That complex entity called Pas

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Pas has been in the headlines of late for all the wrong reasons. The party needs to understand that we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia where no single religion can be forced down the throats of everyone. Nonetheless, Farish Noor thinks the party still has a key role to play in determining the future of Malaysia and the development of democracy in the country.


Political parties are, it has to be remembered, complex composite entities. It is common for us to talk about political parties as if they are invested with singular identities and personalities; and we often make the mistake of talking about political parties in the singular, when in fact all political parties are plural entities with plentiful internal complexities and differences.

The Malaysian Islamic Party, Pas, is no exception to the rule, and for that reason we need to be cautious when referring to Pas as if it was a singular person. Pas – like all the parties in Malaysia and elsewhere – is a complex composite entity with a myriad of streams, schools of thought, ideological leanings as well as a colourful history to match.

When Pas was first formed – as a splinter party from Umno, mind you – in 1951, it was led by moderate Islamists like Dr Abbas Elias who were mostly nationalists who were committed to the cause of national liberation and independence. It was during the leadership of Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy and Dr Zulkiflee Muhammad (1956-1969) that PAS was the Islamist party that was championing the cause of independence and which gave its support to progressive anti-colonial movements and workers groups both in Malaysia and abroad.

Between 1970 to 1982, however, PAS came under the leadership of Asri Muda, who turned Pas into a Malay-centric ethno-nationalist party that tried to be ‘more Malay’ than Umno. Asri was the one who brought Pas into the fold of the BN during the 1970s, which turned out to be an experiment that later went disastrously wrong and which led to him being ousted from his own party in 1982. Between 1982 to 1998, Pas came under the leadership of the Ulama who were on the one hand conservative Islamists who supported the Iranian revolution but who also injected the party with a new wave of Islamist intellectualism and activism as never before.

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Since 1998, Pas has once again reinvented itself as the party that battles for human rights and democracy, while also championing the cause of the Islamic state and Islamist politics.

Pas today is therefore an extremely complex party, with the second biggest vote base and network of supporters in the country, and which is perhaps the best organised and most disciplined party in the country. As a (subsequent) component party of the Pakatan Rakyat, Pas won the smallest number of seats in Parliament at the elections of March 2008, despite being perhaps the biggest in terms of its support base.

Which is the real Pas?

Which brings us to the state of Pas today, and where it is heading – both in its own right and as a component party of the Pakatan Rakyat. Over the past year the Malaysian public has witnessed what can be best described as a stalemate in the state of politics in Malaysia . Neither the BN nor the PR has managed to radically change the landscape of Malaysian politics thus far, and despite appearances it would appear that, politically, Malaysia has not evolved much over the past few months.

What troubles many Malaysians who supported the opposition PR, however, is the fact that Pas seems to be one of the parties of the PR that is speaking with different voices to different constituencies. On the one hand, we have seen that the moderate voices in PAS – the so-called ‘Erdogan faction’ – have been instrumental in keeping Pas in the PR and in promoting the agenda of progressive, constitutionalist Islamism in the country. The moderates in Pas are the ones who have been most visibly involved in many of the popular campaigns – such as the campaign for free and fair elections – that have focused on inclusive non-sectarian issues that unite Malaysian citizens from all ethnic and religious backgrounds.

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On the other hand, it cannot be denied that they are also very real voices in Pas today who are equally keen to engage in dialogue with Umno on the basis of Malay-Muslim unity. Likewise, there are those who have once again reignited public fears of radical conservative Islamisation thanks to their self-proclaimed status as moral guardians who have unilaterally begun the process of moral policing in the country. Voices in Pas that support Shariah punishments, moral policing snoop squads, the banning of alcohol sales and the banning of Muslims from going to music concerts do not bode well for a party that is trying to become a national party with national aspirations..

The question has been asked, therefore: which is the real Pas? Well, unfortunately, this academic can only give a complex answer to a complex question: For all these voices emanate from Pas and all of them are equally real and valid. Pas is at the same time a party that wants to see more democratisation in the country but at the same time is still intent on creating an Islamic state in Malaysia . On the thorny question of the Islamic state and the place of Islamic laws and punishments in Malaysia, Pas remains firm to its commitment to governance according to its interpretation of Islamic law and legal-political praxis.

The challenge therefore is not to ‘reform’ Pas to make it a ‘liberal-secular’ party, and indeed why should Pas change? Pas has never been hypocritical about its own Islamist orientation or aspirations, but only different when it comes to the modalities of its operational procedures. The challenge is really to the Pakatan and to the people of Malaysia instead: PR has to accept the fact that its key component and ally is an Islamic party whose religious ideology is totally different from that of say, the DAP or PSM. Likewise the Malaysian public has to accept that if it wishes to support PAS, then Pas in turn will try its best to implement its own Islamist agenda on its own terms. One may engage in debates about operational procedures and the political costs of some of their demands, but one has to at least respect Pas for what it is: an Islamist party.

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Finally, we need to remember that Pas today is as complex as its own history. The party was once a left-leaning Islamist party and once a right-leaning pseudo-nationalist party. How Pas will deal with the contingencies of the future is anyone’s guess, but as a political party it will have to make choices that are political in nature. Politics and power will be the factors that determine its evolution, like that of any other party. Pas’ own sense of destiny and purpose is tempered by its understanding of the realities of the times we live in.

Pas needs to understand that whatever its wishes may be, we live in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia where no single religion can be forced down the throats of everyone. Can Pas accept this reality and adapt to it? One hopes so, for this historian still believes that Pas can and should play a key role in determining the future of Malaysia and the development of democracy in the country. THAT was the message of the election results of 8 March 2008, and not a blanket endorsement of an Islamic state on any terms.

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