Home 2009: 5 Umno and Pas: Once bitten, twice not shy

Umno and Pas: Once bitten, twice not shy

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Maznah Mohamad analyses the recent proposal for Umno-Pas unity talks. A Pas-Umno ‘marriage’, she says, would have been nothing more than a marriage of convenience with disturbing consequences.


How serious was the proposal for “unity talks” between Umno and Pas?  After much pussy-footing and yes-I-want-no-I-will-think-about-it, Umno President Najib was offering his party’s hand to Pas, an apparently coy and indecisive bride-to-be. (And now there is an attempt to engage in “intellectual discourse”, initiated by the deputy youth leaders of both parties.)

But one thing we can be sure about, this unity talks plan was a serious marriage proposal on Umno’s part, and the only thing that kept the prospective bride from accepting the proposal outright was that some members of the family were dead set against the idea.  Marrying an old, sly, rich suitor was risky.

It was obvious that Umno had much to gain from the Pas merger. And as for Pas, would it not have been too much of a sacrifice, especially the second time around?

In their previous liaison, the relationship was rudely ended when Umno called off the deal in 1978 with the invoking of an emergency law.  This time around, Umno would be revived and Pas would have willy nilly relinquished its identity as an Islamic party, while its path towards an Islamic democracy would have come to a dead end.

Courting trouble

Why was it so crucial for Umno to court Pas and tempt it into leaving the Pakatan Rakyat?

Hypothetically speaking, having Pas join the BN coalition would up the parliamentary seats of the BN to 163 and reduce the PR seats to 59. This would mean that the BN would get to control 73 per cent of the seats and PR would be reduced to having only 27 per cent of the seats.  

Furthermore, if all the Pas seats were to be added to the Umno seats, the BN coalition would be divided this way – 63 per cent Malay seats, 25 per cent East Malaysian seats and 12 per cent non-Malay seats. This is Umno’s dream: to sell the idea to Malays that the BN is a multi-racial party with a difference — that Malays and Muslims are the strongest and only formidable majority within the coalition.

Umno has proved that, as a party, it is not able to institute any internal reforms. Not only is the party riddled with corruption, it also lacks both ulamas and intellectuals among its membership. Pas has the ulamas and the intellectuals Umno sorely needs, and the only plausible way for Umno to reinvent itself today would really be to absorb what it does not have. Through “buying in” what it lacks,  Umno can be repackaged, its long-lost lustre reclaimed through Pas’ hand in marriage.  

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Having 63 per cent of Malay seats in the BN is the best idea to sell to Malays: that there would now be Malay unity. Umno hopes that with “Malay unity” the non-Malay partners would feel even more secure about the arrangement and will continue to be ensconced within the BN rather than leave the coalition.

As for Pas, would this be a dream scenario? It would have been a difficult road ahead for the party  brokers, who were deeply immersed in courtship rituals.

First, they had to deal with the other faction of Pas, who were strongly opposed to the idea.  This is a strong faction with an equally strong icon in the person of the Tok Guru Nik Aziz. This is also the faction dominated by  the intellectuals, Umno’s greatest threat.

Second, Pas’ brokers had to answer the question as to why they were now contemplating sleeping with an old enemy. What happened to the “kafir-mengkafir” accusations? Would they “forgive and forget” over the Memali incident?

Third, they would have had to weigh the possibility that the party would lose its Islamic identity, as being in the BN would mean having to negotiate with Umno on everything, from the distribution of ministerial posts to determining what is the right Islam. Besides, in the next election Pas would not have been able to use its signature moon and green logo to contest. Small issue, but in today’s world, image is everything.

Fourth, they would have had to figure out how to clean up an Umno which they themselves had derided as being corrupt, debauched and immoral. What persuasive power would Hadi Awang, Nasharudin, Mustafa Ali or Hassan Ali have over the Umno warlords, contract-lords and money-lords?

Fifth, they would have had to face the strong possibility that all the non-Malay support that they are getting now would completely evaporate come the next election.

