Parti Islam SeMalaysia, the political party which has the most seats in Parliament, intends to capture the reins of federal power. This time, however, it plans to do so on its own.
The Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) of today is different from the PAS of three years ago. Back then, it was willing to negotiate with other parties, including former foes, to be in government so that it could benefit from the prestige of holding public office. Currently, it has a larger claim to power as the party with the most parliamentary seats. But it has chosen to remain in the opposition with an eye on the grand goal of capturing the reins of federal power.
In an interview with Time magazine recently, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim mentioned that he is willing to talk to PAS about the latter’s participation in the Unity Government. A week later, PAS’s president and deputy president rejected the olive branch. Granted, this was not the first time it has rejected joining the Unity Government; it rejected a similar offer in June. But the latest rejection comes at a time when PAS is at the peak of its powers. It performed well at the general election in November 2022 and six state elections in August, winning 67 per cent and 83 per cent of the seats it contested respectively.
PAS’s rejection of a role in the Unity Government could well signal its renewed desire to build internal strength so it can govern on its own in the future. There are a few instances that indicate this is the party’s primary strategy, two of which were explicitly stated in its recent party Congress on 21 October 2023.
First, it is paying more attention to its governance record. The party proposed a loose coalition of the four state governments under its administration. Collectively, the “SG4” group of four state governments — Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, and Perlis — has two-time former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, as its adviser. PAS understands that its pitch to federal power requires persuasion of states it does not govern. This would involve leveraging the collective resources in the four states to boost its chances.
These four states, which are led by bureaucrats and professionals (and not religious preachers), would likely pay more attention to implementable policies that could turn around their lacklustre economic performances. The party’s willingness to take the longer path of proving its governance record, as opposed to horse trading with other parties, underscores its long-term ambition of governing Putrajaya on its own.
It would be a mistake to assume that PAS’s strategy could work in the short term, but it would be a bigger mistake to assume that PAS is not taking bets for the long term. After all, without long-term thinking, it would not have survived a half-century in opposition and ended up where it is today.
Second, PAS has started to pivot towards non-Malays. The fact that PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang is urging party members to reach out to non-Malays is remarkable. Compared to the party’s late spiritual leader Nik Aziz, Abdul Hadi is a conservative who has shown hardline intolerance for non-Malays. The pivot risks jeopardising PAS’ core identity and base of conservative support. But it shows that it understands the political reality of needing non-Malay support to govern. The formula of a Malay-Muslim grand coalition has been tested and failed, and PAS’s non-Malay partner, Gerakan, is unlikely to gain enough support to compete with Pakatan Harapan (PH) anytime soon. Abdul Hadi is implicitly suggesting for its members to take the non-Malay segment into their own hands rather than relying on its coalition partners, so that it could win outside its saturated arenas, chiefly urban and ethnically-diverse seats.
Third, it is increasingly evident that Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) is of waning importance to PAS. As Bersatu’s leadership tussle and its lack of financial firepower become more obvious, PAS might be poised to sever the partnership with Bersatu. PAS is a party largely funded through members’ donations and fees. While external funding through partners like Bersatu may be helpful, PAS has learned to survive on its own. PAS has learnt that dependence on outside sources can be tenuous, especially at times when Bersatu’s accounts were frozen.
PAS did not defend Bersatu when its renegade members chose to support the Unity Government. In the mind of PAS leaders, this was not unexpected; after all, Bersatu is a party built by defectors. The marginalisation of Bersatu in the SG4 executive councils is a signal of PAS’ intent of building internal strength instead of relying on partners to deliver their part.
Apart from these focus areas, PAS will likely continue to deepen its community roots like it has always done in the northeast of West Malaysia. The only difference is that it would focus on projecting an urban and modern image, such as setting up a “super app” with functions such as an e-wallet.
It remains an uphill battle for PAS. The SG4 are among the poorest states in Malaysia, with the lowest household income and highest poverty incidence. Kelantan and its water woes for the past few years were a clear standout. At the party Congress, the Kelantan chief minister, Mohd Nassuruddin Daud, struggled to cite good examples of PAS’ governing success, besides providing interest-free loans for cheap housing. At the same time, PAS’s insular thinking about non-Malays would likely yield little returns. The Nik Aziz slogan of “PAS For All” still rings hollow under Abdul Hadi’s leadership, which is defined by the dangerous amplification of racial rhetoric.
It would be a mistake to assume that PAS’s strategy could work in the short term, but it would be a bigger mistake to assume that PAS is not placing bets on the long term. After all, without long-term thinking, it would not have survived a half-century in opposition and ended up where it is today.
James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.