PAS’s New Realist Politics?

By Farish A. Noor

THAT the leadership of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has now come out to endorse the People’s Declaration – an initiative by Malaysia’s civil society calling for the reaffirmation of the people’s fundamental political rights – is indicative of the success of the behind-the-scenes lobbying in the lead up to nomination day, and of the cobbling together of a loose opposition coalition for Malaysia’s 12th general election. Even more telling is the fact that PAS has also sidelined some of its more contentious demands for an Islamic state, a factor that has always served to turn non-Muslim voters away from the party.

The loose coalition of opposition parties vying for votes in Malaysia's 12th general election.These developments, recent as they are, nonetheless point to what may be the new realist politics of PAS today. While the party remains under the tutelage and leadership of the ulama who dominate its executive council and council of ulama, the party’s second and third-rung leadership is cognisant of the fact that if PAS ever wants to be seen seriously as a Malaysian party with a national appeal, it has to take into account the demands, needs and sensitivities of non-Muslims in the country.


The latest moves to secure its place in the opposition line-up, and to present itself as a credible alternative, therefore reflects the party’s awareness of the simple fact that the Malaysian public has developed and matured over the past five decades, and that Malaysian society is far more complex and heterodox today than it ever was.

PAS’s evolution

We should not be too surprised by PAS’s changes though for despite the political rhetoric, the party has experienced many important changes in its ideological orientation.

During the time of Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy’s leadership (1956-1970), PAS was widely seen as a progressive Islamist party that was committed to the ideal of an Islamic state but at the same time, very much dedicated to the causes of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. This was the time when PAS tacitly supported the workers’ movements and trade unions of Malaysia, aligned itself with progressive forces among all ethnic and religious groups, and was even suspected of being a “Leftist-Islamist” party.

During the 1970s, PAS was under the leadership of Asri Muda who took it towards a completely different direction by injecting the party’s official discourse with notions of Malay ethno-nationalism. The party under Asri Muda’s leadership raised concerns about the plight of the Malays of Patani, and strove to be the champion of the Malay language and culture, thereby overturning Burhanuddin al-Helmy’s progressive legacy. It was also during this time that PAS reached its nadir in politics by joining the Barisan Nasional – a move that backfired on Asri Muda as it robbed him of his credibility and power in the long run.

The PAS we know today is the PAS that was rescued from the ashes of defeat by the ulama in the early 1980s. Men like Ustaz Nik Aziz Nik Mat and Ustaz Hadi Awang – then led by the fiery Ustaz Yusof Rawa, the first Murshid’ul Am (spiritual leader) of PAS – were inspired by the Iranian revolution and were determined to create an Islamic state in Malaysia. But the tumultuous years of the 1980s and early 1990s also witnessed something that PAS’s leaders did not anticipate: the emergence of a more complex and plural Malaysian society.

For decades, PAS operated on the simple principle of the three P’s: Padi, Pondok, PAS (translated to mean padi fields, pondok schools, and PAS to reflect the party’s former image as rural-based). PAS was seen, and saw itself, as the party of the poor agrarian Muslims of the north. But today, Malaysian society is so complex as to defy such stereotyping. The Hindraf phenomenon, for instance, demonstrates that the Malaysian-Indian community is far more diverse and complex than what MIC leaders may wish to see them for. Likewise the urbanisation of Malay-Muslim society has given rise to all manner of new Malay constituencies and alternative sub-cultural groupings, ranging from the well-heeled urbanite cosmopolitan middle classes to the Mat Rempit underclasses and a host of other subaltern groupings.

PAS must realise that its commitment to the People’s Declaration, and its decision not to press ahead with its Islamic state demands has to be for the long-term; and not simply a matter of political gimmickry and strategising. The Malaysian public has grown weary of the political manoeuvrings of all political parties in this country; where leaders who brandish the keris one day will turn around and declare their love for other races the next. Likewise, PAS should not embrace the People’s Declaration simply for the sake of gaining points for this electoral race, only to revert back after the elections to its past, six years ago, when its leaders openly declared support for the Taliban.

For the sake of all Malaysians who are about to place their trust in the political parties in two weeks time, and for the sake of PAS’s own conscience and credibility, PAS which has endorsed the People’s Declaration must stick to the values of that document in the years and decades to come – regardless of the outcome of the elections and PAS’s fortunes thereafter. Empty slogans like “Islam is the solution” no longer suffice and will not convince young and restless Malaysians who long for some real structural, institutional and economic changes.

In the final analysis, this new realism reflects PAS’s own awareness that its primary vote base – the Malays – are no longer living in pondoks in the padi fields. Malaysian society has evolved, and let us hope that all the parties in this country will mirror and reflect the maturity that we have gained after so long.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.

4 responses to “PAS’s New Realist Politics?”

  1. Dear Farish,

    PAS’s Malay base may no longer be physically living in a world of pondok and padi, but an increasingly cosmopolitan leadership does not mean that old biases and habits have been discarded. To essentialize PAS today as just a reflection of its current leaders and policies, with its relationship to the state increasingly mediated by non-Muslims, provides an incomplete picture and makes a problematic suggestion that this new direction is the only way it can be taken ‘seriously’ or to be ‘credible.’ The subaltern voice here is the party’s grass roots.

    The desire to win the election has brought the so-called ‘alternative’ parties closer in their working relationship but there is still a strong sentiment among rural supporters that PAS is the one, true representative for Malays — a Keadilan member is one whose politics has *not yet* reached a state of perfection.

    I feel hesitant to agree with you that the ‘public has grown weary of the political manoeuvrings of all political parties in this country.’ PAS’s rank and file may well embrace a temporary ideological and strategic compromise in order to secure a stronger relative position within the coalition. For this reason it is crucial to listen to the discourses at both the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of the party to understand its future direction.


  2. Kita patut turut alihkan bahasa artikel saudara Farish ini, supaya orang yang kurang fasih Bahasa Inggeris pun akan mendapat manfaat sudut pandangannya!

  3. Well explained on actual malaysian dillemma.We have to think our country is belong to all the three major races and should not use past history as predicament to rule forever.All the leader must have qualification to be minister just like our neighbour Singapore,than only we can see true malaysian leader to lead all the malaysian.