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Commentary: The challenge for Malaysia opposition party PAS in going mainstream

SINGAPORE: The recent annual general assembly held by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) was relatively uneventful, with key leaders including party president Abdul Hadi Awang retaining their posts in the political party. The key challenge going forward is for the party to cast a wider net to prove its governance credentials in economic and developmental issues.

At the assembly, Abdul Hadi kept his position up to 2025. He has already been at the apex of the party hierarchy for two decades. The party’s top five leadership positions were uncontested. Besides Abdul Hadi, Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man will remain as PAS’ deputy president, while the three vice presidents Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar, Idris Ahmad, and Mohd Amar Abdullah also retain their positions.

PAS elected its 18 executive committee members, with the current Kedah chief minister, Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, receiving the highest number of votes, followed by MP Ahmad Fadli Shaari and Kelantan chief minister Mohd Nassuruddin Daud.

In total, 22 members forwarded their names in the contest. Members of the council were voted by delegates from branches throughout the country. This time, a total of 1,356 delegates voted (turnout of 84 per cent eligible voters).

This outcome demonstrates that there is neither a strong contender to displace Abdul Hadi’s leadership nor someone to challenge the party discipline he has instilled.

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ABDUL HADI’S CONTINUOUS REIGN

Contrast this with the 2015 annual congress, where PAS was divided between the ulama (cleric) faction, the progressive/ professionals faction, and the Anwarinas (pro-Anwar Ibrahim).

The latter faction included the likes of Muhammad Sabu (Mat Sabu), Khalid Samad, and Dzulkefly Ahmad. They left the party in 2015 to form Parti Amanah Negara (National Trust Party). Six years after the split, Abdul Hadi has rebuilt the party, consolidated his support base and groomed a loyal professional class to work with the party’s ulama.

Going by years of service, Abdul Hadi is one of the three most senior MPs after Anwar Ibrahim and Muhyiddin Yassin in parliament. Some have touted him as a prime ministerial candidate if the opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN) takes power, since PAS holds more seats in parliament than Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia in opposition. That said, he has never indicated publicly that he wants the top job.

But Abdul Hadi wants to cling to the party he has strengthened. As the most senior PAS figure, he is unlikely to be challenged until he voluntarily exits politics.

Previously, the person holding the position of the spiritual guide (murshidul am) was the most revered figure in PAS, but this seems to be overshadowed by Abdul Hadi’s presidency. He is the last man standing since the ulama takeover of the party in the 1980s; his contemporaries former president Fadzil Noor, and spiritual guides Yusof Rawa, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, and Haron Din have all passed on.

With Abdul Hadi still at the helm, however, winning over the hearts and minds of non-Malays will be an uphill battle – that is, if PAS wants to govern Malaysia alone without the help of coalition partners.

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REFORMS A WORK IN PROGRESS

In his writings and speeches, Abdul Hadi has been critical of secularism and liberalism. PAS is arguably the strongest party in the country after solid victories in the November 2022 general election (GE15) and August 2023 state elections.

It now holds the largest party block in Parliament with 42 seats out of 222 (originally 43, before Election Commission nullified the Kemaman seat in Terengganu). Its presence in Parliament is even bigger than Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadlian Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the other older and bigger parties in Malaysia.

In the state elections in August, PAS won 126 out of 245 seats it contested, making it the best performing party. It is now in control of Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah, and Perlis. However, it struggled to garner votes from non-Malays and urban Malays.

As solid as PAS’ recent political gains, the question is whether an old warhorse like Abdul Hadi would be the stumbling block for PAS to make further electoral gains. To be sure, he may have put in place the ingredients for a progressive-Islamist PAS in future.

In his speech, Abdul Hadi reiterated his right to articulate the so-called 3R issues: Race, religion and royalty. On the other hand, the unity government has signalled it would not tolerate those who polarises the country. Abdul Hadi has been questioned several times by the police for sedition.

His recent comments on the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza may further alienate the more moderate Muslims (or Malaysians). It is understandable that he sympathises with the Palestinians in Gaza, given Malaysia’s political climate and that Kuala Lumpur does not have any diplomatic ties with Israel.

But he has inaccurately described the militant Hamas’ behaviour against Israel as legitimate in the eyes of Islam. He could have unequivocally condemned the loss of any innocent lives, both Palestinians and Israelis, while being more sympathetic to the former in the name of Muslim solidarity.

There is no doubt that Abdul Hadi will solidify PAS’ Malay-Muslim support base. Yet, PAS may need an additional push to make inroads into Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) multiracial and urbanised strongholds. Abdul Hadi’s continuous reign is not sending the right signal that change is imminent.

However, there is another dimension to the party’s leadership line-up. It has profiled young professionals, including the chief ministers of the four states, collectively termed SG4, as the new PAS. This means the party is no longer solely banking on religious capital, but leveraging on its putative expertise in economic and developmental issues.

Recently, SG4 collaborated with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who made an unprecedented appearance at the annual congress, to discuss ways to bring the economic development of the four states. This is a tactical move to demonstrate PAS is serious to mend fences with the elder statesman, and focus on governing well, particularly on economic and developmental issues.

As long these professional leaders focus on the job and do not pose any ideological challenge to Abdul Hadi and the other ulama, PAS will retain the cleric-professional balance that failed in 2015. For now, reforms in PAS are still a work in progress.

Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared on the Institute’s blog, Fulcrum.

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