Finally, how would joining the BN help in efforts to revive the economy, improve educational standards, create an independent media and guarantee the liberties of citizens?  These issues had never been part of the unity talks; the talk would only be about resuscitating Malay dominance rather than Malay progress.

But all of the above questions may not have occupied the minds of the “unity” team. For Umno, it was to save itself from obsolescence. For Pas, it was for some of its brokers to taste the power of federal ministerships, besides ensuring that it would get to control four states together with Umno — Selangor, Perak, Kelantan and Kedah.

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The Pas leaders may even have thought that with all these states under the joint control of their party  and Umno, Pas could then achieve its own dream of having Islamic governance in four more states.

Creating a strong, Malay-Muslim majority has never been that easy and secure.

Disturbing consequences

However, the implications of the above scenario could lead to disturbing consequences.

First, the logical outcome of “Malay unity” even if artificially created through electoral machination, would have led to a more racially-divided Malaysia. More than it ever has been.

Voters would have been forced to vote within a more starkly racial framework, even if it goes against their sense of decency. Voting for the BN would simply mean voting essentially for Malay-Muslim supremacy and voting for PR would mean voting for minority voices. It wouldn’t be a choice between development or backwardness or between clean government or corrupt government. It would be mostly about race.

Second, the negotiating power of the non-Malay partners within the BN –  including those of the East Malaysian partners – would have been severely diminished,. With Malay control of 63 per cent of the BN seats, not even the partners from Sabah and Sarawak could squeak within the coalition; they would have possibly seen a drastic fall in their fortune from being kingmakers to beggars.

Third, Malays would have been even more confused about their own quest for economic advancement, democracy, cultural freedom and clean government. There would only be a monolithic racial party to choose from; there would be no intra-Malay contestation, which could provide for a healthy basis to  build and strengthen democracy.

Already, the sluggishness of the economy and the worsening of mediocrity in education, governance, health, judiciary and even transport  planning have been attributed to the NEP. With a monolithic Malay government, the policy of handouts would have only be intensified rather than loosened.

Fourth, the development of Islam itself would have taken on a more authoritarian and draconian turn. With Pas and Umno in fusion, the combination could even have been deadly, as far as Muslims are concerned.

Already there is a powerful Islamic bureaucracy that had been built by Umno. It has been quite an intolerant bureaucracy that has banned many forms of Islamic groups, particularly the various tarekats and all kinds of Islamic perspectives from existing.

The right Islam can only be defined by state Islamic authorities, and other competing interpretations are simply outlawed.

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Umno in its zeal to please Pas (especially its ulama faction) would probably give in to the enforcement of Islamic criminal laws or, to be more precise, the hudud.

At the moment, Islamic scholars and jurists are not too happy that the Syariah courts are not given enough power to mete out proper punishments by Islamic standards.

For example, while zina (sexual relations outside marriage) is legislated as a crime under the various Islamic criminal offences, the Syariah lobby laments that the punishment under Syariah procedures is limited to only six months imprisonment, a RM1,000 fine and six strokes of the rotan; whereas, under Islam, they insist that zina  should be met with stoning to death.

Already, Pas has shown its intolerant face by demanding that Sisters in Islam drop “Islam” from its name. Perhaps, if the unity talks had gone ahead, Umno would have also gone along with this idea as the party is desperate to survive, and those in desperation will give in to demands. Pas knew that Umno was that desperate to seek its support.

A Faustian pact

Finally, by now it is easy to see that the union would have been nothing more than a marriage of convenience. The Pas-Umno bargain would have been Faustian in nature (the devil lurks behind), and everyone would have ended up paying a heavy price for this.

Umno would have shed its identity as a moderate, Malay party; Pas would have thwarted its own road towards democracy; Malays would have been held to ransom by the fiction of a unity while remaining backward and in poverty, as we are not sure that Umno’s patronage politics would have come to an end with this marriage.

The rest of Malaysia would have looked back at the gains of 8 March 2008 as nothing more than a small blip in Malaysia’s long and continuing history of rule-by-racism.

Dr Maznah Mohamad, a member of Aliran, writes regularly on Malaysian affairs.

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