During his lifetime, the late Nik Aziz Nik Mat once suggested the dissolution of Umno (United Malays National Organisation). He recommended that the party unite with his party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), under a common Islamic banner. Islam, he opined, is meant for all races, and should form the basis of all political parties.
The revered PAS spiritual leader died in February last year, but had he lived on to this very day, how would he have reacted to this year's PAS congress (muktamar)?
During the opening ceremony, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang brandished an enlarged keris, a traditional Malay weapon. A similar act by Umno's Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein several years ago drew flak from non-Malay leaders, who saw the gesture as manifesting a Malay warrior defending his community against external threats. Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi and many PAS leaders also don the traditional baju Melayu instead of their usual Arabic-style garment, giving them a more Malay outlook as opposed to an Islamic identity.
There are several interpretations of PAS leaders' theatrics during the congress. Some felt they wanted to play to the Malay audience to signal that the party is struggling for Malay rights ahead of two crucial by-elections to be held on June 18. The Malay dominant seat of Sungai Besar will see a three-cornered fight between PAS, Umno and Amanah (National Trust Party), and for the Kuala Kangsar seat, the three parties will square off with an independent candidate in a four-cornered fight.
Conversely, PAS leaders may be demonstrating to other opposition parties that the party is ready to collaborate with Umno on Malay/Muslim issues. Umno leaders have done the same towards PAS. At the last Umno general assembly, Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also the Umno president, indicated his willingness to work with PAS in the name of Malay/Muslim unity.
Recently, the government allowed PAS to table a private member's Bill to amend the Syariah Courts Act 1965, or Act 355. The tabling of the Bill was brought forward even though it was listed as the last item on the agenda.
These recent developments, however, do not mean that PAS will ally with Umno before the next general election. They only show that PAS has not changed in pushing its Islamist ideology forward, which has been its agenda since the 1980s.
During his opening speech at the congress, Mr Abdul Hadi did not raise any coherent policies. Instead, he resorted to rhetoric and sloganism. The key takeaway from his speech was that PAS should adhere to Islamic principles and way of life. He also reminded delegates that Islam cannot be separated from politics, economics, and all other worldly matters, because Muslims are guided by the Quran and Prophet Muhammad.
Yet, unlike in past speeches, he was not overly critical of Umno and the government, although he did call for reforms. This seems to be the attitude of PAS leaders towards Umno. Mr Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, son of the late PAS spiritual leader, praised Umno's new brand of peaceful politics. He reckons that ties between the two arch-rivals are improving, especially between the federal government and the PAS government of Kelantan.
Mr Abdul Hadi was quick, however, to quell any suggestions that the party is joining Umno in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, suggesting that PAS remains a pragmatic party.
It believes that consolidating power is its ultimate goal for now, before making further requests about its Islamist agenda.
Having Umno allow the proposal to amend the Syariah Courts Act 1965, or Act 355, is an important step for PAS. If successful, the powers of the syariah courts could be expanded. To date, the courts can issue a maximum sentence of RM5,000 (S$1,660) fine, six strokes of the cane or three years in jail.
Although both PAS and Umno leaders claim that allowing the amendment is not related to the controversial hudud laws -which includes punishments such as whipping for adultery, wrongly accusing someone of adultery, and intoxication - analysts have warned that PAS is making the first step to implement the laws in the states it controls.
The fact that Umno made this decision without the approval of its BN partners - MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) - shows that Umno is willing to forgo non-Malays' support for greater Malay-Islamic unity with PAS.
PAS, on the other hand, is also careful not to be seen as too close to Umno. PAS leaders remember how Umno treated the party when it was in BN in the 1970s. PAS was merely regarded as a secondary partner in the ruling coalition. But it has little choice to realise its Islamic agenda apart from warming up ties with Umno.
Last year, a fallout between PAS and DAP (Democratic Action Party) led to the demise of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance. The irony is that PAS continues to work with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in the Selangor government, even though PKR has lent its support to PAS' opponent, Amanah, for the upcoming Sungai Besar parliamentary by-election. In the Selangor legislative assembly, PAS controls 13 seats, whereas DAP has 14, PKR has 13, Amanah has two and BN has 12.
Forging too close a relationship with Umno could result in severing ties with PKR in the Selangor state government, which may lead to the collapse of the opposition government in Malaysia's crown jewel state.
All these developments only show that PAS is a pragmatic party after all. For now, it charts its way forward carefully and retains strategic alliances with any party in order to realise it grand vision of an Islamic state. Nonetheless, time will tell if voters will accept these manoeuvres, especially its decision to forge contradictory alliances in the name of developing greater Islam in Malaysia.
- The writer is a Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches on Malaysian, Indonesian and Singapore politics.