PAS-Umno alliance: Who’s to blame?

The just solemnised alliance of Umno-PAS is bad news for Malaysians who have worked for anti-racist solutions to our nation’s challenges since colonial times. At the same time, while Pakatan Harapan leaders try to mock this Malay/Muslim-based alliance on the basis of racial alignment and leadership, shouldn’t they be asking themselves how this scenario has come about and how they have contributed to it?

After all, isn’t PH itself led by a leader who heads a purely race-based party that is only for the “Pribumi”? Why question the Umno-PAS alliance’s ability to select a PM-designate if they should win the next elections when PH has chosen a leader who had squandered so much of our resources for so many years? Why bring up the Memali massacre when it should be the prime minister at the time who should answer to the relevant charges?

PAS in the opposition coalition

PAS has been one of the country’s strongest opposition parties for most of its existence. Its electoral base is in Malaysia’s rural districts although in recent years it has been attracting the urban middle class as well. The party has governed the northern state of Kelantan since 1990 and has also, in the past, formed governments in Kedah and Terengganu.

The 1980s saw the party’s ideological shift away from Malay nationalism towards a puritanical brand of Islamism. Thus, after an important policy speech by then PAS vice-president Abdul Hadi Awang who declared that “the question of privileges for the Malays will not arise under Islamic law”, I wrote an article in The Star on Oct 10, 1985 titled PAS’ present perfect stance.

It immediately evoked the predictable response from Umno that PAS was “traitorous to the “religion, race and country… selling out the birthright of the Malays”. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir said the attorney-general would determine if the speech was seditious. Even the home minister indicated that his ministry was studying the speech. Not only was the Sedition Act invoked, some quarters maintained that Hadi’s speech was tantamount to treason. The only voice of reason emanated from former prime minister Hussein Onn, who said:

“The Sedition Act should not be invoked too easily just because people express views which do not conform with established views… the authorities should not stretch the provision of the law to make every non-conformist statement seditious or the law itself would fall into disrepute. There is the political aspect which involves the rights of the people to express their views. If it is blatant, one has to be careful in invoking the Act as it involves the freedom of speech.”

Without a doubt, PAS’ policy statement on equality of all peoples before Allah was a game changer. At a stroke, PAS had undermined the communalist ideology of Umno which had dominated the Malay community for so long. The contrast with Mahathir’s call to Umno members at the time to “defend their special rights by holding fast to the spirit of nationalism” could not be starker.

Seeing an opportunity to engage with the leaders of such a large Malay-based party and to combat the racist ideology of Umno, it was not the DAP but the leaders in the Civil Rights Committee (CRC) of the Chinese associations (of which I was a member) who initiated a dialogue with the PAS leaders in 1985. During the 1986 general election campaign, leaders of the CRC went around the country calling on the Chinese electorate to vote for the opposition, including PAS.

PAS in Gagasan Rakyat/Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah

Thus, at the 1990 general election, the DAP forged a successful coalition with Semangat 46 and PRM under Gagasan Rakyat while S46 had in turn forged another coalition with PAS under Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah. While the opposition had failed to defeat the BN, the attitude of Malay voters towards the DAP had changed positively because of its alliance with S46, PRM and indirectly, PAS, too. In fact, the realisation of this opposition front and the hope of a multiracial challenge to the BN had been the main reason for the entry of civil rights activists, including myself, into the DAP in the first place.

Nonetheless, DAP’s stance was characterised by a constantly shifting attitude toward PAS depending on the way their “Chinese ground” shifted. The debates within the party leadership over relations with PAS and Gagasan Rakyat revealed this opportunistic mindset instead of a clear non-racial strategy.

Events following the 1990 general election, especially the poor showing by S46, led predictably to the DAP leadership reappraising their relationship with Gagasan Rakyat. Thus, while S46’s other alliance with PAS had not posed a problem during the 1990 general election, by the time of the 1995 general election, the DAP leaders had started having second thoughts about any link at all with PAS claiming that their “Chinese ground” had been shaken.

