Malaysia's Anwar Faces an Islamic Revolt

The always-delicate relationship between Malaysia’s three opposition parties is growing strained again in the wake of the annual general conference of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the conservative Islamic member of the coalition.

The issues are Hudud – Islamic law – and designation of Malaysia as an Islamic state. The other two wings of the coalition, the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party and the urban, liberal largely Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat, want nothing to do with either issue, leaving Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim with the task of trying to bring his coalition back together and particular to keep the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party in the fold.

The controversy gives Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak a made-to-order issue to paint the ruling Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, as a force for moderation that will look after the well-being of the Chinese against the forces of radical conservative Islam. The Barisan has already begun energetically exploiting those issues through government-controlled media.

Until the Nov. 16 PAS general meeting, according to political analysts in Kuala Lumpur, the issues of Hudud and Islamic law which had been brought up occasionally had been regarded as fealty to rhetoric to keep the conservative wing of the party happy. Indeed, Hadi Awang, the party leader, opened the general conference on Nov. 16 with a speech that emphasized the common agenda – the so-called Buku Jingga, or yellow book on which the coalition is based –and issues over national elections expected to be held in April of 2013, only to have the conservatives stage a revolt.

PAS has managed to stay largely in the moderate camp on the strength of a clique of leaders called the “Erdogans” after the moderate Islamic Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has headed the Turkish government since 2003. In June of 2011, moderate rank and file members staged a dramatic revolution at the party’s annual congress, electing secular leaders and abandoning the rural-based party’s traditional call to convert the country into an Islamic state.

The largest party in Anwar’s coalition, PAS had long turned off urban Malays and other ethnic minorities, particularly the Chinese, with its demands for observance of strict conservative Islamic laws. Given the size of its membership, its organizational abilities and its potential to take votes away from the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest political party, PAS unity and support are crucial to the opposition coalition.

At the 2011 party congress, newer, urban followers of PAS, having fled both the racial stridency and endemic corruption of UMNO and the disorganization of Anwar’s PKR, elected a slate of officers headed by Mohamad Sabu, a galvanic public speaker from Penang and former member of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan who was twice detained under the country's Internal Security Act.

Sabu led the moderates' charge, winning the party deputy presidency and crucially defeating a minority of conservatives seeking to lead a splinter group to link up with UMNO. Salahuddin Ayub, Husam Musa and Mahfuz Omar, elected as moderate vice presidents, completed a leadership team reflecting the party's changing membership and leaving the Islamists out in the cold.

The strains have been there ever since. At the party general assembly last week, Fact that the delegates debating Hadi’s speech largely skirted the controversial issues, caused the revolt of the ulamas, or religious councils, and the youth wing, who charged that the party had deviated from PAS’s longtime agenda.

Eventually, the conservatives proved they weren’t just there for lip service to the rhetoric. They won a provision agreeing that PAS would assume the leading role in the three-party alliance, and that Hadi would be the coalition’s pick for prime minister – not Anwar, who cobbled the opposition together and who has led it since 2008. Eventually the assembly approved the conservative agenda with Hadi tacitly going along with the idea.

That has sent shock waves traveling through the Chinese community, who want nothing to do with a government that would restrict alcohol use and the consumption of pork, practice gender segregation, strict dress codes and demand general conformity to Islamic practices.

“Above all these is the implementation of the much feared but little understood Hudud and the Islamic legal system, with all its vague implications. In short, such a new Pakatan rule is envisaged to adversely alter their present way of life,” write Kim Quek, a longtime Kuala Lumpur-based political commentator and a member of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat. “Accuracy aside, these are common perceptions and initial reflexes of many in the Chinese community.”

Bridgit Welsh, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, argued in an analysis printed in the Kuala Lumpur-based Malaysiakini that: “The image of PAS as a group of mullahs defending narrow conceptualizations of tradition and religion, banning social activities and limiting freedoms is no longer fair. “

PAS’s identity as a party is changing,” she wrote. “While some in the old guard and their protégées in the Youth wing are uncomfortable with PAS’s more modern open approach, the leadership as a whole, presided by Abdul Hadi Awang and reinforced by an overwhelming majority of progressives in the central committee and as members of parliament, embraced collaboration and greater tolerance.”

The question is whether the voters – particularly Chinese ones – are going to believe that, and whether they are sufficiently fed up with corruption in the ruling Barisan Nasional to stick with the opposition, The Malayian Chinese Association. Getting the horses back into the stable and his coalition back together is going to be a big job for Anwar.