PAS LEADERSHIP: New Faces and Old Constraints

By Tong, Liew Chin | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

PAS LEADERSHIP: New Faces and Old Constraints


Tong, Liew Chin, Southeast Asian Affairs


"Has anyone seen PAS?" was one of the "X-files" or unresolved puzzles that opposition-leaning independent online newspaper Malaysiakini identified at the end of 2006. "While other opposition parties are busy gearing up to face the next general election, PAS appears to be doing nothing", at a time when "party president Abdul Hadi Awang seems to have lost his fangs", and PAS' former pet issues such as apostasy and the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution have been championed by non-governmental organizations. Malaysiakini asked, has PAS "lost its voice?"1

The situation in 2006 can be contrasted with the excitement associated with the election of a set of younger and more sophisticated leaders at the party's Muktamar (national congress) in June 2005 with the promise of a generation shift and a "re-branding" of the party's image. Surely it was not the intention of the new leaders to hide the party away from the populace. The new leadership aimed to make PAS - Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party - more appealing to the multi-ethnic mainstream Malaysian society by quietly discarding some sacred hardline goals, such as the establishment of an Islamic state. PAS' perceived inactivity was, therefore, a corollary of this attempt to move to the middle ground by avoiding uncompromising religious views. But as it continues to be limited by the same old systemic constraints placed on a (more or less) "permanent" opposition party, this may just mean a "neither here nor there" situation in the near future. The new leaders will be put to test in the June 2007 party election and the differences between the "mainstreamers" and the "idealists" may continue to influence intra-party politics.

PAS: Going Mainstream vs. Preserving Ideal

PAS was founded in 1951 by members of the religious wing of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and has since competed with UMNO for Malay-Muslim support. The party has consistently secured at least 30 per cent of votes from among the electorate in peninsular Malaysia since the 1955 federal election2 and has maintained particularly strong support from states in the Malay belt - Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu. It won control of the Kelantan and Terengganu state governments in the 1959 election, but lost power in Terengganu in 1961 due to legislators' defections to UMNO. Except for the period 1977-90, PAS has always governed the state of Kelantan. The party regained power in Terengganu in 1999, but lost control of the state government to UMNO in the subsequent election in 2004. PAS claims to have a million members, and has branches in all states in the country, including Sabah and Sarawak. At times, it has won seats outside the four predominantly Malay states, but only in peninsular Malaysia.3 PAS has shown no capacity to secure mass support in Sabah and Sarawak.

It is near impossible for PAS to win national power on its own. The party's electoral performances have been exceptional when it cooperated with other parties, as evident during the general elections of 1974, 1990, and 1999. Coalition politics involving PAS would not have materialized had the party not moderated its stand on some key issues, such as its overt goal to establish an Islamic state in Malaysia. As a party driven by an ideology that is unlikely to secure broadbased support in multi-racial Malaysia, any attempt to expand its power base means modifying or altering its objectives, which, in turn, is bound to cause internal disagreement. Hence, differences over the political objective of the party, that is, to broaden PAS' appeal or to preserve its ideological purity, have become the key argument within the party, which came to a head in the period leading up to the 2004 election.

While PAS was initially rather vague about its understanding of an Islamic state, it eventually produced two blueprints of what an Islamic state meant to the party. Much to the detriment of PAS, a two-year intra-party conflict, between September 2001 and November 2003, over what constitutes an Islamic state, divided its leaders into two camps, the "mainstreamers"4 and the "idealists". …

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