By Bridget Welsh
May 29, 2015
COMMENT As PAS prepares for the most divisive and decisive muktamar in its history next week, serious questions are being asked about the Islamic party’s direction.
The media has focused heavily on the troubled relationship with Pakatan Rakyat, with the frayed relationship between DAP and PAS over hudud taking centre stage. Others have focused their analyses on PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang who has brought the party to its current state.
The issues go much deeper than personality and policy differences – they go to the core of PAS as a religious political party, revealing that PAS is losing its moral foundation.
The 61st muktamar election will determine whether PAS will move to the dark side, namely further away from the principles and integrity that has given the Islamic party a comparative advantage in winning support from Malaysians.
The crass fight for power and position within the party and for leadership of the opposition has revealed a pattern among PAS contenders of ignoring the adage “the means is as important as the ends”.
In the past two years, we have witnessed lying, deception, personal and physical attacks from PAS that sharply deviate from decency. The gamut extends from behaviour surrounding the ‘Kajang move’ last year and governance in Kelantan to the current party election campaign.
These sort of actions are sadly the practices that are often associated with politicians, especially in Malaysia’s political muck, but PAS has usually stayed above the fray, or at least been perceived to do so.
The sheer viciousness on social media and in campaigning by some PAS contenders for positions has actually made Umno’s antics pale in comparison. Many in the grassroots are confused and conflicted, as the dynamic has not been one in fitting with the identity of a party that claims it is morally principled. Among parts of the public at large, there are growing calls to have nothing to do with PAS at all.
The moral decay in how PAS engages politically has deeper roots than party positioning. There has been a concerted effort to bring Umno culture into PAS. This dynamic has been driven by Umno through infiltration as well as many PAS leaders adopting the mode of Umno politics.
Beyond the use of personal attacks, this has taken the form of increasing materialism of some PAS leaders and members. When the party is now spiritually led by a wealthy businessman who has a history of taking government contracts, it is clear that the spirit of simplicity is eroding as part of the today’s PAS.
The key driver appears to be greed, as some PAS leaders now showcase their wealth in unprecedented ways. Those on the front line of materialism are many of the leading ulama contesting for positions in this all-out war for power. This materialism and selfishness is now spreading like a cancer inside the party.
The focus for some has moved to making money and using political position for economic advancement rather than genuinely living a simple life and bringing about good governance. The charges of corruption and complicity in Kelantan and elsewhere surrounding logging concessions and land deals have enhanced the sense that some PAS members are in it for themselves rather than the people.
PAS leaders have yet to come clean on how much wealth they have, and more importantly how they have made it. The party’s sense of public service has deteriorated to be increasingly replaced by personal service.
Along with materialism, nepotism in the party has grown. PAS has historically had greater opportunities for leaders to advance based on performance rather than family name, especially compared to other Malaysian political parties. This muktamar, candidates are running on their father’s standing, with little records in their own right or substance.
In some cases, the sons are also running on platforms that violate the very principles their fathers upheld, as can be seen with the sharp difference between Nik Mohamad Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz (photo) and his father, respected deceased spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, over cooperation with Pakatan.
This move away from merit, spirituality and performance to family standing and name accentuates the cancer of greed in PAS. It appears to be not just about position and wealth, but also about the family’s position and wealth. PAS is following in Umno’s trajectory of consolidating political elites rather than allowing a fairer and just playing field for contestation.
This moral decay has been accompanied by a practice of moving away from political accountability, aka Umno style, on the part of some leaders to PAS members and the public at large.
In this party election campaign many have argued that individuals are entitled to positions just because they occupy them rather than for how they carry out their duties. There is no desire for meaningful debate, discussion or resolution of the controversies that have underscored the tensions within the party and within the opposition as a whole.
Instead a culture of ‘dodge and denial’ has taken root, accompanied by a ‘with us or against us’ mode (with candidate lists for delegates to follow when voting) that holds honesty and transparency at bay.
Betrayal and fratricide
If it is not enough that a less principled culture has infected PAS, there is an even more painful dynamic at play – betrayal.
Members in the party and the opposition have experienced a loss of trust as attacks have gone inward rather than outward. PAS is not alone in fueling the discord within the opposition, but what distinguishes the betrayals in PAS is that there has been open fratricide, aiming to annihilate the other side.
After decades of comradery and shared struggle, the targets have become their own brothers and sisters. It is clear that some in PAS are willing to kill their own for their own interests and have lost sight of the need for inclusiveness and diversity in PAS leadership as a whole.
The irony is that those engaged in fratricide have used ‘party loyalty’ as a weapon for attack, not realising that the impact has been one of self-destruction for PAS as the attacks have undermined the cohesiveness of the party and its national reputation.
Betrayals within the party have been accompanied by betrayals to voters. Many Chinese, Indians, East Malaysians and Malays who see hudud as not the right measure at this time and/or fundamentally unconstitutional, feel that PAS has betrayed their trust. The fact is hudud was not part of the political platform of GE13 in Pakatan and PAS is seen as hijacking the opposition in its imposition of this narrow agenda.
In this single-mindedness myopic focus on hudud on the part of some leaders, PAS has send signals that it cares little about Malaysia as a nation as a whole – betraying East Malaysians in particular but others who see rights and religion in a much broader and inclusive way. For many voters, PAS has come off hypocritically as calling for laws that tell others what to do, when many in their own party are not practicing nor respect such moral principles themselves.
In this one-note call for hudud, the impression of PAS as a party incapable of addressing other issues such as the economy has also been reinforced. With hudud, PAS leaders are magnifying their own trust and governance deficits with the public.
A record for surprises
But some PAS leaders went further in their betrayal with regular meetings and open cooperation with Umno and public call for a ‘unity government’.
These actions are duplicitous of the majority of Malaysians who voted for the opposition. Voters rightly ask how PAS can claim to represent justice, good governance, fairness and moral principles when some of its leaders are working with those who do not abide by these principles.
When serious scandals from 1MDB – involving the funds of taxpayers, including religious pilgrims – are openly tainting the government, voters ask how could a party that says it is principled even associate with the actions that antithetical to the principles touted by a religious party.
PAS delegates will make their decision next week. In voting they will be deciding not just for themselves but for the very soul of their party, its moral and spiritual core.
A vote for greed, nepotism, unaccountable government and betrayal will send a clear sense to the public that PAS no longer offers the electorate a national moral alternative.
Many delegates are wrestling with these troubling issues and recognise that in the slate of options, there are choices that move the party back toward a brighter future.
PAS muktamar have a record of surprises and wisdom and this cannot be ruled out as the battle for PAS’ soul plays out.
BRIDGET WELSH is a senior research associate of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University, where she conducts research on democracy and politics in Southeast Asia.