Malaysia’s Islamic Party Seeks Political Primacy

With opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim jailed for five years on sodomy charges, the leadership of the coalition he founded, which has upended Malaysian politics over the past seven years, is in increasing danger of falling into the hands of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia.

PAS, as the rural-based party is known, is moving aggressively to assume primacy in Pakatan Rakyat, which Anwar founded in 2008. The coalition’s disparate elements include, besides PAS, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Anwar’s own Parti Keadilan Rakyat, mainly composed of urban, moderate ethnic Malays. In particular, PAS is seeking to ride to national prominence the issue of seventh-century religious law, or hudud, which calls for stoning to death adulterers and amputation of limbs for theft.

Malaysia, despite its 60 percent Muslim population, has always been viewed as a moderate state. That impression is in danger today. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, weakened by scandal and party infighting, has been unwilling or unable to stem the rising tide of fundamentalism, which is being used by extremist elements of his own United Malays National Organization as a political tool to cudgel the opposition, particularly the 22 percent of the population who are Chinese. UMNO’s own leadership are privately concerned that the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, could fall to the opposition in elections scheduled for 2018 at the latest.

Thus, who leads the opposition has suddenly achieved new urgency. UMNO has been in deepening jeopardy over events of the past few weeks. Voters, especially ethnic Malays, are growing outraged by a flock of scandals and turned off by infighting within UMNO itself, with former Premier Mahathir Mohamad asking for Najib’s head over vast losses within the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd fund.

“My concern is that PAS is taking the lead,” said a young Malay lawyer with ties to the party. “We would edge ever closer to a PAS national government. PAS can go it alone on an Islamic State platform as Umno has gone it alone without Chinese votes. Malays now feel UMNO is sinful.”

Other longtime observers in Kuala Lumpur say the concerns are overblown, and that an increasingly urbanized Malay society that favors blue jeans, high heels, makeup and beer will have nothing to do with hudud. Anwar’s party forms the bulwark of those voters, along with other more urban voters in UMNO..

In any case, hudud would inevitably cause the DAP to pull out and cause some serious soul-searching among Parti Keadilan’s followers. The coalition would likely splinter. But apparently PAS, as with UMNO, feels that with a winning issue among the are ethnic Malays, it could pull it off. Last week, Mahfodz Mohamad, the deputy chief of the PAS religious council, or ulama, told reporters the council would continue to seek hudud by tabling a bill in Parliament.

“Why do we need to follow the DAP?" Mahfuz said. "Their stance is different. They want to go to Putrajaya [the seat of government]. We want to win elections too but more."

PAS says Islamic law would only apply to ethnic Malays. But other ethnic groups, particularly the Chinese, are deeply concerned that if hudud were to be put in place for Malays, inevitably they also would be threatened as well In nearby Brunei, the Sultan recently decreed that hudud applied to everybody in the sultanate.

The opposition coalition has been an uneasy alliance from the start, united as it was and is by nothing more than a desire to replace the Barisan Nasional in power. But that ambition led it to work together in the 2008 general election, in which they gained control of five states and for the first time denied the Barisan its historic two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament. Despite internal dissention, the coalition for the first time since 1969 won the popular vote in the 2013 general election with a 50.87 percent majority to the Barisan’s 47.38 percent, although gerrymandering kept them from taking control.

Especially over the past year, the coalition has shown increasing signs of disarray. Anwar has been preoccupied with the certainty he would be jailed in what is regarded internationally as a trumped up legal proceeding. As a result, the strong central leadership of a coalition that is unruly at best has been lacking.

PAS is seeking to catalyze sentiment against UMNO by jumping into the enormous controversy surrounding the detention in Australia of one of the killers of the Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006. Sirul Azhar Umar, one of Najib’s two bodyguards, fled to Brisbane last year after being temporarily freed by an appellate court. His conviction was reinstated this month by the Federal Court. It has long been suspected that someone close to Najib ordered the killing. Sirul appeared willing to talk to a PAS-sponsored press teleconference but later backed away.

Now PAS information chief Mahfuz Omar has said he would take Sirul’s mother and younger sister and Sirul’s lawyer to meet with the detained former police commando in Sydney. If Sirul were indeed to go public with what he knows about those who hired him and his fellow officer to kill the 28-year-old woman, it is likely to cause deepening problems for Najib, whose popularity has fallen to the lowest point of his premiership at 44 percent.

PAS is also making itself felt by opposing the leadership of the three-party opposition coalition by Anwar’s wife, Wan Aziza Ismail, who the party says lacks experience, and is instead pushing PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang. The party asserted its growing clout last year by refusing to go along with naming Wan Aziza the chief minister of the state of Selangor after an abortive effort to make Anwar the chief minister was thwarted with an appellate court’s judgment of his guilt in the sodomy charges. PAS tied up the selection process for months despite the fact that Parti Keadilan holds a majority in the state. Eventually, Mohamed Azmin Ali, a rival within Anwar’s own party, was selected for the job.

PAS is now threatening to introduce hudud in the rural eastern state of Kelantan State, with discussion in the state assembly from March 16 to 19. That would be followed with a move to table it in Parliament. Federal approval is needed.

Unofficial soundings suggest that as many as seven of 10 ethnic Malays, including urban moderates, see hudud as the answer to rising crime, drug addiction, adultery – especially among UMNO leaders – and other issues. The UMNO sources say that if hudud is enacted in Kelantan, ethnic Malay state voters are likely to demand enactment, and that UMNO would probably have to go along, feeling hard-pressed to vote against "God's law" despite it clearly being the machinations of those in charge of PAS.

It is almost unheard of that an opposition party could introduce a private member’s bill in Parliament, as PAS is threatening to do. In the parliamentary system such actions are blocked. But, an UMNO source says, UMNO leaders are being cowed into letting it go ahead because of a fear of ethnic Malay backlash.

They say they are concerned that if the northern and eastern tier of ethnic Malay states were to go along, a hudud bill is likely to be introduced in the Parliament. As an indication of how UMNO is cowed by the rising Islamic tide, already the leaders of Terengganu – controlled by UMNO – the neighboring state to Kelantan, are out to prove their Muslim bona fides. They say Muslims who skip the obligatory Friday prayers at mosques may soon be paraded around town in hearses as punishment.