Within Malaysian opposition, a battle for the Muslim ground

Malaysia's Islamist party, PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia), is experiencing its biggest split in its six-decades-old history. Some key leaders, dubbed the "progressives", have joined the PAS breakaway party PAN (Parti Amanah Negara), which is now led by Mr Mohamad Sabu (former PAS deputy president) and Mr Salahuddin Ayub (former PAS vice-president).

Recently, Datuk Husam Musa, also a former PAS vice-president, has applied to join PAN.

The current split mirrors the situation of the late 1970s and early 80s, when the party was divided between nationalists and conservative clerics (ulama). In 1982, PAS president Asri Muda, a nationalist, was toppled by the so-called young Turks.

Soon after, PAS reinvented itself to become an Islamist party led by the ulama, calling for the formation of an Islamic state and implementation of hudud laws (punitive Islamic laws).

Recent exchanges between PAS and PAN leaders reflect the two parties' political trajectory running up to the next general elections, due by August 2018. As it stands, PAN is keen on forging a close alliance with opposition parties DAP (Democratic Action Party), PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) and possibly Bersatu (United), but its biggest opponent remains PAS.

Thus, it is unsurprising that while the party continues to be critical of controversial state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and corruption within the ruling party BN (Barisan Nasional coalition), it is torn between trying to portray an Islamic image on the one hand, and a multiracial one on the other.

In June, PAN faced its first test against PAS. It took part in the Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar by-elections. In both contests, the BN coalition won with increased margins compared with the 2013 elections.

In Kuala Kangsar, BN secured 53.8 per cent of votes, PAS secured 24.2 per cent, PAN 20.8 per cent, and an independent candidate won 0.2 per cent. There were only 801 votes which separated PAN and PAS.

However, PAN did better than PAS in Sungai Besar, garnering 707 more votes. BN won 53.01 per cent of the votes, while PAN won 24.01 per cent and PAS, 21.78 per cent.

These results not only show how opposition disunity favours the ruling party, but also point out how PAS traditional voters were split.

A quick glance at PAN's website and newspaper illustrates that it is national issues that the party is focusing on. It has used these platforms to criticise the government on how the 1MDB issue is handled.

Compared with PAS' newspaper, the Harakah, PAN's newspaper carries less religious content. This does not mean that PAN is less Islamic. Since it is likely that PAN will be having straight fights with PAS in the next elections, especially if PAS refuses to join the opposition camp, PAN must continue to secure the Malay/Muslim ground.

Recent exchanges between Mr Husam and Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, PAS youth chief, prove that the battle between the two parties will be on which party represents the thinking of former PAS spiritual leader, the late Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who died in February last year.

The two politicians were close to Nik Aziz, who was also Kelantan chief minister from 1990 to 2013. Nik Abduh is his son, while Mr Husam was his former press and political secretary.

Mr Husam, currently a member of the state legislative assembly for the Salor constituency, claims that PAN's struggle mirrors what Nik Aziz fought for all his life, which includes focusing on the poor.

On the other hand, Nik Abduh claims that his father would have urged Kelantanese to reject PAN.

"Nik Aziz would have asked the Kelantanese to let PAN drift off to the South China Sea from the Salor Bridge," claimed Nik Abduh.

The mention of Nik Aziz's name here is crucial, because the Kelantanese identified with the spiritual leader's struggle.

In fact, one of the reasons for the split between PAS and PAN is that the former lacked a unifying figure seen in Nik Aziz. He was also crucial in keeping PAS within the opposition coalition, which included the secular party, DAP.

Throughout the 23 years of his rule in Kelantan, he led a simple life, remained accessible to all Kelantanese, and upheld multiracial values. The current president of PAS, Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang, and its other leaders could not match Nik Aziz's stature.

In May, the PAS president tabled a private member's Bill to amend Syariah Bill 355, which could mean the expansion of the powers of Malaysian syariah courts. Currently, the maximum penalties that these courts can mete out are three years' imprisonment, a fine of RM5,000 (S$1,660) and six strokes of the cane. Many observers believe that if the Bill is passed, the PAS government in Kelantan could then push for hudud laws.

Interestingly, PAN has said it supports the expansion of the powers of the syariah courts Bill, but wants Mr Abdul Hadi to provide more details on PAS' proposal. At the same time, PAN is also keen to work closely with the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, which includes the DAP, the party that has clearly rejected the Bill.

As it is, the contest between PAN and PAS will still revolve around the holier-than-thou approach, even as PAN offers an olive branch to non-Muslims.

• The writer is a fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches Malaysian, Indonesian and Singapore politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'Within Malaysian opposition, a battle for the Muslim ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe