The crossroads for PAS: whereto from here?

Raja Petra Kamarudin

The Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) muktamar (AGM) which ended yesterday is probably the most interesting since the party made inroads into Kelantan in 1990. PAS, which almost got wiped out in the mid-1980s when it got reduced to only one Parliament seat (resulting in its President and the then Kelantan Chief Minister, Dato Mohamad Asri Hj Muda, leaving the scene) saw its fortunes change drastically in 1990 when, together with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Semangat 46, it won Kelantan and formed the state government.

When the PAS-Semangat 46 coalition broke up, everyone predicted that that would be the end of PAS in Kelantan. Without Semangat 46, PAS would not be able to hold onto the state, let alone make inroads into the other states like Kedah, Perlis and Terengganu, which PAS was eyeing.

In 1999, the opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif, was launched. PAS, which was a member of the coalition, saw its political fortunes improve further when this time around it managed to win Terengganu (which it had been eyeing for a long time), plus it managed to reduce Barisan Nasional to a minority in Kedah in the Parliamentary constituencies and deny them its two-thirds majority in the state assembly (when PKR won the Lunas state seat in a by-election exactly one year later). It also won the most number of opposition seats in Parliament.

Then PAS decided to launch its Islamic State Document (ISD) and introduce Islamic laws in the Terengganu State Assembly and that was the beginning of the end for the opposition coalition. DAP chose to distance itself from the ISD by leaving the opposition coalition and embarking on a ‘No to Islamic State’ campaign.

Many predicted that that would be the end of the opposition coalition. Without DAP, and with the predominantly Chinese party embarking on an anti-Islamic State campaign, that would undermine PAS plus it would have a devastating affect on Parti Keadilan Rakyat or PKR (then called Parti Keadilan Nasional before its merger with Parti Rakyat Malaysia).

And they were right as last year’s general election proved.

PAS, DAP or PKR, individually and as ‘independent’ opposition parties, will not go far. Only as a united group under the banner of Barisan Alternatif would they become a force to be reckoned with. Even then it is not certain yet whether Barisan Alternatif can form the federal government but it could certainly become a strong opposition to keep the ruling Barisan Nasional in check, plus maybe form a couple of state governments in particular in the predominantly Malay states such as Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah.

PAS has always acted unilaterally without taking into consideration the needs or interest of the opposition coalition. Even when it decided to launch its ISD it did not see any need to consult its other partners or get their agreement to it. At best, PAS just informed its partners after the decision had been made and the date of the launch confirmed. PAS did not ask first or seek permission, it just told or informed after the fact, so there was hardly anything DAP or PKR could do.

DAP, of course, took a very strong stand in opposing the ISD by leaving the coalition and by launching its anti-Islamic state campaign (‘No to 929’: September 29, 2001, being the date Dr Mahathir announced that Malaysia was already an Islamic State). PKR, however, could only remain silent. What more could it say when PAS had already decided the matter on its own and would not have changed its mind even if PKR had spoken out? In the interest of maintaining the harmony of whatever was left of the opposition coalition, better PKR just say nothing rather than create friction.

And PKR was punished severely for remaining silent. If it had supported the ISD it would have garnered the support of the Islamists. If it had opposed it, then it would have instead won the support of the moderates and non-Muslims. Now it lost the support of both groups and was practically wiped out in last year’s elections.

PAS must realise that its successes in 1990, 1995 and 1999 were because of its coalition with other opposition parties — Semangat 46 in 1990 and 1995 and Barisan Alternatif in 1999. If PAS could have made it by going solo, then it would have been able to do so in the 1980s instead of almost getting wiped out. PAS needs the opposition coalition and the opposition coalition has to be one of Islamists, moderates, secularists and non-Muslims. Even an all-Muslim coalition cannot do the trick as there are more secularists or anti-Islamic State Muslims than there are Islamists.

And this is the reality of Malaysian politics and Malay-Muslims.

The question here, of course, would be what is PAS’ objective? If it is just to spread the message of Islam, then well and fine. Then what PAS is doing is correct and no change is required. But if PAS’ objective is to form the government, then a paradigm shift is required. What PAS has to offer satisfies only a small percentage of Malaysia’s population. The majority of Malaysians, Muslims included, are not buying what PAS is selling.

And this, again, is the reality of Malaysian politics and Malay-Muslims.

There is nothing wrong in one wanting to spread the message of Islam. I have no problems with that. In fact, I would go for it as I personally feel Islam is grossly misunderstood and is a victim of bad PR — especially since 911. But this should not be the job of PAS. ABIM, JIM and the many other Muslim groups that have been around for a long time can do this. Anyone from PAS who wants to ‘serve Islam’ can go join one of these many groups. Let PAS focus on what it should be doing — finding ways in which to win the election so that it can form the government.

There are those who say PAS should not ‘sacrifice’ its Islamic principles just for the sake of winning the election. Accepted! I can buy that! Then let us agree that PAS is not interested in winning any elections but is more interested in propagating Islam. At least this would make it very clear to all and sundry. Then those who share these same ideals can join PAS while those who want to win elections and form the government can decide whether they still want to associate with PAS or distant themselves from it.

PAS should make its objectives very clear and not misrepresent itself. Is it in the business of politics, winning elections and forming governments or in the business of propagating Islam? Both may not be compatible, so PAS would need to choose one or the other. And PAS must also make sure people understand this so that they can make a choice.

As bitter as this may sound, this is reality. And good medicine is always bitter while the truth, most times, hurt. This is PAS’ last chance. Either it makes it this time around or it would become irrelevant. So PAS has to choose its mission and vision very carefully and make this clear to Malaysians. And if Malaysians reject PAS for what it sees as a mission and vision that is totally unacceptable, then PAS must live with this. PAS may not win any elections but at least its conscience is clear in that it is performing its Islamic duty. And people who are more interested in winning the election and forming the government can move on and stay as far away from PAS as possible.

PAS is now in the hands of a new crop of younger, professional leaders who were voted in last weekend. These leaders know what ails the party and what is required for the party to regain its health. These people have to realise that they are not just playing with PAS’ future but the future of the entire opposition. PAS’ and PKR’s fortunes are intertwined. Whatever PAS decides affects PKR as well. And this was proven in last year’s general election.

For all intents and purposes, PAS’ party election last weekend was to choose leaders for the entire opposition. Let us hope these new leaders will now look at the opposition’s needs and not just their own party’s needs before they make any crucial decisions from now on.