Should Pas’s leaders continue to make unilateral demands, they will only be helping Umno/BN weaken the collective resolve and accommodative spirit that brought the Pakatan Rakyat together in the first place, and by doing so, helping further Umno/BN’s objective of maintaining its hegemonic grip on the country. And so for all our sakes – the Malaysian people’s and for Pas’s sake as well – do rein in these wild horses and keep the PR convoy in line, says Farish Noor, who reminds us that the March 2008 elections was an election for a new Malaysia – not for a theocratic sectarian state, be it in the communitarian mould of Umno or of Pas.
Civil society, and the actors who occupy that public domain, exists for a number of reasons and one of the reasons is to keep all politicians and political parties in check. It would appear that the work of civil society actors in Malaysia today has been cut out thanks to the murky goings-on within and between the political parties of Malaysia on both sides of the political fence.
Hardly three months have passed since the landmark results of the 8 March federal elections and already we see Malaysia transformed as never before: despite winning 79 Parliamentary seats, Umno, which has been in power for more than half a century, is showing signs of internal division and fragmenting before our very eyes, bringing with its collapse the very real possibility of change in the mindset of millions of ordinary Malaysian citizens who were told for so long that the sun of the Barisan Nasional would never set. Well, with BN MPs running helter-skelter in all directions at the moment, it would appear as if that claim is about to be tested in no uncertain terms.
What is worrying, however, is the fact that the Pakatan Rakyat coalition is still in its infant stages and does not have the luxury of time on its side. Should the BN government fall, and that prospect seems more likely by the day, the PR should be ready to assume office at a moment’s notice. This can only be done if and when the PR gets its act together and all component parties of the PR agree once and for all that they will abide by the terms they had set for themselves; which includes the PR manifesto and the standards of the People’s Declaration which they had all assented to.
Now the problem that faces the PR is that for too long the component parties have grown accustomed to their own version of narrow communitarian-based politics, identifying specific and exclusive racial and religious communities as their target constituencies and primary vote base. What is even more worrying is the tendency for some of the leaders of the PR component parties to continue operating on the basis of the idea that their primary political constituency has remained unchanged, thereby making the fatal assumption that the Malaysian public and the Malaysian electorate haven’t evolved over the years. Now the last time a right-wing politician worked on such a silly assumption he did something even sillier: namely taking out a keris in public and waffling about racial dominance and the special status of his ethnic-religious constituency. And see what happened: the same politician’s party was thumped at the polls and lost every single Malay-majority urban seat on the West coast, thereby proving that the Malays were no longer susceptible to this sort of juvenile antics and emotional manipulation. Padan Muka.
Looking at the Pakatan Rakyat coalition today, we sadly see rather similar tactics being used by some leaders of the PR, and in particular by some Pas leaders. First came the claim that the PR in Selangor should start ‘Islamising’ the public space of Selangor and promoting faith and piety among the Muslims of the state, which begs the question: Since when did the PR become a missionary pietist movement and who said that Pas leaders of the PR in Selangor were voted to become our religious mentors and moral guardians?
Now it would appear that there have been calls by some of the leaders of the youth Wing of Pas for the PR to start Islamising the five states whose assemblies are under the control of the PR, with Kelantan to serve as the model.
Now let us repeat this for the umpteenth time: The vote for the PR at the recent elections was not a vote for an Islamic state, or an endorsement for any kind of communitarian or sectarian politics, whether on religious or ethnic grounds. The Malaysian public – who remain the real power brokers in Malaysia today – have signalled their utter disgust and frustration with the slow pace of reform that was meant to be the starting point of the Badawi administration but which ended with pointless projects such as an Islamic theme park and crystal mosque instead.
Nor is there any indication that the Muslims of Malaysia have called for any form of theocratic governance in the country – for their rejection of the state’s Islam Hadari project may actually suggest that many of them are fed up with the politicisation of religion by this stage.
So when is Pas – or rather some of the more vocal and hot-headed leaders of Pas – going to realise that for it to become a truly national party with national ambitions, it has to adapt to the reality of a plural, multicultural and multireligious Malaysia where there are not only differences between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also – crucially – differences among Muslims as well? Who and what gave these Pas leaders the licence to assume that all Muslims in Malaysia want an Islamic state, and more importantly their version of an Islamic state? What on earth makes them think that the rest of Malaysia wants to be like Kelantan?
