KUALA LUMPUR • Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) chief Abdul Hadi Awang has raised political heat after he appeared to have said that only Malay-Muslims can be Cabinet ministers, while Malaysians who are not Muslims cannot become policymakers.
Such a stance would be the complete opposite of what the Islamist party stood for just four years ago, when it campaigned in the 2013 general election under the slogan "PAS for All", and worked closely with non-Muslim leaders in several state governments.
But after facing attacks from both sides of the political divide, the party said Datuk Seri Hadi's words had been twisted by the mainstream media.
Non-Muslim leaders say Mr Hadi's views are against the Constitution, in which the roughly 38 per cent non-Muslim minority - in a country of 32 million people - are guaranteed a voice in policymaking.
The issue could have a bearing on how non-Muslim voters view PAS, as it has increasingly been making narrow interpretations of Islam since breaking up with a multiracial opposition alliance in 2015.
PAS is also widely seen as a close ally of Umno, so the issue could also undermine the ruling party.
Mr Rais Hussin, a strategist at the opposition Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, said Mr Hadi was becoming "more right-wing than Umno".
Mr Hadi and Prime Minister Najib Razak have worked together on several Islamic issues, such as sending aid to Myanmar's Rohingya community, while maintaining that they remain political foes.
So did Mr Hadi, 70, say those words?
The ultra-conservative cleric has been president of the one-million-strong PAS for 15 years and he often shares his views with his members through the party organ, HarakahDaily.
In his article on the website on Dec 22, he wrote: "Islam states that the nation's leader and his Cabinet members should be Muslim and from the most influential race. But, at the same time, Islam is just in giving rights to those who are not Muslims in politics, economics and other matters."
After discussing how Islam, in his view, would run the country with principles that are just and fair, he wrote: "In terms of politics, Islam firmly makes it mandatory for the main leadership that looks after policy and concepts to be Muslims, and accepts those who are not Muslims in terms of their expertise and management, not on matters of policy and concepts."
The comments raised immediate controversy. In a statement on Thursday, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism said his views were "dangerous, extreme and divisive".
"The Constitution does not impose any requirement of race or religion for the appointment of members of the executive branch of the government. Article 43(2) governs such appointments," said the council.
Retired federal judge Gopal Sri Ram was quoted by news website Free Malaysia Today as saying: "Under our Constitution, members of the Cabinet are equal and have collective responsibility, which includes policymaking."
PAS deputy president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man and other party leaders said the comments were taken out of context.
Datuk Tuan Ibrahim said the PAS chief was saying only that in the context of Malaysia, the majority Malay-Muslims must lead while those who are not Muslims "are accepted to rule together using their expertise and management skills".