KUALA LUMPUR: Najib Razak makes no apology for extending an olive branch to PAS, but admits that his reading of political realities drove him to make the move.
In an interview during which he was remarkably candid, the former prime minister told FMT the decision to approach PAS was a political tactic which took into account the increasing conservatism among Malays in the country.
“Politics is a game of numbers,” he said when it was suggested to him that his claims to being progressive and moderate could have been contradicted by his persistence in wooing one of the country’s most conservative political organisations.
He said Umno’s decision to soften its stance on PAS reflected its cognisance of current demographic realities.
“A certain percentage of the Malays have gone quite conservative and they continue to support PAS,” he said. “Umno, being a Malay-based party, therefore has to come to terms with the nature of the political spectrum.”
He quickly added that closer ties with PAS would not change Umno’s character as a “moderate and progressive” party.
In late 2015, Najib shared a stage with his PAS counterpart Abdul Hadi Awang, who was fresh from purging his party of so-called progressives. The purge came on the back of the party’s fallout with its partners in the Pakatan Rakyat alliance.
That joint appearance represented the Umno president’s first major public relations exercise with supporters of the Islamist party. Following that, Umno and PAS leaders got together again for several well-publicised events, saying their cooperation was on common Muslim concerns.
The ties grew stronger after Umno openly declared support for PAS’ plan to introduce stiffer sentences for shariah offences, the same plan that caused Pakatan Rakyat’s break-up.
Although they stood against each other in the recent general election, their cooperation reached a peak during last month’s Sungai Kandis by-election. During the campaign, PAS urged its supporters to vote for Umno’s Lokman Noor Adam.
Najib insists that the PAS-Umno relationship is loose and will not change Umno.
“I still maintain that whatever relationship we have with PAS is not a formal relationship, not like in Pakatan,” he said. “So we are still free to decide on the basis of what we stand for.”
He rejected the oft-heard allegation that Umno under him became more conservative, saying the opposite was true.
“I led and steered Umno as a centrist, moderate and progressive party with innovative and bold policies,” he said, adding that he tried hard to appeal to the non-Malays “although the majority of them did not support Umno”.
He said any friendship with PAS “must not change” Umno’s character. “Umno must continue to be the moderate and progressive party that it is known to be.”
Najib disagreed with claims that it was a switch of Malay support to Pakatan Harapan that caused BN’s defeat in the May 9 general election.
“It was not so much a Malay tsunami,” he said, “but the fact that the Malays were divided. And that allowed a small party to gain control of the government.”
He said there was a need to consolidate Malay political power and voiced confidence in the current Umno leadership’s ability to undertake the task.
He said Umno was in the past too rigid which was why new talents were “blocked from coming in”.
“If Umno wants to become a force to be reckoned with, it has to strengthen its talent base, be more open to new talents,” he said. “It must develop and nurture new leadership.”