As the clock ticks down to Malaysia’s next general election this year, much attention has been focused on the battle for the Malay Muslim vote, in particular the fortunes of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
One way to look at how well PAS will fare in the future is to view it from the perspective of the tussle for the allegiance of conservative voters between the Islamist party and the ruling United Malay National Organisation (Umno).
In the short term, PAS will not do so well, but in the longer term its outlook is bright.
To understand why, it pays to look at PAS’ roots and what it stands for.
It is often overlooked that PAS was established in 1951, even before the country achieved independence. At the time, the main Malay party, Umno, was worried about losing support from conservative Muslims and wanted to reposition itself as a champion of Islam too.
It has been widely argued that PAS’ formation was an Umno strategy to attract conservative Muslim voters and draw them under a wider political umbrella. The most obvious link was when Haji Ahmad Fuad Hassan became PAS’ founding president, while simultaneously heading UMNO’s Religious Bureau. Clearly, the relationship went directly to Umno’s head office.
But there was a slight yet crucial difference in their approach to winning the support of conservative voters : PAS took an Islamic slant to define their conservatism, thereby strategically complementing UMNO’s ethnicity-driven Malay conservatism. In a country where being a Malay and a Muslim are often seen as one, the division of labour makes perfect sense.
In PAS’ constitution, this ideology is translated into a stated vision of wanting to see the implementation of the values and laws of Islam in Malaysia. In practice, if we go by what they have been doing in the state of Kelantan, which has been under PAS rule since 1990, as well as Terengganu, which they governed in 1999-2004, their only distinctive agenda is the syariah law. Other than that, PAS has not introduced any policies that makes their policies substantially distinctive from UMNO.
Before going further, it is important to understand the term conservatism. PAS activists get upset when labelled as conservatives because they assume it is derogatory. In reality, conservatism is a globally accepted political philosophy.
In simple terms, conservatism is a doctrine that gives priority to traditional values and institutions over more modern and newer ones. Obviously there are major differences between, say the UK Conservatives and PAS, but the desire to maintain traditional systems and values is the common denominator.
As a party, PAS has been a key player in the major shifts and turns in Malaysian politics over the decades.
It enjoyed substantial growth in the late 1990s and 2000s. Much of this can be attributed to their participation in the opposition coalition led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
Despite accusations of sodomy levelled against Anwar, PAS took the stand that the allegation was politically motivated and was never proven according to syariah law. . During this period, the party’s membership among Malay professionals, as well as support from non-Muslims, grew rapidly.
PAS’ willingness to work with non-Muslims and the softening of their Islamic state demand during this period have been cited by many observers as evidence that it has evolved into a progressive party. But history has shown that these observations were a mistake.
PAS has never deviated from their conservative path. What really happened was the conservative leaders in PAS allowed the party to experiment with a progressive façade as an election tactic.
After four general elections without national success, the conservatives decided that they have experimented long enough. In the 2015 party election, those with even just a hint of progressive leaning were voted out from almost all positions in the party. The cull of the progressives from the party was decisive, forcing them to form a new party, Parti Amanah Negara (National Trust Party).
Today, PAS under the leadership of Abdul Hadi Awang is firmly back to what it has always been: a conservative party. And they have opted to work alone, not joining the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, or the opposition Pakatan Harapan.
Observers are once again making predictions, this time suggesting that the conservatism will result in PAS being routed from increasingly modern Malaysia. Many suggested that conservativism has no long-term traction and PAS’ expected decline is a symptom of this.
The observers are right in suggesting that PAS will likely face heavy losses in Malaysia’s 14th general election (GE14), due by August. In the last round, PAS retained power in Kelantan, and won 21 parliamentary seats. When the progressives exited, PAS lost 6 parliamentary seats to Amanah.
In GE14 it is expected that Amanah will run in three-corner fights against PAS and UMNO, splitting only PAS’ votes, and thereby ironically increasing UMNO’s chance of winning. Additionally, as an Islamic party that has opted to not join either of the mainstream coalitions, PAS will struggle to get the crucial non-Malay votes. Thus, the numbers are simply not in PAS’ favour.
But using PAS’ potential GE14 defeat to suggest that conservatism has no place in modern Malaysia would be another mistake. I believe conservatism, especially Islamic conservatism, will remain an important feature of the Malaysian society.
An indicator can be found in a 2011 report on the attitude and views of Malaysian Muslim youths. The respondents were 1,060 youths aged between 15 and 25, selected randomly from households across Peninsular and East Malaysia, making the survey statistically representative of the population.
The survey revealed that the majority of Malaysian youths are religiously and socially conservative, and they also believe that some form of political authoritarianism is justifiable to uphold conservative values. Support for religious laws and code of conduct is also very high.
Almost 70 percent want the Quran to replace the Federal Constitution as the supreme law of the country; 98 percent of the respondents object to conversion out of Islam; 92 percent said that they agree to caning for Muslims who drink alcohol, which is a sinful act according to Islam; 71 percent says convicted thieves should face amputation, a key element of the Syariah law. And nearly 70 percent believes that women are duty bound to wear the headscarf.
When asked to state what they consider as important in their lives, the top two choices were “to believe in God” and “to become a better Muslim”, far ahead of “to accept ethnic and religious minorities”.
Interestingly enough, more than 70 percent say they do not pray the daily five prayers and less than 65 percent fast during Ramadan. The two are the second and third pillars of Islam respectively.
Less than 20 percent of the respondents say they read the Quran regularly. Almost 80 percent say they have little understanding of the holy book. All these indicate that subscribing to conservative values is not necessarily about, or caused by, religiosity. It is more likely to be a reflection of their political attitude.
The conservatism among Muslim youths in Malaysia will benefit a political party like PAS. When almost all the other parties embrace modernism, PAS becomes the only platform that can reflect their political philosophy, therefore keeping the party relevant. In fact, as recently as last October when PAS held a rally in Terengganu, it reportedly drew a large crowd of 200,000, with 80 percent of them being young people.
Thus, even though the expected three-corner fights will hurt PAS badly this time round, it is wrong to think the party is about to disappear from the Malaysian political scene.
Looking at the poll findings of young voters, Islamic conservatism may even become the dominant ideology in the not too distant future if a competing, progressive vision fails to flourish.
In any case, there will always be conservative Muslims in Malaysia and for them PAS will remain the number one choice, regardless of the party’s electoral performance.
Even UMNO appreciates the presence of conservative Muslim voters and PAS’ grip on them. Hence UMNO’s keenness to return PAS into their fold today, just like how it was originally meant to be.
First published in The Straits Times, on Janaury 4, 2017.