Whenever any leader or any party in the PR makes demands like these, it goes against the collective spirit of the PR, narrows the universalist scope of the PR manifesto and betrays the spirit of the People’s Declaration – which, need we remind them, they all signed and agreed to. The negative consequences of such unilateralism are manifold, and can be summed up thus:
Firstly, it reinforces the BN’s claim that the PR is at best an instrumental coalition that will break apart because there will never be any real compromise and co-operation between Pas and the other parties;
Secondly, it sends shivers down the spines of many non-Muslim Malaysians who – for better or worse – have their own misgivings about the idea of any religious state (Islamic or otherwise) in what they hope to see evolve into a secular, democratic, free and equal Malaysia;
Thirdly, it also alienates Malaysian Muslims who – this writer included – also have deep misgivings about the abuse of religion for political ends and who do not want to live in an Islamic state where our personal lives, private space and right of speech and thought on religious matters are decided by Islamist politicians from a party we are not even members of;
Fourthly, it will provide ample materiel for Malaysia-bashers who would jump at the opportunity to rubbish the PR government (if it comes to power) and to make outlandish claims that Malaysia has fallen under the heels of Pas and is about to be transformed into some Iranian-like theocracy;
Fifth, – and perhaps this is the most dangerous consequence of all – such unilateral moves on the part of this handful of Pas leaders will pave the way for Umno to open its doors to Pas, and to invite Pas to abandon the PR and opt for joining the BN instead, ostensibly for the sake of ensuring Malay-Muslim unity, and more importantly Malay-Muslim dominance.
Now, of all the worst-case scenarios to contemplate, this is the most worrisome. During the election campaign of March 2008, Umno’s posters in Trengganu were already paving the way for a Pas cross-over to the BN, with slogans like ‘If you want to really promote Islam, then join the BN/UMNO’. Since March there has been speculation about Pas leaders who have been in negotiations with Umno, a fact that some of them have admitted; and talk about a Pas hop-over to UMNO/BN should the PR be successful in winning over more MPs from East Malaysia or the non-Malay component parties of the BN.
Now if this were to indeed happen, then we would be left with two political coalitions: The PR that is more pluralist but with a significantly small Malay-Muslim component, and a BN that is less pluralist but with a strong Malay-Muslim component. This may suit the needs and interests of some of the more religiously conservative and racially-minded members of the PR, but it would spell disaster for the country as Malaysia would, for all intents and purposes, be split along both racial and religious lines: the teleological conclusion to five decades of divisive racial and religious politics finally playing itself out in the fragmentation of the nation as a whole. In such a situation, the PR would indeed break apart, but the highest cost (both political and ethical) will be incurred on Pas – that would henceforth be seen and justly condemned for betraying the People’ Declaration and selling themselves to serve their own short-sighted sectarian ends.
Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat – who knows better for he was one of those who entered the BN in the 1970s when Pas was brought into the coalition by Asri Muda – is right when he reminds the members and leaders of his own party not to fall into the trap of the BN/Umno and to abide by the terms and agenda of the PR. Nik Aziz remembers how Pas was sold short, betrayed and ultimately hung to dry by Umno and how it took the party 12 years to put itself back together before they finally regained control of Kelantan in 1990.
The ‘Young Turks’ of Pas today would do well to listen to the wise counsel of the man who is, after all, their spiritual leader and guide, for Nik Aziz knows what he is talking about on this matter. Should Pas’s leaders continue to make such unilateral demands, they will only be helping Umno/BN weaken the collective resolve and accommodative spirit that brought the Pakatan Rakyat together in the first place, and by doing so be helping further Umno/BN’s objective of maintaining its hegemonic grip on the country. And so for all our sakes – the Malaysian people’s and for Pas’s sake as well – do rein in these wild horses and keep the PR convoy in line. The road to a plural, democratic, inclusive and equal Malaysia is and can only be a long one, and we don’t need hot-headed unilateralists to take us off track. The March 2008 elections was an election for a new Malaysia – not for a theocratic sectarian state, be it in the communitarian mould of Umno or of Pas.
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, Indonesia.