In the coming state elections, Parti Islam SeMalaysia has ambitious plans to take ground in states it does not control. Taking the fight to the enemy, however, may necessitate a deeper examination of its own identity as an Islamist party.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang posted seven photos of his family mostly dressed in bright red, celebrating in Kampung Rusila, Terengganu. In the caption, Awang described his closeness to the Chinese community: A daughter-in-law who is Chinese, a grandfather who adopted Chinese children, providing them shelter during World War II. “Let’s make this festivity one of the ways to bring together Malaysians of all races,” he wrote.
Less than a month ago, PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan did the same for Christmas. On Facebook, he wished Christians a happy Christmas, and talked about the need to “create a tolerant and united society”.
This may appear unbelievable to some Malaysians who are used to seeing PAS as advocates for a hardline brand of Islam. In the November 2022 general elections, PAS leaders were considered the ‘key amplifier’ of hate-based rhetoric. Their leaders warned that voters of Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) would ‘go to hell’, and even called for violence against non-PAS supporters, who were deemed ‘kafir harbi’ (enemies of Islam). A ethnoreligious monitor initiative for Malaysia’s 15th General Elections (GE15) also highlighted a remark by Awang that was categorised as ‘public incitement to genocide’ as it contained elements implying the erasure of certain groups based on their identity.
On closer examination, one could discern the rationale behind the shift in PAS’ tone and strategy. The change in language to one of tolerance comes on the back of a successful general election run by PAS and its coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN), that won 74 seats, making it the second-largest coalition in Parliament. PAS can no longer function as a purely regional party with effective control only in the northern region of West Malaysia; it has to transition into a national party and appeal to all voters, of all races and religions, with its main counterpart, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).
PAS has set its sights high. In the upcoming midterm state elections — that will likely happen in the first half of 2023 — it is eyeing the crown jewel, Selangor, as its prime target. It is insufficient to expand its majorities in the existing states of Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah (what is termed the PAS Belt). ‘Winning’ at the midterms for PN means making gains in PH strongholds of Selangor, Penang, and Negeri Sembilan, and potentially taking over these governments (Perlis, another PAS-controlled state, will not be holding its elections this year).
However, ‘winning’ would ironically precipitate an existential crisis for PAS. In effect, PAS would have to square the circle: it would have to maintain its brand as Islamic purists while at the same time striving for a more inclusive platform. It would have to defend its track record in the states it controls.
In the past, PAS had consistently positioned itself as Islamic purists by stressing that other Malay-based political parties were deviating from the righteous path. Taking a hardline approach against non-Muslims was a necessary tactic to give credence to their claims. In practice, this translated to high-level policies in PAS-controlled states, such as banning gambling, limiting alcohol sales and the removal of cinemas. There were also more routine expressions, such as monitoring beer promotions at shopping malls, and fear-mongering Facebook posts.
PAS can no longer function as a purely regional party with effective control only in the northern region of West Malaysia; it has to transition into a national party and appeal to all voters, of all races and religions, with its main counterpart, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).
To win in any of the PH strongholds, PAS would have to shed its hardline approach, even if the majority of these seats will likely be contested by its PN counterpart, Bersatu, which has more seats. Unlike the current PAS-held states, the PH strongholds have substantial non-Malay populations. Negeri Sembilan and Selangor have 36.7 per cent and 39.4 per cent non-Malays respectively, whereas the corresponding figure for Penang is 55.3 per cent. However, this may put PAS in a Catch-22 situation: its more inclusive approach may drive out its Islamic purist supporters; at the same time, this might be insufficient to win over non-Malay voters who may doubt its multiracial credibility. These non-Malay voters may choose to stay with PH or not vote altogether.
The likely PH-BN electoral pact currently has an overwhelming hold on Penang, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan. To win a state like Selangor, PN would have to increase its seats from 7 to 29, or a three-fold increase, necessitating victories in mixed and non-Malay seats. Should PAS pursue a soft, multiracial approach at the expense of losing some support from purist voters in conservative sure-win states in the PAS Belt, the Islamic party would risk an existential crisis of identity.
Furthermore, ‘winning’ at the midterms would also invite another existential crisis for PAS as campaigning to govern in PH-BN states would invite scrutiny on its governance track record in the PAS Belt. Unlike general elections, the state elections in 2023 will pay more attention to local and state, rather than national issues. Not only will tech-savvy urban electorates participate in the midterms, the higher number of state elections taking place around the same time would also heighten the attention paid by these voters.
PAS would also have to defend its track record in the PAS Belt. It could no longer solely campaign against the federal government’s handling of cost of living issues without talking about the performance in states it controls. In fact, PAS has quite a mountain to climb: it would have to persuade voters in Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Penang — states with the highest per capita GDP in Malaysia — that the PAS Belt model practised in the poorest states in the country is the right model. Voters of the richest Malaysian states will unlikely view Kelantan’s ‘deliberate’ slow development — the highest concentration of poor households, lowest per capita GDP, lack of clean water, and raft of social ills — as desirable. In essence, PAS’s self-proclaimed good governance would be put to the test.
Winning over relatively affluent non-Malay voters in Selangor, Penang, and Negeri Sembilan will be a tall order. To appeal to these voters, PAS would have to confront its brand of Islam and examine its governance track record. This may require them to ask many uncomfortable questions, such as “What does PAS stand for?” and “How good is PAS’s governance record?” The jury is out as to whether it will muster the gumption to do so.
James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.