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Commentary: Malaysia opposition party PAS needs more than a Mahathir

SINGAPORE: Four chief ministers from Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (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.

INCHING CLOSER TOWARD A “BACKWARD” PARTY

Mahathir thrust himself into domestic politics again after Anwar Ibrahim’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. 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 Organisation (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.

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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 Haji Hadi.

BURYING THE HATCHET

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.

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