The theocratic issue Pakatan Rakyat must resolve

The Pakatan Rakyat (PR), the still informal political coalition comprising the DAP, PKR and PAS, has taken the first big step to formalise its status to be a viable, vibrant and vigilant alternative to the current ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

By Thomas Lee

The PR held its first national convention in Shah Alam on Saturday 19 December 2009, and made a public declaration that its set target for the next general election is nothing less than the takeover of Putrajaya.

One thousand five hundred delegates, comprising 500 grassroots leaders from all over the country representing each of the three component parties of the PR, enthusiastically heeded the clarion call to prepare for the electroral battle of Putrajaya, scheduled before early 2013 or perhaps even earlier.

In his keynote address at the convention, opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim put forward the ideal of a common brotherhood among all the peoples of the various races of the country and called upon all members of the PR component party members to embrace, enhance and extend the concept of the universal brotherhood of all people propagated by the Chinese sage Confucius.

Anwar declared that the PR is not just a political coalition but a revolutionary movement for reforming and regenerating the country and, as such, there is no place for thinking along narrow racial lines.

He urged all the various races of the country to abandon their racial and sub-ethnic mentality and unite for the common good of the country.

Anwar said that members of the PR coalition parties must get out of the cocoon of their narrow exclusive sectarianism and demonstrate fairness and justice to all the people.

He said the PR’s first fundamental task is to get rid of the narrow divisive sectarianism.

Anwar warned the PR leaders and members that their vision of capturing power will remain an illusion if they continue to promote and defend the unacceptable hostile sectarianism and neglect the principles of equality and fairness for all.

He said the inaugural PR convention is the first step of a long journey towards a new revitalised Malaysia, but many fundamental issues have to be addressed and resolved along the way.

DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng told the delegates that for the PR to stay strong to face the obstacles and challenges, the coalition must win the hearts and minds of the people.

Guan Eng said that despite the almost never-ending problems facing the PR, the coalition partners can still work together based on their common aims and understanding.

He said that the journey to Putrajaya may be littered with all sorts of obstacles but with determined spirit, unity of purpose, and harmonious relationship, co-operation and accommodation among the coalition partners, the PR will be able to achieve the goal of taking over the government of the country.

Certainly, the capture of Putrajaya is not an impossible dream, given the fact that the 13th general election has demythologise the myth of the electoral invincibility of the BN, particularly its major partner Umno.

The conceited cocky confidence of Umno leaders that the Malay voters, especially those in the rural areas, are always with them has been severely inflicted with a resounding emphatic defeat in five states and the loss of its two-third majority in Parliament.

However, the March 2008 political tsunami was not an absolute reflection of the people’s full support for the PR. Many voters who previously voted for the BN were then very angry with the ruling coalition over many issues and so cast protest votes against it. Hence, it was reported that a survey of voters in September 2009 saw a slight swing of support back to the BN.

The impetus and momentum for change started on the Sunday morning of 9th March 2008 when Malaysians woke up to the dawn of a new epoch in the country when they found that the political equation has changed. At a forum on “The Selangor Agenda” soon after the general election, I had described 8th March 2008 as the day Malaysia was “born again”. And so it is.

After the PR takeover of several states and did reasonably well, especially in Penang and Selangor, and also gave sterling performance in Parliament, many people have been won over to the alternative coalition.

However, some silly PR elected representatives caused some concern when they tried to promote their personal ideologies and championed certain racial and religious causes.

There were also several disagreements among its coalition leaders, aired publicly.

Just recently, two PKR members of parliament, the controversial Bandar Baru Kulim MP Zulkifli Noordin and the no-nonsense Subang MP Sivarasa Rasiah, were involved in a public quarrel, and several of their colleagues, including maverick Wangsa Maju MP Wee Chu Keong, joined in the spat.

Such indisciplined, indiscriminate and indiscreet actions by the elected representatives and grassroots leaders are certainly uncalled for and unacceptable. Until such public relation catatrophes are arrested soon and fast, the PR image may be greatly harmed and hurt.

