Ooi Kee Beng, The Malaysian Insider
The national attention given the general assembly of the Islamist PAS held recently was a historical high for the party.
This certainly confirms the fact that PAS is enjoying a level of popularity that it has not experienced in its 58 years of existence. However, much of this popularity is incidental, and more serious internal change is needed if the party is to take full advantage of its new status.
Umno, from which more religiously inclined Malays broke away in 1951 to form PAS, is losing credibility fast. Furthermore, it has not been able to reverse the trend despite changes in its top leadership.
Since Malaysia has a Muslim-Malay majority, PAS is therefore well placed to benefit from this, and will continue to attract Muslim and Malay votes in the near future. In fact, support for PAS has been growing at a phenomenal rate ever since former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad went overboard in quashing the career of his erstwhile deputy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, and now boasts almost one million members.
The rift in the Malay community created by Mahathir’s harsh methods did not only undermine the Islamic credentials of Umno, especially in rural areas, they also alienated the party from the urban young of all races and genders.
Except for the period of promise offered by Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2004, young Malay men and women in the cities have been showing a preference for Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). PAS, at the same time, has been gaining strength in rural areas. These two parties provide the major alternatives for Malays disaffected with Umno.
In forming a coalition with the nominally social-democratic DAP, these two parties now command enough support to give the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition a run for its money.
The enormous support that PAS received from Chinese voters in the recent Bukit Gantang by-election was thus more an expression of the hope that Pakatan Rakyat is a viable alternative than the supposed direct acceptance of PAS by non-Muslims which encouraged PAS to wish to upgrade its non-Muslim supporter club into an official wing of the party.
But PAS is still basically a rural-based party that challenges Umno on its home turf. Should the young PKR develop well as a responsible party over the coming months, it will come to stand as the major alternative for young urban Malays looking for a political domicile outside of Umno.
With the urban population of the country growing in strength and the average age of voters dropping sharply, PKR does actually have an edge over PAS in the long term. Whether or not, the division within PAS should be termed “clerics” versus “professionals”, or “ulamas” versus “Erdogans”, Malaysian society itself, and therefore the voter population as well, is dividing itself along the dimensions of age, the level of education and the level of urbanity.
These undermine the potency of race-speak and religion-speak.
PAS’s surprise call for the Sisters in Islam (SIS) to be banned illustrates the fact that change will not come easily to the party, and that the dissonance between the party’s old roots and society’s new shoots is very real.
Indeed, the very existence of Pakatan and the recent success of its component parties were possible because of the aforementioned social dynamics. The Reformasi movement that started in 1998 inspired many young Malaysians into realising how out-of-touch with their aspirations old parties like Umno and its allies had become. There is therefore a lot of hope-against-hope amongst voters where PAS — one of the oldest parties in Malaysia — is concerned.
It is being given the benefit of the doubt, at least for the time being.
New social changes in Malaysia demand new political expressions and the parties that attune themselves quickly to them are the ones to gain most from it. That is how democracy works at its most basic level.
The older a party is, the stronger the obsession with past self-identities and the harder it finds it to adapt to new social dynamics. The advantage PAS has nationally over Umno is that it is untainted by power, but like Umno, it is hampered by the false impression that change can be on its own terms.
After the trashing it received at the hands of Abdullah in 2004, PAS did reinvent itself to an extent. It was therefore sufficiently well positioned to profit from the broad rejection of the Umno-led coalition when that came in 2008.
Given the great expectations voters now have on the Pakatan Rakyat, the most difficult part of the act of transformation lies ahead, especially for an old party like PAS.
The writer is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is “Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi”.