While the leaders of the “Islamic” Refah Party in Turkey were shaking hands with the secular front, Malaysia’s Parti Islam Se- Malaysia (PAS), the largest Islamic political organisation in the country, was doing the exact opposite. On July 14, the party leadership announced that it was breaking all ties with its coalition partner, a Malay nationalist breakaway of the ruling UMNO, otherwise known as Semangat 46 (Spirit of 46). Semangat was formed by a disgruntled Kelantanese prince Tengku Razaleigh to represent a “genuine UMNO as it was in 1946”, after losing in his bid to oust Dr Mahathir Mohamad as president of UMNO in 1987. Razaleigh who once held the powerful post of Finance Minister, had lost to Mahathir, now in his fifteenth year in office, by a mere 40 votes.
PAS’s alliance with a secular nationalist party had always been questioned by concerned Muslims who sympathise with its struggle for an Islamic leadership. For some, PAS represented the only remaining Islamic movement in Malaysia, especially after the demise of ABIM as a strong ‘Islamist’ pressure group in the 80s. ABIM was reduced to an apolitical fund-collecting charitable Muslim organisation subscribing to the Saudi version of Islam, after its founder-leader Anwar Ibrahim joined UMNO in 1982.
Although the alliance with the secular Malay nationalist party was an astute political move by PAS to capture the east-coast state of Kelantan in the 1990 general election, which it did, this has considerably eroded PAS’s claim as the sole Islamic party in the eyes of many purists. PAS was then seen as just another political party out to win more votes, like the Jama`at Islami in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Semangat’s Malay rhetoric was disliked by the Chinese and other ethnic groups, but was attractive to the rural Malay folks. Its grassroot support of the Malays led PAS and Semangat to join forces and wrest power from UMNO in Kelantan.
The marriage between them was so strong that PAS even took action against those who was critical of cooperating with the Semangat. Many saw Semangat as merely a political offshoot of the ruling UMNO with no Islamic credence. Its ideology is glaringly in conflict with that of PAS who still places the setting-up of an Islamic State at the top of its agenda.
1993 saw Malaysia experiencing its worst constitutional crisis after the government-backed media openly highlighted the abuses, greed and corruption rampant within the royal families. The Mahathir government had tabled a motion to strip the nine constitutional Sultans of their legal immunity. PAS and Semangat showed their true colours. Being an ultra-Malay party, Semangat strongly objected to the move, its MPs staged a walk-out in the Parliament to protest it. PAS however supported UMNO as it found the amendment in line with the Islamic concept of equality before the Law.
By the mid-90s, Semangat’s popularity steadily declined and in the last general election, it was reduced to a Malay based splinter political party.
In fact the present crisis between PAS and Semangat is also a result of their ideological differences. PAS accused the Kelantanese palace of meddling into State affairs. Semangat, again eager to show its monarchist nature, felt uncomfortable at the ‘disrespect’ shown by PAS. The crisis reached new heights after the PAS-led Kelantan government sought to amend the state constitution to limit the powers of the Sultan. Semangat was most annoyed, its leader Razaleigh decided to rejoin forces with Mahathir “for the sake of Malay unity”.
PAS is now left alone to rule Kelantan, the only Malaysian state which is not under Mahathir’s multi-racial coalition led by UMNO. Whether or not it could retain the support of the people remains to be seen. But one good result of the PAS-Semangat coaltion was that for now, PAS has graduated to the next stage after learning a bitter lesson from its mistake. Here again, one is reminded of the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui, one of the leading exponents of the global Islamic movement, who said that “the right thing to do is always the right thing to do”. How true.
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996