The PAS purge of the progressives

By Bridget Welsh
Jun 6, 2015

COMMENT The results have definitely spoken – the progressive, national-oriented pro-Pakatan Rakyat faction inside PAS has been wiped out from leadership positions in all of the party organs.

The outcome was not unexpected, but the ugliness of the muktamar even surpassed the nastiness of the vicious campaign before the polls. The implications of this outcome will deepen the ongoing divisions of the opposition, effectively severing Pakatan irreparably and empowering Umno.

This outcome was exactly what Umno wanted and assisted in with its infiltration of PAS. Ironically the electoral sweep by party leader Abdul Hadi Awang and his ulama hatchet men will feed into the continued leadership crisis within Umno. With Pakatan fractured, schisms and splits within Umno also deepen.

In short, the results of the PAS elections have contributed to Malaysia’s ongoing political crisis across the political divide and highlighted the deficit in quality national leadership to address the challenges ordinary Malaysians face.

The blame game has already begun. There are many at fault – PAS leaders from both factions, Umno, DAP and more. Labels of ‘losers’ and frustrations are likely to rise, as the noise of Malaysian politics gets louder with internal pettiness that serves to disenchant and anger the general public.

Dreams have died, or so it seems. The blame game is an inevitable outcome of polarised politics within Pakatan and in PAS itself. Few want to look inside, to reflect and move forward, as the overwhelming perception is a split is necessary and ties have been broken.

Politics of righteousness

Everyone thinks they are in the right. Those who have supported the ulama victory believe they are carrying out god’s work through hudud, and protecting their leader and party from attacks from outside.

The progressives believe they offer wisdom in bringing PAS out of its insularity and forging a national role based on democratic principles of fairness, inclusion and justice.

PAS’ outsiders equally tie their criticisms to a defence of the constitution, the value of trust in keeping one’s promises to one another and to the voters, and the dream of a viable alternative government.

All sides frame their ‘righteous’ interpretations in such a way that there is no middle ground, no mutual understanding and, in some cases, no respect.

The implications of this have been zero-sum politics, with limited outreach among groups. This in part explains the strength of the ulama group, who fought hard to annihilate their opponents since their losses in the last electoral bout. The polarising dynamic pushed people to take sides, and those in the middle such as Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man were painted as the ‘enemy’.

The pattern of ‘with us or against us’ and the destructive take-down politics has become the dominant paradigm of politics since 1999. In this party election, it found itself in PAS, with the ironic implication that it will hurt the group that has been most active in promoting this mode of politics in their fight against Umno – the other Pakatan parties, PKR and DAP.

Forces of destruction

Heavy emphasis in explaining the results has been on the ‘chai’ or list. The system does account in part for the decisiveness of the split between progressives and ulama groups. But there were other important factors taking place as well.

Foremost of these is the composition of the delegates themselves. Unlike previous muktamar, the 1,162 voting delegates this time were not party stalwarts nor were they party campaigners to the same degree as has been the case in the recent party polls.

A total of 571 delegates, about 49 percent, were new faces. Many did not sit in the trenches of Pakatan campaigns, nor walk the Bersih rallies. They come from inside of the party, the religious schools and internal party organs, especially influenced by the ulama wing.

Comparatively less exposed and more religiously conservative, their views of non-Muslims and the outside world are more suspicious and deeply parochial. This conservative clan is representative of Malays who stick to their own, who rarely move out of their circle of friends in religious classes and who live in their own echo chamber of social media. They are unlikely to read this article.

The emergence of PKR as an attractive alternative for ‘modern’ Malays, the revitalisation efforts by Umno among youth and Umno’s infiltration of religious institutions has meant that PAS has been grooming leaders from inside and in relative isolation.

The outcome can be seen that many of these insular delegates were at the muktamar, tactically placed in their positions from the party divisions in the campaign process.

A second factor that cannot be dismissed is the prominent role that DAP played in trying to sway the party outcome. Increasingly as Pakatan has evolved, there have been more interventions in shaping outcomes in other parties – from Kajang to this muktamar.

