Charting out the road less travelled
The months spanning 1998 and 1999 were a watershed for Pas. It was the height of the reformasi movement around ousted deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and Pas was one of the parties that rode the wave of sympathetic support for him.
Pas’ membership almost doubled from 450,000 to 800,000 in that time, says DAP researcher Liew Chin Tong, due mostly to idealistic and politicised young Malays.
The massive infusion of young blood and energy, in addition to increased support in Malay heartland states, led to a Pas takeover of the Terengganu government and significant electoral inroads in Kedah, Pahang and Perlis.
Last year was another year of firsts for the Islamist party. It fielded a non-Muslim candidate in the Tiram state seat in Johor, and although Kumutha Raman did not stand a chance against the BN candidate, she was testament to Pas’ willingness to go beyond its founding credo to appeal to non-Muslims.
Not only did non-Muslim fears of Pas dissipate, observes Johor-based lawyer and blogger Norman Fernandez, the party could now count on their votes: “I asked this bunch of Indian youths why they were working for Pas instead of the other Pakatan parties, and they replied that Pas’ leaders seemed the most honest.”
Yet, these breakthroughs have generated much soul-searching in the party. The most important questions strike at the core of the party’s ideology (“Islamic state”, or a state run on Islamic values), its identity (should it accept non-Muslims?) and with whom it should partner, Pakatan Rakyat or Umno.
“This was a party that, not long ago, was at the fringes of the opposition and now they find themselves forming governments,” notes Liew, author of a dissertation on Pas’ history and evolution.
“Former president Datuk Fadzil Noor said it himself once: it was a culture shock. The debate within Pas now is whether it should be cooperating with anyone, whom it should cooperate with, and the ideological compromises that have to be made.”
As the party moves to its muktamar and election, these issues have ideological rivals battling for the right to chart the party’s course. The delegates’ choice of leaders will determine whether the party continues to evolve into a broadly appealing national player or return to the opposition fringe.
Dr Sheikh Ibrahim Sheikh Sheikh Sallen is one the new Pas assemblymen who owed his startling victory in the Sungai Abong state seat in Johor to the scores of non-Muslims in his mixed constituency. He is one of two Pas assemblymen who also made party history by defeating BN in an actual electoral contest in the previously impregnable BN citadel of Johor.
Like many Pas wakil rakyat serving many non-Muslim constituents, Sheikh Ibrahim says his constituents chose Pas because they felt that it was a fairer party than Umno.
If some in Pas have their way and the party starts talking to Umno, leaders like Sheikh Ibrahim see that that base of non-Muslim “believers” in Pas will disappear overnight. “If we talk to Umno, we would lose all the goodwill we built up.”
One reason why some of Pas’ most senior leaders contemplate working again with Umno has to do with its dizzying experiences in power. A Selangor Pas leader explained that these “pro-dialogue with Umno” members could be said to be “personally Islamic but politically nationalistic”.
“For instance in Selangor,” he says, “the successful Malay developers started getting fewer contracts and projects because the system nowadays is more transparent. These developers became big in the first place because of their ties to Umno during the previous BN administration.
“So they came to see the Pas leaders of Selangor, and it struck a chord with some of us because there was a growing feeling that Muslims were being sidelined by the Selangor Pakatan administration.”
Although at last year’s muktamar the party stated that it would stay with Pakatan, its leadership later said it would continue to meet Umno for dialogue about Muslim issues and Malay interests.
“They won’t state it openly, but the end intention of pro-dialogue leaders is some form of cooperation with Umno because traditionally, the party is supposed to unite all Muslims under the banner of Islam,” the Selangor leader said.
Political scientist Dr Muhammad Agus Yusoff does not think that dialogue or unity talks with Umno will happen under any Pas leader, because its members will not allow it. “You ask any Pas member out there and all they care about is dethroning Umno and taking its place. All this talk of dialogue is pointless because there won’t be any.”
He may be right, especially in light of the recent Pas victory in the Bukit Gantang by-election, where the party saw firsthand how extensive support has become among Chinese and Indian voters.
If Pas does manage to integrate non-Muslims fully into the party structure (there is talk that a new wing is being formed expressly for this purpose), it could carve out a path that even Umno has not treaded.