COMMENT | With all-important 6 state polls on the horizon, political analyst DR BRIDGET WELSH looks at the rise of PAS, evolving opposition towards the Islamist party, and what this could mean for national politics.
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When lawyer and activist Haris Ibrahim coined the term “Asalkan Bukan Umno (ABU)” or “Anything But Umno” in 2011, he focused attention on breaking the hold of the party on national power.
While Umno has only been out of the national government for less than 2 years since 1957 (2018-2020), its stranglehold on power has been curbed. Malaysia has become more democratic.
In the wake of the 15th general election (GE15), however, focus has moved to the Islamist party PAS. Concerned with the implication of a stronger PAS on democracy and rights, Haris went as far to call for “Asalkan Bukan PAS (ABP)” or “Anything but PAS” right after the GE15 results were announced.
In GE15, PAS effectively rode the wave of protests against Umno, its strategic partnership with Bersatu (and its resources) and benefits from incumbency of state governments, winning 43 seats. PAS now holds the most seats in Parliament, with predominantly ulama or religious leaders.
It has become a national party and aspires in the coming state elections to secure the commanding position as the dominant representative of the Malay community, replacing not only Umno but also other Malay parties.
Beyond – potentially decisively – holding on to the Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah governments in the Malay heartland, PAS hopes to return to the Selangor government as well as hold the most seats in the opposition in Penang and Negeri Sembilan in the coming state elections. It also aims to win over younger voters, thereby building a political base for its future. With 3 of its state governments going to the polls and its eyes on winning more representation on the west coast, PAS’s ambition to expand its political power is on display.
With its dedicated and disciplined core of supporters, energised grassroots that have been campaigning since the last GE, expanding social and business networks, and (highly) active social media campaigning that has controlled its political narrative to date, PAS goes into the coming state elections arguably the strongest it has ever been.
This has, however, simultaneously provoked resistance; while the ABP movement is not yet as strong as ABU was, an anti-PAS movement is deeply rooted and gaining traction, including among some Malays. In the past 7 months, concerns about PAS — its agenda, leadership, and performance in Parliament/government — have steadily escalated. This piece looks at opposition to PAS and how this is changing.
Long-standing Ideological 'Other'
A fear of PAS has long been a feature of Malaysian political life. PAS has been portrayed as taking away rights and individual decisions, and accused of imposing a narrow conservative religious agenda that is not in tandem with modern life and respectful of Malaysia’s diverse communities.
The demonisation of the party deepened from the 1970s, after it challenged Umno’s hegemony in the Malay community in the 1969 general election, and reached its height during the Dr Mahathir Mohamad 1.0 years (ironic given the former prime minister’s current embrace of the party). In the 1980s, PAS moved from a nation-building approach towards empowering religious leaders, and drawing its legitimacy from portraying itself as the protector of the faith. In recent years this role has evolved into one of being both the promoter of the faith and shepherd of the ummah (the faithful).
Critics of the party have argued that PAS’s conservative social ideological agenda aims to regulate practices in everyday life and that this is directed by unelected individuals i.e. religious ulama. A myopic focus on women (and their clothing) has deeply alienated (and insulted), with remarks on nurses serving as the most recent example. Essentially, the party has effectively taken a page from global parties on the ideological right, tapping into discontent, stoking culture wars and division.
PAS was long painted as an “extremist” party – a claim the party leadership strongly denies. For decades, it was the distant electoral “other”. Now, through its alliances, first with Umno in 2019, then with Bersatu in 2020, it is now transformed into a tenable “another”, for an increasing number of voters.
Hadi's PAS: Umno Wannabe?
PAS today is not the party of its past, however. Rather than prioritise the struggle for the hereafter, the party is more focused on the here and now. The days of the long-term struggle of Tok Guru, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, are long gone.
PAS has changed as an organisation too. Up to 2015, there were always checks on the power of leaders inside the party. Arguably, PAS was once one of the most democratic parties internally, using consensus and consultation as part of its decision-making.
