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MGG: A Divide In The Opposition Front
By M.G.G. Pillai

27/9/2001 6:32 am Thu


01-15 October 2001


A Divide In The Opposition Front

M.G.G. Pillai

The die is cast yet again. The Democratic Action Party (DAP), decides, the second time in a decade, it cannot co-exist with Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS). What caused it, then and now, is PAS's ambivalence to its commitment to an Islamic state. This would tie Malaysian political parties, government and opposition, in knots in elections to come, and throw into stark contrast how Muslims and non-Muslims view the promise of an Islamic state. Not just amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, but amongst Muslims themselves. The DAP's decision, superficially, breaks up the Alternative Front (BA - Barisan Alternatif). It is more. It questions how Malaysia would be governed in years to come. Whether this march into Islamic governance, in the political agenda of both UMNO, in the National Front, and PAS, in the BA, would erode the rights of the non-Muslims even more than it already is.

The DAP had no choice. The World Trade Centre and Pentagon bombings, helped by anti-Muslim rhetoric on CNN, amidst the Sarawak state assembly elections, alienated Chinese and Indians from Islam, fanned with great effect by UMNO and National Front (BN - Barisan Nasional) campaigners. PAS's ambivalent response worsened it. When the Talibans decided to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, PAS kept quiet, although at the same time, PAS encouraged the building of the world's largest sitting Buddha and the world's third largest reclining Buddha. PAS is tongue-tied on how to respond to the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks.

This would cost PAS dearly. The DAP has its strength in the middle-class and lower middle-class Chinese; they saw the World Trade Centre and Pentagon explosions, rightly or wrongly, as the unacceptable face of Islam. The worldwide calls for an Islamic jihad against the United States gave Islam a terrifying potential few of other faiths could comprehend and not be frightened by its reach.

Why, they ask, should Muslims in Indonesia threaten jihad when Washington threatens to invade Afghanistan to capture the man now widely believed, still without proof, to be the mastermind, Osama bin Laden? They do not want to know the whys and the wherefores of the terrorist attacks, only that it is Islam, in its terrifying fury, putting the world on notice. Why is Islam responding in fury? PAS did not help. It kept quiet at first, before a tepid response which suggests internal dissension on how to deal with this worldwide focus on Islam that shows its downside than its strengths. However moderate its public posture, its dark side emerges when Islam is perceived to be under attack. So, does an Islamic state also mean constant dislocation when Islam is perceived to be in danger in countries far removed from Malaysia?

The Kelantan mentri besar. Ustadz Dato' Nik Aziz Nik Mat, misunderstood the non-Muslim, and many Muslim, when he said it was incumbent on us, non Muslims, to understand Islam. We do not have to. It is incumben on PAS and other Islamic political parties, including UMNO, to show non-Muslims what Islam is all about, and not assume that about half Malaysia's population who are not Muslim should, if they want to remain here, learn all about Islam. It is a touchy question, this intertwining of Islam in politics in a multireligious, multicultural, multiracial society as Malaysia.

Not just the DAP but the BA must come to grip with Islam as its dominant theme. The BN does not have this difficulty: UMNO weaned a coalition in which money and power is the only consideration, and its racial parties are prepared to give up belief and worldviews for the shekel. In the BA, PAS, with its Islamic worldview in its narrowest sense, dominates it. PAS cannot hobble a coalition without clearing the inherent doubts about its Islamic worldview to its coalition partners. If for no reason than that its leaders are at odds with its traditional members who want nothing but an Islamic state.

PAS clearly states it wants nothing more than a Malaysia with Islamic values dominating. But this is less than what the theocrats in it want. The modernist element in its members, who join in droves these days, is viewed with suspicion by its hinterland. It must resolve that first. But it cannot refuse to address non-Muslim fears of what a PAS-led government means to the average non-Muslim. The non-Muslim knows that the BA chips away at their rights with a deliberation that can only be worse with a decidedly Islamic government is in place. This fear is real.

The DAP is caught between its commitment to an opposition coalition and the fear of mass exodus of its support. Unmentioned is DAP's irrelevance in Malaysian politics if it does not re-orient itself into the mainstream of its support. It is forced to what it did to either a DAP which holds the balance of power in the next general election, and therefore one UMNO could do business with to hold on to power, or it could disappear without trace from the Malaysian political landscape as the Labour Party of Malaya with the collapse of the Socialist Front. LPM was destroyed because it would not budge because it would not compromise on its principles. DAP shows it too. But would the DAP be the Gerakan of the post-general election National Front coalition? It could. But then it may not.

However one looks at DAP's departure from BA, one unintended bonus for PAS is the support of the Malay, more now than ever, fedup with BN; he is young, educated, interested in politics but not the moneyed variety, sees his role in other than as a wielder of power as in UMNO. But this has unforeseen consequences for multiracial Malaysia. UMNO's withering Malay support is aggravated by its all but non-existent support amongst the young educated Malay; it had lost the Malay in the heartland much earlier.

This development frightens the non-Malay and the Malay who while a Muslim does not want Islam to dominate his life as PAS demands and UMNO assumes. It is fine rhetoric to insist upon an Islamic state; but another when it becomes the only game in town. The DAP's dilemma comes from this. It is not a new one. When Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah formed an opposition coalition, during his "Semangat '46" days, to challenge the National Front, the DAP would not if PAS was a member. So, the Tengku had two coalitions -- one with PAS called the Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah or APU, and another called the Gagasan Rakyat Malaysia or Gagasan, which did not have PAS as a member. More than that, what the DAP did should worry the non-Malays no end for what it represents: the challenge of the non-Malay to a theocratic reality of Malay support.

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