Malaysia's conservative PAS attempting
to shed hardline image

By Nazry Bahrawi (From of 14 October 2005)

An unlikely scene transpired in Kelantan last month, when thousands flocked to attend a concert featuring popular Malaysian entertainers like the young Mawi (picture), winner of Akademi Fantasia 3 and singer-composer M Nasir.
The event was extraordinary because it was organised by Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS), the country's foremost opposition party that has been championing an ultra-conservative Islamic worldview for years.
The 2004 general election that saw Barisan Nasional (BN) capturing the PAS stronghold of Terengganu must have served as a rude awakening to the Islamic party's leader, Mr Abdul Hadi Awang, and his men.
To the bulk of educated Malays eager for economic progress, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's progressive vision encapsulated by the Islam Hadhari concept showed greater promise of development and change, compared to the PAS' brand of rigid Islamism, even though PAS followers were promised entry to heaven if they vote for the party.
With Kelantan as its last political outpost, PAS leaders are left with little choice but to re-invent the party to stay relevant politically.
As part of this reform process, new voices represented by young leaders like Nasharudin Mat Isa, Salahuddin Ayub and Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud are increasingly being heard.
The party has gone a step further. Recently it has been organising "hip" events such as concerts and football matches with popular artistes. They want to leverage these to portray a moderate image.
But a look beyond the recent events reveals that the PAS moves are perhaps really just all about form and lacking in substance or a real push for change.
For instance, the concerts coincided with the declaration of Kota Bharu as an Islamic city, something that the PAS has been vying to implement since its inception.
The party's vice-president and Kelantan executive councillor Husam Musa defended this declaration. He explained that he considered even Singapore "Islamic" because its strict rules on littering helped maintain cleanliness, a virtue which he said was Islamic.
Despite his perceived progressiveness in creating a "vision" or goal for the state, many doubt the party's intentions.
If the concerts were anything to go by, the segregated seating arrangements between males and females indicated a rigid religious stand on modesty and gender ties.
Beyond that, there were no indications that PAS planned to lift its ruling to fine Muslim women who do not don headscarves in public.
The presence of exclusivism is another telling sign. Members of PAS have openly rejected plans by non-Muslim organisations in Kota Bharu to form an Interfaith Commission last June. They fear that the commission will push the government to drop the Islamic "moral laws" and press for legal reforms to protect Muslims who convert to other religions.
These factors suggest that the change, at best, is that PAS' ultra-conservative Islamist slant is now cloaked by populist platforms to draw the masses.
Meanwhile, the party's supposed transformation has grave implications not just for Malaysian domestic politics but also for inter-state relations between Malaysia and Thailand.
As the Malaysian state bordering the Thai provinces of Narathiwat and Pattani, PAS-controlled Kelantan is placed strategically to shape the violent insurgency inflicting Thailand's deep Southern provinces.
There are already signs of this happening. Despite Kelantan police chief Zulkifli Abdullah's vehement denials, critics have speculated that the recent transfer of 131 Thai Muslims refugees from Kelantan to Terengganu, which is now controlled by the ruling United Malay National Organisation, was spurred by PAS.
The party has pledged to support the plight of the Thai Muslims and even organised a special fund.
The blatant subversions to Thai Prime Minister's Thaksin Shinawatra's political philosophy of non-intervention could endanger the already volatile relationship between the two neighbouring states.
Hopefully, all is not lost.
In a recent visit to Singapore, PAS secretary-general Nasharudin Mat Isa said the party would abstain from meddling into Singapore's affairs even though it expressed concern about the welfare of Singapore Malay-Muslims.
Can PAS change its hardline disposition?
Much remains to be seen. If members of the party are bent on making it a viable political contender, they must transcend beyond spouting myopic Islam-centric rhetoric and focus on solving common practical concerns, such as bread and butter issues and education, which are the on the mind of every voter.
Otherwise, not even the soothing tunes of Mawi and M Nasir can help shed a conservative PAS image.

The writer is the managing editor of The Muslim Reader magazine published in Singapore.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"