Yang Razali Kassim, For The Straits Times

As clerics make clean sweep, PAS' future turns murky

Parti Islam SeMalaysia president Abdul Hadi Awang casting his vote at the party elections last week. The pro-ulama group outvoted the professionals and won almost all the seats in the main executive committee while expanding their dominance to the yo
Parti Islam SeMalaysia president Abdul Hadi Awang casting his vote at the party elections last week. The pro-ulama group outvoted the professionals and won almost all the seats in the main executive committee while expanding their dominance to the youth and women's wings.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Malaysia's opposition alliance is bracing itself for a possible break-up or, at least, a messy fallout from the heated elections of its Islamic ally, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which saw the total marginalisation of the pragmatic pro-alliance professionals.

Purist ulama (religious clerics) won near-total control of PAS, backed by a younger generation of clerics who displayed a surprising knack for this-worldly party politics.

Their sweeping victory was widely expected yet shocking to many, leading some local analysts to aptly describe it as an "ulama tsunami".

It caps a long struggle for control between the more conservative ulama and the professionals who want to mainstream PAS for a multi-ethnic electorate through the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.

The ulama-professionals tussle within an uneasy symbiotic relationship has been going on for years and peaked at the 61st PAS Muktamar (general assembly) from last Thursday to Saturday.

The ulama captured all key positions, returning Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang as PAS president by a landslide, and installing one of their own - Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man - as the new deputy leader.

From their base in the Ulama Council, the pro-ulama group outvoted the professionals and strengthened their grip by winning almost all the seats in the main executive committee, while expanding their dominance to the Pemuda (youth) and Wanita (women's) wings.

It was a strong "comeback" of sorts for the ulama, who have shared the leadership with the professionals since the latter flocked to PAS in significant numbers after the ouster of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim from Umno in 1998.

That symbiotic relationship is now as good as broken. But the strong reassertion of the ulama class has been highly controversial.

Increasingly uneasy with the professionals over their lukewarm support for Mr Hadi in his handling of ties with PAS' opposition allies of late, the pro-ulama group adopted "chai lists".

This practice of having a "menu" of preferred candidates was first popularised by Umno's ally, the Malaysian Chinese Association. The ulama even made it official and timed its release on the eve of the youth elections.

The strategy was devastatingly effective and the youth wing was the first to fall completely to the ulama, followed by the women's wing.

It was a foregone conclusion by the time of the main election battle for the central committee last Thursday. All the big names from the professionals were knocked out, including Mr Hadi's challenger, Mr Ahmad Awang, the popular deputy president Mohamad "Mat" Sabu and even the son of a former PAS president, Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa.

The victory margins for the ulama were so wide that they cast a cloud over the democratic nature of the elections.

A stunned Mr Mohamad described it as "strange", though he had not expected to win, given the bitter campaign against him by the pro-Hadi camp.

He had been critical of the way Mr Hadi trivialised the party's ties with the secularist Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Mr Ahmad decried the entry of the "chai culture" into PAS, which he said rendered the ulama's victory "undignified".

Apart from Mr Hadi, the other PAS key figure is Dr Haron Din, a conservative ulama who took over the mantle of Mursyidul Am (spiritual leader) after Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat died earlier this year. Mr Nik Aziz, PAS' highly respected long-time spiritual leader, had been the professionals' visionary guardian.

In a way, the reassertion of the ulama class marks the historic end of the Nik Aziz era.

But the more significant development is the emergence of the conservative young Turks. More organisationally savvy than their senior brethren, the young Turks have shown themselves to be as purist as, if not more fundamentalist than, their seniors.

Interestingly, the key figures among the young Turks are sons or sons-in-law of senior ulama.

New youth leader Nik Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz is the son of the late Mr Nik Aziz. Mr Hadi's son, Mr Khalil Abdul Hadi, was elected deputy youth leader.

The decisive reassertion of the pro-ulama class in PAS is not good news for at least two key groups.

The first are the professionals, who now have to decide whether to leave PAS to form a new party or stay in the name of reconciliation and reconsolidation to fight another day.

The second and more immediate impact is on the opposition alliance PR. The victorious ulama have swiftly proposed to cut ties with the DAP, a constituent party that is secular and Chinese-based, but to remain in PR.

The motion to do so is yet to be passed but is so conflicting and seemingly not thought through that it heated up the last day of the party assembly.

The ulama made it clear that this was to retaliate against DAP's unfriendly move to cut ties with Mr Hadi, whom the DAP had criticised for his confusing "flip-flop" decisions as an opposition ally.

But the root of the intra-opposition crisis stems from their ideological differences over PAS' push for hudud, or the Islamic criminal code. Whichever way we look at it, PAS is badly split and moves towards the next general election as a wounded party.

A more conservative PAS without the full support of its allies DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat is almost certain to suffer at the coming polls, but the purists do not seem worried.

Anyone with an interest in Malaysian politics will be watching to see what kind of PAS emerges under the total dominance of the pro-ulama group. The outcome has serious implications for the already-divided PR opposition alliance, and raises the question of whether it will unravel.


The writer is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.