Sticky weather in Kelantan

Taken from, June 11, 2007.

In 2005 the Young Turks in PAS led by deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa swept to power, bringing a promise of greater dialogue and engagement. They aimed to re-brand the party to strengthen its national electoral position, with the hope of expanding its support reminiscent of the heyday ‘reformasi’ era.

This first weekend in June, they faced a serious challenge, led by the conservative ulama Harun Taib from Terengganu. They survived the conservative putsch, but not without significant damage.

The party’s divisions came to the fore, and the internal and external obstacles for strengthening PAS’ support nation-wide are more pressing than ever.

The mood at the 53rd muktamar was one of subdued but intense reflection, perhaps best captured by the heavy humidity in Kota Bharu. For the entire Friday the sun did not come out, as clouds covered PAS’ Putik compound. The delegates’ attention centred on how PAS should identify itself. While there was consistent agreement on the pivotal role of Islam as the party’s anchor, debate revolved around strategies of articulating the party’s message, relations with outsiders, the tenor of the message itself and electoral priorities for the party – not easy issues to resolve.

For many outside PAS, it remains at its core an Islamic fundamentalist party. Yet this broad brush fails to capture the changes that the party has undergone, especially since the devastating loss in the 2004 polls. The party’s re-branding has been significant in that the PAS has adopted new approaches and reached out to new constituents.

The main change of the last two years has been an attempt to project a ‘professional’ image – perhaps best signified by the purchase of RM9 million building on Jalan Raja Laut, Kuala Lumpur. It represents the cumulation of intensive fund-raising efforts from independent sources and the strengthening of the party as an institution.

PAS’ strong funding position places it in a favourable financial position for the next election, and its method or fund-raising by building primarily on independent entrepreneurs and professionals differs sharply from that of Umno which is perceived to rely heavily on state distribution of contracts/projects for funding.

The professional image of PAS has been accompanied by an embrace of modern communication technology. PAS has a new television station in Kelantan and its Harakahdaily .net website far outstrips its Umno counterpart in reporting and party message delivery. The use of the Internet to project the party has taken on greater importance over the past few years as the party has attempted to reach out to the 42 percent of Malaysians who now reportedly are online. With live coverage of the muktamar , interested Malaysians were able to watch the debate first hand.

Broader engagement

PAS has also moved towards implementing more socially-conscious programmes geared towards promoting religion in everyday life. It is an extension of the party’s close ties with religious education that has deepened over the last decade. This expanded social agenda focuses on the young and vulnerable groups, and has been influenced by the actions of other Islamist parties in the region, namely the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in Indonesia. This agenda has evolved gradually with more frequent humanitarian missions, locally and abroad, and an expansion of social services, notably kindergartens. It has been enhanced by the greater financial security of the party and closer ties to professionals and the middle-class within Malaysia.

The reform initiative also included a more prominent role for women within the party. The last few years have seen a rise in the role of women, albeit minimal compared to the number of women in the party and the electorate. Before the party meeting, the ‘Muslimat’ was led by medical practitioner Dr Lo’ Lo’ Mohd Ghazali who, along with her central committee professional colleagues, took a strong position advocating female candidates in the polls with, potentially, one from each state.

The reform-minded women leadership – which lost in the ‘Muslimat’ election – also helped to build up the Nisa movement, a group of young women that is parallel to the powerful Puteri Umno. Unlike Puteri, however, this group is envisioned to engage in humanitarian work rather than serve as an overt political group to enlarge the party’s base. Yet, no question, Nisa is a potential means to appeal to younger voters along the same line as the 2005 Mawi concert in Kelantan.

The most-touted component of this re-branding has been a broader engagement with non-Muslims/non-Malays. As part of a national solidarity effort, PAS has created non-Muslim supporter groups and deepened dialogue with non-Muslims, especially in Kelantan. Although the supporter group was given VIP treatment at the muktamar during the opening, it is small and largely does not reflect the mainstream of the non-Muslim/non-Malay communities. Its significance lies in its symbolism; its existence shows that PAS (or rather parts of PAS) wants to appeal to a broad national agenda rather than just to the narrow Malay heartland. This greater outreach has been accompanied by more openness to dialogue with outsiders and a willingness to engage in frank discussion as the party engages in reform.

Behind the reach across Malaysia’s salient/ethnic religious divide is the recognition that the party has limited appeal among non-Malays/Muslims nationally (in part due to the party’s position on the Islamic state before the 2004 polls and its ideological non-secular platform) and that any increase in national political power requires broader engagement and more openness.

It is this vein that PAS’ re-branding effort has buoyed Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim’s effort to lead the opposition; he is seen to bridge the opposition and reach out further to non-Muslims/non-Malays.

The dominance of pragmatic thinking among PAS’ Young Turks has forged closer ties with PKR and Anwar in particular, who has regularly been featured at PAS’ ceramah nationally although always carefully identified as PKR. This role for PAS as ‘partner’ rather than as ‘leader’ in the opposition is tied to the party’s adoption of a different strategy, a strategy geared toward making the party stronger and more nationally attractive to voters.

Conservative putsch

All of these key reforms came under attack during the muktamar from the rank and file of the party. While the deputy presidency contest also involved the issue of personalities and was tied to different regional bases of support and raised concerns about party unity, it was primarily a proxy for serious reservations within PAS about the reform effort.

