The PAS conundrum – or is it really?
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 28 Dec 2012
At a recent policy dinner at St. Mike’s, a cozy Ipoh restaurant, I spoke of civil society, reform issues and my experience of having worked at the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government. The discussion eventually centred on one subject alone, that being the ‘PAS conundrum’ (titled by me); conundrum being defined as a confusing and difficult problem or question.
This has been a recent trend, where I am often asked questions like, “How can we be sure that the radical, conservative Islamic right of PAS won’t wield a bigger influence in Pakatan?”, or “If Pakatan forms the next Federal Government, would PAS push its agenda of an Islamic State nationwide?”, reflecting the real fears and concerns of a certain section of Malaysians.
The recent reports of the PAS-led Kelantan state government’s gender-segregation regulations for hair salons that were initially imposed on non-Muslim outfits (which were later withdrawn), as well as two non-Muslim couples being issued summonses for indecent behaviour, have contributed to such sentiment.
The narrative being played up daily by MCA (not Umno, for obvious reasons) is that non-Muslims in Malaysia must therefore reject Pakatan wholesale based on the assumptions that first, these are bad policies; second, people do not like these bad policies; and third, if PAS can do it in Kelantan, they are likely to do it elsewhere.
At the very core of this discussion is the question of how the three Pakatan parties are able to agree on public policy and its implementation were it to take over in the upcoming 13th General Election, given their differences most starkly between DAP and PAS. The former is clearly opposed to the Islamic state, championing the cause of the secular state whilst the latter holds the Islamic state close to heart.
First, let us acknowledge that Malaysia is far from homogeneous, its society made up of an extremely wide range of ethnic backgrounds, religions, cultures, class, genders, and more relevant to this discussion: worldviews. The reason we are afraid is because we have not truly known the other. This we may attribute to a rigid education system, political party structure, history, the British practice of divide-and-rule thereby segregating the races, all of which resulted in frail identities that we are not confident about and therefore fearful of losing.
Any political coalition that attempts to mirror this complex makeup of Malaysian society is bound to face challenges.
The Barisan Nasional model of having race-based parties coming together in a coalition is becoming obsolete not because our society is necessarily becoming less defined by our respective cleavages (whatever they are, may it be class, language, ethnicity or otherwise). It is outdated because that structure inherently requires that each party retreats to their ethnic voting base and panders to their needs, almost always at the exclusion of others.
That the Pakatan coalition is multiracial is not a statement of lines blurring between these identities. In fact, it is an acknowledgement that these numerous (and sometimes multiple) identities exist, but are encouraged to flourish whilst looking out for the other within one big family. This is the approach that appeals to me. That I am not segregated by my race as a Chinese from others, but that whilst celebrating my Chinese-ness, I am also working alongside my Malay sister within the same party towards building a better country.
Now, to address the PAS issue. I highlighted it as a conundrum because keen Pakatan supporters who are worried about such trends above feel they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They seek change in Malaysia and ask themselves, at what cost is this change worth?
At the policy dinner, several views were given in response, including my own. First, that although PAS may have its strong views in Kelantan, it is a coalition of three parties rooting to be the next government. No policy decision would be made without consensus from all three parties. This must be emphasised. No one party would be able to decide all on its own the policy of the coalition, since each pary’s point of view would have to be given equal consideration even at the policy formulation stage.
We can also see how a state like Selangor, which has the most mixed representation from all three parties amongst the Pakatan states, has been governed, as an example. Even when difficulties have come up over the past four years, these are resolved by recognising the concerns of all three parties, and then making a decision after such negotiation. This represents a sort of new politics, completely different when compared to the Umno-style dominance in the Barisan coalition.
Pakatan also has the advantage of raising concerns that are not necessarily based on race, and therefore a closer reflection of society’s needs (poverty, education and so on). This is therefore an opportunity to use the political process itself as a method by which concerns that are representative of a people as a whole can be pushed forward rather than that from an exclusive segment of people alone.
Second, we can refer to existing policy documents that have been officially endorsed by all three parties to figure out their principles of belief. There are 7 altogether so far: the Common Policy Platform, Buku Jingga, Kuching Declaration, Women’s Agenda, Tawaran Jingga, and the 2012 and 2013 Shadow Budgets. Nothing in these documents have any remote reference to the imposition of the Islamic state.
Finally, for the benefit of us all, it is important that Malaysians move out of their comfort zones. By this I mean instead of hanging out in circles we are most familiar with, we should be expanding our scope of friendships with others. I find most people critical of PAS have not had any real interaction with its members, much less having a deep conversation with them.
We have to acknowledge the breadth and depth of identities in this country. We have to recognise that there will be huge differences between our belief systems and that of others, that there will be liberals and conservatives and we have to find a way of co-existing harmoniously in this land, whilst accepting these differences. Pakatan Rakyat is a microcosm of Malaysian society, and is the best possible opportunity to lay out the issues upfront – through the processes of negotiation and persuasion – instead of sweeping them under the carpet.
Note, however, that when the time does come to govern collectively at the national level, this will be fervently monitored by ardent critics and observers. Pakatan would do well to tread carefully in this terrain. Until then, it is hoped that other more pressing concerns are paid more attention to by all parties alike, such as the economy, corruption, crime rates, civil service reform and the education system.