This hurt the progressive faction, with those seen as close to DAP such as Mohamad Sabu, who was one of the most affected. Rather than see him as a bridge for PAS for dialogue with outsiders, the Umno-like portrayal of the DAP predominated with the party – it was seen as too dominant and aggressive.

The more the DAP leaders made statements about PAS leaders, the more they negatively impacted the faction they aimed to empower.

The inability of the progressives to hush DAP leaders was seen as impotence and complicity, feeding the anger among the majority of PAS delegates. DAP chose to cater to its political base rather than understand the damage these actions would cause to the political base of the progressives.

Back to the past

Finally, responsibility can be found with the progressives themselves. The perception outside is that they were not strong or tactical enough. Keep in mind that the progressive group has played the driving role in the party leadership since 2004, when the conservative ulama’s dismal record in governance led to a massive electoral defeat in GE11.

This pattern of losses for an ulama-led PAS at the national polls will likely repeat itself in the next GE – as the group has an extremely limited basic understanding of economics or governance, with some of them tainted with the stench of corruption that is coming out of Kelantan and other areas of PAS governance. Hudud will not win them votes.

The progressives on their part however misstepped in not strengthening their leadership position within the party after the last muktamar and after GE13. They did not nurture the middle ground in the party effectively, and while they made ground in the last few months, their interventions were too late and in some cases backfired.

Acting in defensive rather than engagement mode, the Umno-style view of PAS as losing ground among Malays and kowtowing to the DAP took root, feeding insecurities and contributing the latest results.

In this difficult leadership challenge of moving PAS forward in confidence and more collectively, the progressives failed. It has placed PAS ironically in the same position it was before the progressives got the highest support in history in 1999 and back to when the party was seen as a pariah‎ by the majority of Malaysians, as was the case in the 1980s and in GE11 when conservative ulama dominated the PAS party organs.

Tough choices ahead

It is said that out of crisis there is opportunity – and this party crisis for PAS is no exception. There is no real salve for these sorts of deep open wounds in the short term. We learn the most in life from our failures, not our successes. The question will be what lessons are being learned and how they can be actualised.

The ulama have played a political game in their relationship with Pakatan. On the one hand, they have passed motions that call to quit the coalition, yet on the other, they claim they will stay in Pakatan. This Umno-like double-speak shows that some PAS leaders are living in a ‘have your cake and eat it’ dream world, mistakenly believing that they can vote for separation and yet somehow try to save the marriage.

This sort of fantasy-like thinking shows how far gone this insular group is from actually playing any credible national leadership role.

The progressives will have to set the course ahead. They have important platforms as elected parliamentarians and assemblymen, and individually and collectively are among the most popular PAS leaders nationally. If PAS was a more democratic and transparent party, they would still hold positions of power.

The progressives face difficult choices, knowing that in the history of their party no one who has left PAS has politically survived and that as a group they still are the only bridge to connect the insular extreme clan to the national landscape. Maintaining dialogue and connections will have to be balanced with differentiating themselves and defending their principles for a more inclusive, democratic and just Malaysia.

It will be a bumpy road ahead, with the options of loyalty, voice or exit on the horizon. Many are calling for the progressives to leave PAS and for the conservative ulama-led PAS be expelled from Pakatan. Exits can take many forms and in the case of Pakatan, a split is now inevitable.

It’s crucial not to allow anger to overshadow careful reflection, to assure that bridges remain for dialogue and to remember that the stakes involve the future of democracy in Malaysia.

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.

  1. #1 by Noble House on Sunday, 7 June 2015 - 4:33 am

    Because the truth – the real, unspeakable, awful truth – is that we are all vulnerable, and afraid, and more ignorant than we’d like to be. We are all fumbling to find a place for ourselves in this weird, anxious period of human history, stumbling between political and civil rivalries, the savagery of late capitalism and the rage of the dispossessed. I still believe in new identities, with new heroes, where the wolves may sometimes get to win. I still believe that decency, tolerance and free speech are worth fighting for. You might call that “political correctness”. I call it compassion and I think it’s what this country needs and how we can build a better tomorrow.

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