Pas finding its way still: Observations on Hadi’s speech

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Many Malaysians are hoping that Pas will remember that its gains in March 2008 were the result of it being in the Pakatan. For that reason, Pas’ leaders need to recognise the needs and demands of the Malaysian public, and be sensitive to the new political realities on the ground in Malaysia. Farish Noor urges Pas not to let these Malaysians down.

The opening speech to the 55th Muktamar of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Pas) should be read closely and given the consideration that is due to it, particularly as it comes from the party president himself, Ustaz Hadi Awang, and in some respects gives an accurate reflection of the state of the party and the mindset of its senior leadership. Having said that, Hadi’s speech, delivered during the opening session of the Muktamar, was both rich and complex, and should be read closely by those of us who are interested in the political fortunes of Pas and its future in Malaysia.

Perhaps the most salient feature of the speech was the straightforward declaration of Pas’ oppositional stand vis a vis Umno, which Ustaz Hadi described in his speech in rather negative terms. The tone of his speech would resonate with Pas members who were worried about any possible compromise by their own Islamist party and the possibility of a Pas-Umno tie-up in the near future. After describing Umno as a party that was materialist, corrupt and a lackey to the British colonial powers in the past, one can safely assume that any notion of a Pas-Umno marriage of convenience has been put on the shelf for the moment at least…

However, it was also noted by this observer that Ustaz Hadi’s speech had few references to the Pakatan Rakyat, whose other component parties – notably the PKR and DAP – were casually referred to as fellow travellers in the long cause. One wonders how and why the references to the other parties of the Pakatan seemed rather tame and lukewarm at best, and where Pas was locating itself in the overall constellation of Malaysian politics in the immediate present. Indeed, where is Pas heading?

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It is interesting to note that the slogan for the Muktamar was ‘Islam leading the process of Change’ (Islam Memimpin Perubahan). Furthermore the speech, was littered with numerous references to the Pas Ulama and the role that the Ulama have played not only in the development of the party but also in the history of Malaysia as a whole.

Thus, all in all, one had the distinct impression that this was a speech that was meant primarily for internal consumption, and somewhat self-referential. Pas is still looking for its place and role in Malaysian politics, and by distancing itself substantially from Umno and symbolically from the Pakatan, we get the impression of a Pas that feels the need to stand on its own two feet. Or does this reflect the concerns of the Ulama of Pas in particular, and can this be read as a return to the Ulama-led politics of Pas from the 1980s to the late 1990s?

There are several key themes and concerns that perhaps should be looked at closely and critically:

The first issue is that of the Ulama of Pas, the definition of what and who constitutes an Ulama and what role the Ulama are meant to have in society and politics. This, for me, was the first stumbling block to the Muktamar and the speech by Ustaz Hadi. With all due respect to the Ulama of PAS (and I write this as a fervent admirer of Tuan Guru Nik Aziz), I would like to re-state the obvious fact that the term ‘Ulama’ should not be confused and essentialised solely to refer to religiously-trained and educated scholars. For since the earliest days of Islamic education going back to the Ferenggi Mahal madrasah of Lucknow and its Dars-e Nizami curriculum, it should be noted that the term Ulama referred to scholars who were trained as both scientific and religious scholars. Hence it would be totally wrong for us to maintain this divisive dichotomy of ‘Ulama’ and ‘Professionals’ as the latter are likewise educated individuals trained in their special sciences and skills. So why was the dichotomy introduced in the prelude to this Mukatamar, and why hasn’t anyone pointed out that professional scientists, technocrats, engineers and educationists should qualify as ‘Ulama’ too, to mean persons of skill and knowledge? The subtle power-play between the two factions became rather obvious with too many references to the Ulama of Pas and the lament that their contribution have been marginalised. No, nobody has undermined or downgraded the role of the Ulama in PAS or Malaysian politics: we are simply stating the historical fact that Pas’ development was the result of the efforts of Ulama, scholars, professionals, activists and lay members as well… Some Ulama in Pas (as in other Islamic parties worldwide) may not be comfortable with the idea of sharing power with professionals, but we need to understand that in the complex modern world of today we are not going to get anywhere in areas such as finance, transparency, anti-corruption etc without the help of some professional technocrats and accountants too. The religious scholars of Pas simply have to understand this simple fact once and for all.

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Secondly,  I was struck by the tone of the speech when it came to address the issue of East Malaysia. Ustaz Hadi once again reiterated the call for Pas to spread its message to East Malaysia in terms of its political outreach and missionary (Dakwah) work. But has anyone bothered to ask what our fellow East Malaysians want? As a Malaysian who grew up in East Malaysia, I am sympathetic to our East Malaysian brothers and sisters who seem to be cast as our ‘poor neighbours’ who need our help all the time. When will West Malaysians realise that the flow of ideas and expertise can and should go both ways, and that West Malaysians have a lot to learn from East Malaysians too, especially in the area of harmonious inter-communal relations? (After all 13 May happened in West Malaysia, not East Malaysia, remember?) So, rather than talk about the need for West Malaysian parties (both from the BN and Pakatan) going to East Malaysia all the time, why don’t we listen to our East Malaysian counterparts who may teach us a few useful lessons in nation-building as well?

Thirdly, the stand that the Assembly took on the Language issue was problematic to say the least. On more than one occasion, the national language – Bahasa Malaysia – was described as Bahasa Melayu, and thus re-essentialised as the linguistic and cultural backbone of one specific ethnic community. We need to get our semantics right and de-racialise Bahasa Malaysia as the language of all Malaysian citizens if we seriously wish to build a new Malaysia that is racially, culturally and politically equal, to be shared by all Malaysians. One of the first steps that has to be taken is to de-essentise our languages so that Mandarin is no longer seen as the exclusive monopoly of Chinese Malaysians, Tamil no longer seen as the monopoly of Malaysians of Indian origin, and Bahasa Malaysia as the common language of all Malaysian citizens. But how can this ever happen if every community sticks to its narrow sense of identity and claims exclusive monopoly over the very language we use to communicate with each other?

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All in all, it is clear that Pas has come a long way and credit is due to this party that was built over half a century of hard work and selfless dedication by its members. Once again, I was impressed by the professionalism of those present and the efficient performance of the organisers.  But we sincerely hope and pray that Pas will throw its lot with its comrades in the Pakatan, and remember that Pas’ gains in March 2008 were the result of it being in the Pakatan. For that reason, Pas’ leaders need to recognise the needs and demands of the Malaysian public, and be sensitive to the new political realities on the ground in Malaysia. Pas has a vital role to play in Malaysia today and long into the future. We wish it all the best, and sincerely hope that as it struggles to find its way, it will cast a glance to its comrades who have stood by it all along – not least the plural and complex society that is the Malaysian public of today. Don’t let us down, Pas.

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