It illustrated the real divisions over what direction PAS should take in the future. These differences came out clearly in the floor debate and during quiet intense discussions over tea in the bustling stalls in the Putik compound. Ultimately, they were evident in the strong support for Harun, who garnered 40 percent of the votes in a contest against the incumbent Nasharuddin who was seen to personify the reform drive.

The currents of discontent varied in intensity and were inconsistently articulated. Four messages resounded. Disgruntled party delegates voted for Harun to highlight their perception of a displacement of the ulama in leading the party. Some did not like the pragmatic orientation of the re-branding programme, labeling it ‘materialist’. They argued that placing the party in ‘professional’ hands was not appropriate for an Islamic party. They attacked the Young Turks for lacking religious legitimacy and for failing to respect elders in the party; to know ‘their place’.

This attack on the character of the reform leadership showcased the structural problem the reformers face, in that they lack the same level of religious legitimacy of their ulama cohorts. Being voted in by representatives is not enough for some PAS delegates who feel that as a religious party, their leadership needs to be consistently ulama -led.

The conservatives supporting Harun also opposed a prominent role for Anwar as the leader of the opposition. They want PAS to lead, not be in partnership in the opposition. Their concerns point to long-standing reservations among some older PAS members about Anwar. These were tied to the split within Abim in the late 1970s and Anwar’s admission into Umno in 1982. More recently, there are those who worry Anwar may rejoin Umno. These differences highlight the difficulty PAS faces being a partner in a national bid for political power.

The concerns about the paramount role of the ulama and position of the party in the opposition paralleled concerns about the scope of the party’s reach. Other dissatisfied delegates felt that the focus of PAS should centre on the Malay heartland, namely Kelantan, Terengganu and perhaps Kedah. They felt that outreach to non-Muslims/non-Malays was unnecessary and, for some, counter-productive. They envision their party as tied to long-standing centres of the rural Malay heartland and oppose the ‘modern’ national image of the reform initiatives.

The contradictory statements of leaders on the rights of non-Muslims to practise their religion and wear their own chosen attire in keeping with their own religious faith illustrated the real difference in outlook of the conservatives within PAS. Conservatives dominated the debate over religion. There were calls for a more encompassing Islamic state with even more applicability of Syariah law in Malaysia.

It was rebuffed by only one delegate calling for a more loosely conceptualised form of Islamic governance that might appeal to non-Muslims and more moderate Muslims. The positions taken by the PAS Youth delegates on the Lina Joy case were illustrative of this more conservative position. Harun supporters seemed to hold to the view that non-Muslims/non-Malays are inconsequential to their view of the party’s future and that moderate Muslims would follow the ulamas’ lead.

A narrow view of the party’s base was extended to women among more conservative delegates. Women were to be seen, but not heard. The re-branding effort to promote women was also seen as too aggressive and for some, inappropriate. Debate, heard most overtly during the women’s session, centred on what role women should play in politics with those opposed to the reforms arguing for a smaller role. Specifically, they called for an end to Nisa on the grounds that it potentially placed young women in danger and advocated less prominence for women in the leadership and as candidates. The reformers within the party strongly disagreed.

Managing schisms

The divide was clear – reform for greater national power or retreat to the conservative home ground. In the Youth and Muslimat elections, the conservative voices gained ground. Many conservatives were elected to the Youth central committee and the professional reform-minded women’s leadership in the Muslimat was unseated. A once confident group of Young Turks faced a serious struggle on Friday, one which they eventually won comfortably by nearly 200 votes but not without the conservative voices sending a clear message. The conservatives scored a victory by effectively getting their message of disgruntlement across.

The divisions in today’s PAS are real. Younger and older delegates joined forces to challenge the 1980/90s Fadzil Nor generation of reform-minded delegates. The party faces the difficult challenge of building bridges across the divided camps. In the short-term this will mean that the party will likely be inward-looking as it attempts to reach consensus on fundamentally different outlooks. The internal focus will potentially weaken the party as it faces the next general election.

Despite the extensive calls for a cleaner national electoral process at the muktamar , the meeting did not present a clear platform for PAS with regards to the next polls. In fact, the conflicting messages painted a picture of confusion rather than direction.

While acknowledging the important fact that the PAS meeting actually debated issues – something strikingly missing from the PKR congress where attention on personalities overwhelmed – this muktamar held before a national election was devoid on clarity as to what the party actually represents and why voters should support it beyond an appeal to religion. Ironically, efforts of the conservatives led by Harun may have more impact in the next general election than they did in the party contest.

If navigating the internal divisions is problematic for the party’s future in national elections, managing the ties across the opposition will be even more difficult. The message of religious intolerance that were heard in the remarks of some PAS leaders makes ties to other opposition parties difficult.

PKR is dependent on non-Muslim support and cannot electorally afford a position of Muslim exclusivity, however defined. The DAP’s distance from PAS will likely only widen further if these views dominate, potentially minimising even dialogue. This is enhanced by the real concerns of narrowing religious freedom in Malaysia. The Young Turks in PAS will have to reach out effectively across the opposition if it wants to maintain its push to be a genuinely national party.

The path ahead will be set by the newly-elected leadership, which maintains a strong position for reformers at the helm. Many of these individuals remain committed to reform and a dynamic transformation of the party. It remains to be seen whether PAS’s current leaders will be able to overcome the obstacles of internal divisions and inter-opposition wrangling.

It wasn’t just the weather that caused discomfort at the muktamar – there remain some sticky obstacles for PAS ahead.