The perceived doubts and distrust among the PR leaders are causing people to wonder if its component parties are able to work well together.

The PR leaders must never forget the lesson the 1999 general election when a similar coalition of opposition parties called the Barisan Alternatif broke down later when the DAP pulled out over disagreement with the PAS Islamic state agenda.

Both the DAP and PKR are multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious inclusive parties for all races, working towards a democratic secular state.

PAS, on the other hand, is an exclusive party for Muslims with an exclusive agenda to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.

Such idealogical differences are obviously incompatible with the general secular outlook of the DAP and PKR. Hence, people are wondering whether it is possible for PAS to practice the politics of accomodation and peaceful co-existence if it insists on promoting its theology and idealogy.

However, contrary to the popular general perception that PAS would never compromise on its theological and ethical idealogies and would dogmatically go all out to propagate its religious agenda and to assimilate others, the Islamic party has, during the March 2008 general election and since then, demonstrated its willingness and commitment to look at the bigger political picture of the country and join hands with the DAP and PKR to work for the removal of an oppressive, unjust and corrupt regime.

Although PAS is surely not going to abandon its Islamic state vision in the forseenable future, I believe that its current set of leaders are wise and practical enough to know and realise that the immediate and near-term objective is to work for a complete renewal and reform of the country’s governing culture. And that demands the joining of all forces in a united thrust to oust the Barisan Nasional government through the ballot box.

PAS has thus far demonstrated its willingness to give wholehearted support and co-operation in this political struggle, especially on civil and ethical issues relating to the matter of common interest among all people of various colour, creed, culture and class.

The PR coalition will be able to work honestly and harmoniosly if all three coalition partners focus on matters of significane and urgent common interests such as the promotion of a clean transparent and responsible national leadership whose hallmarks are clean corruption-free, cronyism-free, and nepotism-free administrations at all levels of government.

The three coalition parties must be willing to sacrifice certain pet strict-jacket idealism and focus on the long-term essential fundamentals before they can think about doing battle for Putrajaya.

I think the DAP and PKR should hold serious talks with PAS on how to accommodate its Islamic vision in the coalition agenda without impinging or encroaching on the fundamental human, civil  and constitutional rights of the people. There are many universal ethical values in Islam which are acceptable to peoples of other faiths which could be used wisely and delicately to imbricate relationship without the need to compromise doctrinal beliefs and theological convictions.

The PR needs to look at this sensitive issue carefully and honestly. It must remember that during the 8th March 2008 general election, many voters of all races overlooked the implication of PAS sticking firmly to its Islamic state agenda because of their explosive anger against many unjust, unkind and unethical issues that they blamed the BN for. Now that the dust of annoyance and hostility against the BN has settled down, particularly with the changing of guard at Putrajaya, many who have cast protest votes against the BN by voting PAS in March 2008 may review and revaluate their de facto support for PAS.

Meanwhile, it was reported that PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang made a shocking comment after a special meeting with political bloggers on Sunday that apparently threw a spanner in work of the first PR national convention.
Hadi was quoted as saying that the PR should not be formally registered at the moment, although almost everyone at the convention and even the general public are expecting the coalition to be legally constituted as the initial step toward the march to Putrajaya.
If the purported Hadi comment is true, then it means that PAS has serious ideological differences with the other political partners in the PR.
Such a remark, coming just a day after the first PR national convention when a common policy framework was discussed and agreed upon, indicates that PAS is still undecided about formal participation in the secular democratic coalition.
However, I am happy to revise my earlier commentary after a top-level PR leader assured me and confirmed that Hadi has been misunderstood and misquoted. The PAS president is all set to endorse the official formation and registration of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition.
The DAP, PKR and PAS are now going ahead to institute the legal formation of the coalition which will offer the peoples of Malaysia a viable, vibrant and vigilant alternative.

(Thomas Lee, who retired as a deputy editor in The Star in June, has been a socoi-political analyst for nearly 35 years.)