Can Pakatan Harapan survive the religious onslaught from Islamists and Malay nationalists?

How will Malaysia's Pakatan Harapan government survive this attack on their legitimacy?

Last week's Umno-PAS public talk in Ampang. Picture by WFTV.LIVE

It was religious duty of Islamists from Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) that enabled them to pardon Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the former political coalition majority component party. Since then, PAS has changed its “fatwa” or religious edict to anoint Umno as a Muslim, hence Islamic, party.

But, since PAS was once a party “‘For All”, it has linked up with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) whom PAS now deems as “halal” political partners in its alliance with the Umno.

Here, we are not trying to examine the emergence of a postliberal halal politics in Malaysia. However, it is an exciting time for the Muslim majority country with the creation of a new alignment for a political Islam not seen before in the region.

There is no certainty if the current spectrum of political component parties that make up the opposition alliance will lead to a two-way fight pitting the liberal Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in power against a political offering that can be regarded as hardline Islamic.

But, what is certain is this: Malay Islamists joining forces with Malay nationalists is a curse for liberal forces in the country.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad tweaked the PH alliance with a sizeable deal for the Malay-Muslim representatives. He imposed a cap on the Democratic Action Party’s list of candidates, thus limiting its presence with a lower number of MP’s than the Malay-led parties.

This, however, did not prevent a larger number of non-Muslims MP’s winning under the PH banner and that has fueled PAS and Umno Malay leaders to stoke the fires in the Malay belt. They campaigned from day one of their May 2018 defeat with theories that the Mahathir-led PH government was one made up of mostly “kafirs” (unbelievers) and that the new PM is a pharaoh who leads a largely non-Muslim cabinet.

This perception took hold among disillusioned Umno supporters, who number in the millions, and the almost one million unhappy PAS members. Accepting defeat with a tint of joy, PAS elected 18 MP’s and now controls two states at the expense of Umno.

These defeats tore Umno apart with a temporary loss of faith, only to get a magical helping hand from PAS. Not to forget PH insiders who are constantly working against each other for their own selfish interests.

Then came the spat between Mahathir and the crown prince of the state of Johor which borders Singapore. That may have added more fuel to the perceived diminishing Islamic or Malay rule in the country.

Augmenting that is the handling of the high profile 1MDB scandal by two powerful non-Malay figureheads, finance minister Lim Guan Eng who hails from the DAP and attorney general Tommy Thomas who was handpicked by Mahathir.

A significant number of Malays see Lim and Thomas as the main people pressing the charges against ex-PM Najib Razak. Why not a Malay to deal with the ex-PM and why not a Malay as Finance Minister, they ask?

With this argument, they mean to say the finances of the country should be in the hands of a Malay and the Attorney should not be a non-Muslim. That would probably mean leaving Najib alone on the kleptocracy charges, perhaps.

The dominant reason for the Umno-PAS alliance is to ensure the return of Najib Razak as a leader and absolving him of his alleged crimes, says Mahathir, whose assertion does not mean Umno-PAS supporters disagree with this alliance’s principle is to work toward’s getting Najib off the hook.

PAS does nothing without issuing fatwas, which party members consider as the word — deeply religious in meaning — from top leadership. The followers have to obey these edicts in a strict ritualistic sequence. Otherwise, the party would not be an Islamic party, would it?

Hence, helping Najib against the onslaught from supposed Chinese or non-Malay domination can become an act of faith.

Whether Najib is accused of stealing or leading a kleptocracy regime does not matter. What matters is the belief he is innocent until proven guilty and, more importantly, in the eyes of PAS leadership and members, that he is undeniably squeaky clean.

In this same line of thought, Umno-PAS voters believe they are saving the country from the ogre represented by DAP, which they believe to be a party that is destroying the Islamic identity of Malaysia.

In calling for this particular jihad, PAS has galvanised Muslims, in particular, to join forces and fight DAP which PAS presents as the puppet master of the apparatus of the government.

How will PH survive this attack on their legitimacy? The PH government is a multiracial one similar to the Barisan Nasional (BN)-UMNO one that governed Malaysia for 61 years. However, under BN-UMNO, it was generally accepted for the majority Malay- and Muslim-led government to partner with MIC, MCA and fellow component party Gerakan (Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia) while it was “haram” (proscribed by Islam) for PAS to associate themselves with DAP.

However, elections after elections since 1999, PAS fought alongside DAP and was a component party of political coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) founded by Anwar Ibrahim (now considered Mahathir’s successor). Then, in 2015, the Islamic party knifed PR in the back; some say PAS pulled out of PR when they received “donations” from Umno.

Yet, the unlikely Umno alliance with PAS has resulted in a triple victory against the PH government headed by Mahathir. Whether the governing coalition will survive religious onslaught against its reform agenda or not will depend on its next move.

Will there be a cabinet reshuffle soon to give way to Anwar Ibrahim to enter the cabinet after his grand return to parliament? Or, will there be a return to the affirmative-action policies that will checkmate the rise of Islamist sentiments alongside increasing Malay nationalism?/ TISG

 

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