Umno’s courting of Pas (and vice-versa) reminds us that racial considerations come before all else in Malaysia still, and that despite the attempts to turn Pas into a truly Islamic party that transcends race and communal politics, there remain pockets of ethno-nationalist sympathy in that party, observes Farish Noor. One can only hope for the sake of Malaysia , and Malaysia ‘s weak but slowly emerging democracy, that the modern progressive voices in Pas will prevail to scuttle this dubious round of backroom negotiations.
Now that the cat is out of the bag and the whole of Malaysia knows that there have been secret back-room dealings between Umno and Pas; ostensibly to bring the two parties together in the name of Malay-Muslim communal solidarity, we need to pause a while and look at the political factors at work.
I highlight the political factors at work here for frankly, I see little of Islam or Islamic ethics at work in this latest round of Umno-Pas dialogue.
Some basic historical facts are in order: Pas has, in the past, already been part of the BN Umno-led alliance in the mid-1970s. This was during the time when Pas was led by Asri Muda, perhaps the most ethno-nationalist among Pas’s leaders and a man who was seen by many as a Malay first and a Muslim second. Pas’s entry into the BN was not without opposition: Many Pas leaders and members abandoned the party and gave up on the Islamist struggle for good. When Pas was in the BN it had to toe the BN line and even contested on the BN ticket. PAS was discredited in the eyes of an entire younger generation of Malaysians and this opened the way for the rise of new Islamist groups like Abim and Darul Arqam instead. Pas’s marriage of convenience led to it being effectively emasculated by Umno and when it finally left the BN in late 1970s; its base-state Kelantan was in a shambles where a state of Emergency had been declared. Pas lost Kelantan and it took the party more than a decade before it won it back in 1990.
It is for this reason that Pas veterans like Tuan Guru Nik Aziz feel so strongly that this latest round of dialogues between Umno and Pas should stop, as he senses hidden hands that are out to instrumentalise Pas yet again.
But who are the ones who are trying to bring Pas and Umno together? It is widely reported that among the Pas leaders who are trying to engineer this deal there are the younger Pas leaders who were not even members of the party in the 1970s, and hence they do not have the same bitter memories of betrayal and defeat like Nik Aziz does.
Looking at the profile of some of these Pas leaders, we see that they tend to come from the more outwardly conservative faction who seem more interested in superficial aspects of Islam and Islamisation such as dress codes, making people go to mosques, promoting dakwah (missionary) activities and the like.
Yet Pas is divided between the old and the new and there are also new, progressive forces in the party that understand the need to bring Pas into the political mainstream and to make the party relevant to the Malaysian public as a whole, regardless of race and religion. These are the Pas leaders who were at the forefront of the Bersih campaign for free and fair elections, the ones who have been calling for more transparency and accountability, the ones who have tried to re-construct Pas into a modern, relevant Islamist party with national aspirations.
Between these two factions, who were the ones who helped to give Pas its victory at the recent March elections?
It is obvious that Pas’s gains this time round were partly due to the efforts of the Pas progressives who had managed to re-invent the party’s image as a modern Islamic party that is more concerned with economic-structural issues such as transparency, accountability, free elections, free press and democracy. These were the issues that captured the minds of the new electorate in Malaysia , and not questions like what length a Muslim’s beard ought to be. Furthermore, it was they who managed to secure the support of thousands of non-Malay and non-Muslims who voted for Pas as part of the Pakatan Rakyat on the basis of trust (amanah) and were willing to give Pas a chance to prove that it could reach beyond its Malay-Muslim electorate and speak for all Malaysians.
As a result of this current round of Umno-Pas negotiations, Pas’s image as a new, modern Islamic party is being deminished by the day. So is the trust and confidence of the Malaysian electorate, in particular the non-Malays and non-Muslims, who in the end may conclude that Pas’s appeals to the Malaysian nation as a whole was just cosmetic and that in the final analysis, despite calling itself an Islamist party, it is simply a Malay party concerned about Malay issues and promoting Malay interests. How can Pas ever hope to recover the goodwill of the non-Malay and non-Muslim voters who voted for them, should Pas lose their trust?
It is also ironic that Pas is being courted by its arch-nemesis Umno, when we consider the simple historical fact that it was Umno that has been demonising Pas all along. Have we forgotten the clashes of the mid-1980s, such as the Memali incident (leading to the killing of Pas leader Ibrahim Libya and his followers), Operation Kenari (that led to arrests of Pas members and the accusation of Pas harbouring militants), the KMM and al-Maunah incidents when Pas was again accused of having links with terrorist groups? So is this new Hadari version of Umno now about to cut a deal with the very same Pas that they have been accusing of being militant and radical; and if so, what will this do to the image of the Malaysian government if and when it has this very same ‘militant’ Pas in its company?
Which brings us to the last point: For more than three decades now the Islamisation race between Umno and Pas has witnessed Umno’s sustained attack on Pas as a party that is cast as fundamentalist, reactionary, militant and dangerous. Now as a result of the poor showing of the BN at the March 2008 elections, Umno is doing another volte-face and courting Pas in the name of Malay racial and communal solidarity. But throughout this period (1980-2008) it was Umno that cast itself in the international arena as the ‘good’ Muslims and Pas as the ‘bad’ Muslims.
The current establishment has even gone as far as broadcasting to the world that Umno’s brand of Hadari Islam is the correct, moderate and modern Islam to be emulated, juxtaposed to Pas’s Islam which is painted in Taliban-esque colours. To bring Pasm which has been so vilified, into the BN coalition would certainly raise eyebrows the world over and give cause for foreign governments and investors to think twice: who was lying then, Umno or Pas? Was Umno wrong to cast Pas in a negative light? Or has Umno now endorsed Pas’s version of Islam that it once decried as being fundamentalist and militant? Either way, the image of Malaysia and the Malaysian government is at stake at a time when the world is already watching Malaysia closely as a result of the repeat of the sodomy allegations against Anwar.
All of this points to the picture of a weak government that has lost its political bearings and compass. Umno’s courting of Pas (and vice-versa) reminds us that racial considerations come before all else in Malaysia still, and that despite the attempts to turn Pas into a truly Islamic party that transcends race and communal politics, there remain pockets of ethno-nationalist sympathy in that party.
One can only hope for the sake of Malaysia , and Malaysia ‘s weak but slowly emerging democracy, that the modern progressive voices in PAS will prevail to scuttle this dubious round of backroom negotiations.
Dr Farish A Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University , Singapore and affiliated Professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah, Surakarta .