister from PAS in Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, the popularly elected Perak menteri besar.
The need to differentiate
All these achievements come with a heavy price: an identity crisis.
Like individuals and products, political parties need to differentiate themselves from one another to stand out. If two are alike, then one is either redundant or replaceable.
From the beginning, PAS, established by dissident religious scholars from Umno and technically a splinter party of Umno, has tried to compete against its grand old rival as the party representing Islam. For many years, the choice was crystal clear: you want more Islam, you choose PAS.
Such positioning has its limitations. PAS is stuck, not only in the Malay Muslim constituency, but more specifically in its conservatism. Geographically, PAS’s niche market has been defined as firstly the four northern states in the peninsula, and secondly, rural constituencies.
The realisation of these limitations has driven PAS to reach out to non-Malay/non-Muslim Malaysians. To this end, PAS vigorously attacks Umno’s Malay nationalism as “assabiah” (racist) and therefore un-Islamic. PAS portrays itself as being accommodative of the aspiration of non-Muslim Malaysians for multiculturalism and even inter-ethnic equality.
Specifically, Kelantan under PAS is portrayed as a model state to show how ethnic and religious minorities can be treated fairly under Islam. Instead of demolishing churches and temples, the PAS state government offers financial aid for their construction. And pigs roam freely in the countryside where Thai Malaysians reside.
It would be wrong, however, to attribute such inclusiveness to post-1998 Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim or Reformasi. The paradigm shift from Malay nationalism to Islamism began after the so-called ulama faction controlled the party after the 1982 general election. As early as 1986, PAS tried to prop up a Chinese Consultative Council (CCC), whose function is now successfully played by the PAS Non-Muslim Supporters Club.
PAS’s differentiation from Umno is two-fold, and the main battleground remains within the Malay-Muslim core constituency. PAS attacks Umno mainly from the religious ground, accusing the latter party of immorality and deviance from Islam. This explains why from time to time, PAS senior ulama make patriarchic comments, and PAS youths organise protests against rock concerts.
Under the surface of religious rhetoric is economic egalitarianism, which appeals to PAS’s grassroots supporters who are mostly either from poorer socio-economic backgrounds or have been sidelined in Umno’s patronage game.
This explains why the simple lifestyle of Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat is made a benchmark by the party and its supporters. At the extreme end of differentiation in this aspect, PAS members and leaders even shy away from campaigning in party elections because desiring party positions is “too Umno”.
In a nutshell, PAS is internally a party representing religious conservatism or puritanism and economic egalitarianism. Externally, it can permit cultural or religious autonomy for minorities insofar that it does not threaten its commitment to Islam.
Najib’s centrist challenge
PAS’s electoral fortunes decline when it fails to balance the competing emphases of Islam, economic egalitarianism and multiculturalism.
The post-1999 overzealous pursuit of Islamisation, including the production of a blueprint for an Islamic state, is a case in point. It cost the party the support of both its non-Muslim and Muslim Malaysian supporters, who cared more about economic well-being than religious laws.
The articulation of “welfare state” and “PAS for all”, respectively aiming at the have-nots and non-Muslim Malaysians, was both a principled and calculated move by party strategists to restore the right balance.
In moving to the centre ground, PAS stole unlikely former supporters of arrogant Umno leaders who constantly alienated both non-Malay Malaysians and urban-educated, middle-class constituencies.
The centrist move proved to be electorally profitable. For Hindraf supporters at least, the choice between PAS and any Barisan Nasional (BN) component party — including the MIC — could not be clearer.
Najib Way smarter than portrayed in most opposition propaganda, Datuk Seri Najib Razak has quickly moved to reverse the trend with two measures: first, through partial liberalisation of the economy; and second, by prohibiting unilateral conversions of children by a parent newly converted into Islam.
PAS and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which have called for more intercommunal inclusion and accommodation, can in fact claim moral victory now that Umno has followed in their footsteps.
From the greater perspective of democratisation, centrist competition is exactly what the two-party system is all about.
PAS’s optional game plans
But is centrist competition good for PAS? How would PAS then outdo Umno?
PAS basically has two options.
The first is to help forge a cross-party consensus on thorny issues like religious conversion, allowing both the BN and PR to move on to compete on other divisive issues. These are matters of public interest, such as more or less state intervention in the economy, or on consensual goals such as good governance.
The second option is to attack Umno for betraying Muslim Malaysians and thereby attract the support of right-wing Muslim groups. If Umno were forced to retract its decision on religious conversion of minors, then PAS could claim credit among right-wing Muslim Malaysians. And while non-Muslim Malaysians would be disappointed and angry with both political camps, they would at least lose confidence in Umno’s ability to deliver.
So, what should PAS choose?
The answer lies in the bigger picture. How would PAS want the Malaysian party system, in particular its Malay-Muslim support, to be? There could be four possibilities:
All the three main Malay-based parties — Umno, PKR, PAS — stay on and alternate in ruling the country in coalition with other parties.
PKR gets winnowed out, restoring the Umno-PAS competition format, but PAS remains the permanent opposition.
Umno gets winnowed out, leaving PAS and PKR to compete perhaps on an economic left-right or social liberal-conservative dimension.
PAS gets winnowed out, leaving PKR and Umno to compete perhaps on an economic left-right or social liberal-conservative dimension.
Clearly, the fourth scenario is the worst for PAS, while the second scenario is not much better.
If PAS is serious in implementing its religious ideals, it must win power. And the only way to do this is to winnow out Umno or adequately weaken Umno such that it cannot claim to be the natural ruling party for Malay-Muslim Malaysians.
This can realistically only be done by PAS holding on to the middle ground. Any talk of a unity government between PAS and Umno would likely lead to the second scenario, if it materialises, or the fourth scenario, if it backfires.
Ironically, attacking Umno for giving in to non-Muslim Malaysians on religious issues is actually helping Umno and Najib. It would destroy PAS’s status as the third largest party supported by Chinese and Indian Malaysians. It would consolidate PAS’s credentials as an Islamist opposition party, but make it impossible for an “Islamic democrat”-led government to emerge.
The PR has come out with a reasonable position on the conversion issue, but PAS still needs to make up its mind in its upcoming muktamar and party election.
What is PAS’s long-term goal: being an “Islamic democrat”-led government? Or a permanent Islamist opposition?
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes that it is high time for Malaysia to explore alternative political institutions. He was arrested for sedition on the night of 5 May 2009.