With the split in the party from leaders who formed Amanah and the death of former spiritual leaders Nik Aziz in 2015 and Haron Din in 2016, the current party president (and his personal allies) are in control. Now, Abdul Hadi Awang rules supreme, unquestioned in his position. He is both effectively the political and spiritual leader of the party. In autocratic style, those that openly challenge him are sidelined and in the case of former minister and ex-Kuala Nerus MP Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali pushed out, as happened in 2022.
Hadi has come to embody PAS’s “here and now” contemporary brand.
Over the last decade – under Hadi’s leadership – PAS allied itself with (almost) any party to gain power. Arguably, the party has set the standard for pragmatic political frenemy relationships, from DAP, PKR and Umno to Mahathir (and Muhyiddin Yassin’s) Bersatu. Repeatedly, PAS has made its ambition for power starkly clear.
In its focus on winning (and holding on to) power, PAS has been seen to be moving away from the moral high ground it once claimed. PAS has had to settle cases, and address allegations of corruption within its own party. In responding to serious issues of alleged vote buying in GE15, the party’s approach has been to claim almsgiving as acceptable during political campaigns.
Compared to the era of Niz Aziz, PAS leaders seem to showcase more material wealth. Having been in government at both federal and state levels, patronage and ties into the economy have become integral parts of the Islamist party’s power. PAS has worked to develop its own business loyalists. In fact, as PAS has aimed to displace Umno, it ironically has been seen to adopt some practices of Umno.
PAS's National Credibility Challenge
In this regard, PAS has taken over the mantle of racialised attacks, with repeated hurtful comments about ethnic minorities. The person leading the divide-Malaysia charge in racist vitriol has been none other than Hadi.
Yet, others in his party have followed suit, pushing the lines of what is acceptable treatment of fellow Malaysians beyond acceptable boundaries, normalising hate speech. Irresponsibly posting false statements on social media and not taking proper responsibility has become common – most recently allegedly aiming to stir racial tension among Felda voters. PAS has also set a new standard for a non-genuine apology.
The poor calibre of statements has also extended to performance in Parliament; from medically wrong criticisms of the Rahmah menu, to attacks on Chinese new villages and concerts. PAS faces significant perceived shortcomings in credibility and competence. Many see the party as not yet fit to govern Malaysia.
PAS had tried to address this. It has used its position as opposition to criticise the incumbent government. There have been the occasional valuable interventions, such as Bachok MP Mohd Syahir Che Sulaiman’s call for full-time focus of a finance minister on the economic recovery. Yet the party has not offered any real alternative development policies.
Serious questions are regularly asked about the capacity of the party to govern, especially to manage the economy and how to pay for its ultra-populist programmes. Here, the record of governance in Kelantan in particular haunts the party. The more prominent PAS becomes nationally, the more anxiety there is among investors.
A lack of confidence in PAS’s ability to govern, to manage the economy (and the country’s diversity), is tied into the ABP movement. Opposition to the Islamist party today extends well beyond historical concerns about its ideology.
The broadening of opposition to PAS stands in juxtaposition with the narrative that it is gaining political ground. With every step the party is taking forward in its goal to be the dominant Malay party, it is also simultaneously creating opposition to its gains.
For opponents of the party, the phrase “green wave” has become a proxy battle cry against it. Arguably, in the emotive reaction it creates, it is the unspoken equivalent of ABP.
New phrases reflect new realities. In 2009, PAS touted the slogan “PAS for All”. Today, there is growing disquiet with the emerging “All for PAS”. The party clearly dominates PN, with Bersatu lacking grassroots and de facto electorally the secondary player in the coalition.
It is PAS that is defending 3 incumbent state governments, 2 of which — Kelantan and Terengganu — will use the PAS flag for the campaign. Unlike in GE15 when Bersatu’s leadership was the frontline of the coalition, this election, a vote for PN is perceived as synonymous with empowering PAS; its ideology, the practices in its party and its performance in government.
Ironically, this coming election, PAS is the base of PN’s strength. At the same time, it is also its biggest weakness. The changes in the party and its larger national role have made it more of a target than even before.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Between The Lines.