Consequently, DAP decided to pull out of Gagasan Rakyat in 1995 apparently because they did not want to have a tainted association with PAS, even though their association that had not posed a problem in 1990.

PAS in Barisan Alternatif

The impetus for the formation of Barisan Alternatif was the Reformasi movement after the 1998 arrest and subsequent conviction of former Umno deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. The Reformasi movement had set new political forces into play and on Oct 24,1999, PAS, DAP and Parti Keadilan formed an electoral alliance and issued a joint manifesto.

In the 1999 general election, the BA cooperated to ensure only one candidate would contest in each constituency. PAS managed to capture the states of Kelantan and Terengganu and increased its parliamentary seats from seven to 27.

DAP increased its share from seven to 10 but with two of its most prominent leaders, Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh, losing their constituencies. This disappointing performance for DAP was again blamed on the DAP’s alliance with PAS. Keadilan took only fiveseats while the Barisan Nasional retained a 77% absolute majority with 148 of 193 seats.

With the disappointing results in the 1999 general election, DAP once again began to review its alliance with PAS and shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York by Islamists, the DAP announced its withdrawal from the Barisan Alternatif on Sept 21, 2001.

The split led to infighting between the opposition parties in the 2004 general election, resulting in many seats having multiple contestants. Nevertheless, it was a lesson to be learnt by the opposition and by the 2008 general election, the main opposition parties had realigned themselves to avoid three-corner contests in that election.

PAS in Pakatan Rakyat

On April 1, 2008, the leaders of PKR, DAP and PAS announced the new official alliance of Pakatan Rakyat and it led to the political tsunami at the 12th general election. Together, the three parties won 89 of the 222 parliamentary seats, its biggest electoral victory yet.

After the political tsunami of 2008, DAP did not have any problems being in the same coalition with PAS and PKR given their overwhelming support from the electorate in the 12th general election. In fact, during GE13 in 2013, there is a video in which the DAP secretary general accepted PAS’ own commitment to the Islamic state while abiding by the common platform of PR.

Name calling, insolence and letting loose Rottweilers on the PAS president

Unseasoned observers presume that the fallout with PAS was over the latter’s Islamist agenda. In fact, the fallout predated the asinine “Kajang Move” when we saw the former Selangor menteri besar being openly maligned by lesser DAP leaders for being inept and corrupt by lesser politicians as the justification for his ousting as menteri besar. Was the PAS president consulted about this irresponsible political move? The “Kajang Move” showed not only contempt for the voters in Kajang but also insensitivity toward the PAS leadership who were a part of the PR coalition.

What Malaysians saw during the 2014 Selangor menteri besar controversy was the contempt shown toward the PAS president not only in not being consulted from the start about the former MB’s alleged misconduct and the consequent “Kajang Move” but also in being set upon by DAP’s Rottweilers. There was clearly a dearth of leadership in Pakatan Rakyat that allowed lesser party leaders to be publicly insolent toward the president of a component party in the PR coalition.

Before long, the DAP top leaders entered the fray with the DAP secretary general calling the PAS president “mad”, among other things, in the ongoing spat between the two PR parties. The coalition was formally declared disbanded by the DAP on June 15, 2015, citing their inability to work with PAS.

It was Pakatan that drove PAS into the arms of Umno

Thus, Pakatan also has to bear responsibility for this alarming new racial political scenario. The disbanding of Pakatan Rakyat on June 16, 2015 after the DAP declared it could no longer work with PAS was a sad day for all Malaysians who have hopes for a viable non-racial alternative to the Barisan Nasional.

It is certainly a sad day for Malaysians who had carefully nurtured a working relationship with PAS since the 1980s, to see this alternative coalition wrecked by total lack of sensitivity to coalition principles, human relationships and dearth of leadership.

Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.