It appears that Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Mahathir Mohammad have buried the hatchet. If PAS intends to bank on the former statesman’s political capital, it would find that there will be limited upside.
Four chief ministers (CMs) from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) met former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently. They were accompanied by PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang. The chief minister of Terengganu, Dr Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar has confirmed that Mahathir is now an “unofficial advisor” to the four Malay/ Muslim-dominant states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu.
If this is a political reconciliation of sorts, things have indeed come full circle. Relations between Mahathir and his sworn enemy were frosty when he was Malaysia’s prime minister between 1981 and 2003, and 2018 and 2020. The reconciliation is a strategic move that serves mutual interests, but it is unlikely that the statesman would be able to expand PAS’ influence beyond its current power base.
The November 2022 general election (GE15) marked the end of Mahathir’s remarkable six-decade political career. He lost his Langkawi seat, forfeited his election deposit, and resigned from his party, Pejuang. After the humiliating defeat, he declared that he would focus on writing about Malaysia’s history. Shunning public life at home, he preferred to speak on international platforms.
Mahathir thrust himself into domestic politics again after Anwar’s controversial remark during the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) convention, where the prime minister insinuated that Mahathir had stolen money during his 22-year stint as PM. Although Anwar did not mention Mahathir by name, the latter sued him. Mahathir then began actively speaking about protecting Malay rights, inching him closer to the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition which PAS is a part of. In the last state elections — which saw contests in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan — Mahathir campaigned for PN, although he was not a member.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Mahathir considered PAS a “backward” political party, and disapproved of its calls for an Islamic state and a shariah criminal code. PAS, through its leaders Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, Fadzil Noor, and Abdul Hadi Awang, championed hudud laws that included punishments such as amputation, stoning, and the death penalty. Then, Mahathir and the government led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) blocked the move. Mahathir criticised PAS for not conforming to the correct version of Islam because PAS had declared UMNO leaders kafir (deviant), and lent support to Abdul Hadi Awang’s infamous Amanat Haji Hadi (Abdul Hadi’s Message) in 1981. The act of declaring a fellow Muslim kafir is not aligned with Islamic principles. In a speech delivered in Terengganu, Abdul Hadi had declared PAS’ struggle as jihad (holy war), and criticised UMNO for upholding a colonial Constitution, laws of unbelievers, and pre-Islamic legislation. Conversely, PAS leaders were upset with Mahathir’s government for not uplifting the poorer East Coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. PAS deemed UMNO to be secular.
As recently as 2019, Mahathir requested that PAS withdraw from Amanat Haii Hadi. Now Mahathir and Abdul Hadi (and PAS) appear to have buried the hatchet, for political reasons. On the one hand, Mahathir has joined the PAS bandwagon to revive his statesman image. As the father of Malaysia’s industrialisation, and the man who turned the country into an Asian Tiger economy in the 1990s, Mahathir does not want to end up in Malaysia’s annals of history as a downed political juggernaut. At 97, Mahathir continues to garner respect from the international community, particularly in Japan and South Korea, and is regularly invited to speak at international forums. Moreover, the Islamic world remembers Mahathir for speaking up for the Muslims during the Bosnian war and the Palestinian issue. It is on the domestic front that respect for him has waned significantly. With PAS’ strong electoral performance in the recent general and state elections, Mahathir is now trying to be on the winning side again, easing the memories of his 2022 defeat.
If PAS’ end goal is to make further inroads in the more urbanised and multiracial parts of the country, Mahathir has a limited role to play.
On the other hand, PAS wants to ride on Mahathir’s stature to alter its image as an anti-development party led by conservative clerics. The four chief ministers leading PAS today are different from their ulama predecessors such as the late Nik Aziz (former CM of Kelantan), Abdul Hadi Awang (former CM of Terengganu) and the late Azizan Abdul Razak (former CM of Kedah). They are professionals, former civil servants, and businessmen. Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, the current Kedah CM, has a military background; Dr Ahmad Samsuri, the CM of Terengganu, was an aerospace engineer. They want to leverage Mahathir’s experience to build the economy and attract investments to the four PAS-led states. Dr Ahmad Samsuri has mentioned that Mahathir can link the states with Japanese and South Korean investors, and advise on effective governance.
To consolidate its power base, PAS knows that it needs to bring about development in the Northern and East Coast belt. However, Mahathir’s involvement is no quick fix, as the development process would take decades, especially for states like Kelantan and Perlis, which are at a lower stage of development compared to other parts of Malaysia. Moreover, Mahathir and PAS must reconcile two perceived antithetical concepts which contributed to their past squabbles: Mahathir’s nationalist capitalism and PAS’ Islamic-based development model. Mahathir’s vision focuses on economic parity between the Malays and non-Malays, through promoting and supporting a Malay-capitalist class as a panacea. PAS’ remains conceptually elusive with occasional mentions of welfarism.
If PAS’ end goal is to make further inroads in the more urbanised and multiracial parts of the country, Mahathir has a limited role to play. To move from PAS’ rightist/ Islamist position to the centre-right, Mahathir would be an asset well past its sell-by date. As the prime minister for Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan, he was amenable to working within the confines of multiculturalism. But Mahathir is now associated with the more exclusivist Malay/ Islamic rights discourse; this may not benefit PAS’ attempts to refashion its image. PAS needs more than a Mahathir if it is serious about winning the hearts and minds of wider Malaysian society, beyond its traditional bastions of strength.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.