Anwar Ibrahim, the face of Malaysia’s opposition, has captured international headlines as a real challenge to the country’s 56-year-old government in a watershed election to be held at the latest by June this year.
But even though Anwar leads the three-party opposition which includes his own party, the People’s Justice Party (PKR), it is the coalition’s third partner, the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is emerging as the likely kingmaker.
PAS, founded in 1951, is the country’s oldest and largest opposition party, and draws inspiration from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
When Anwar led an opposition rally last month, PAS outnumbered its coalition partners to make up the majority of the estimated 80,000-strong crowd that gathered in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
“A significant 75 to 80 percent were PAS [supporters]. They are quite committed,” said Karpal Singh, chairman of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and a member of the opposition coalition.
The rally was of one the opposition’s largest turnouts, and underscored the extensive reach, discipline and organisational skills of PAS.
In Malaysia, where Malays and Muslims make up the majority of the population, the Muslim vote is crucial. Unlike Anwar’s secular, nationalist party, PAS advocates establishing an Islamic state in Malaysia.
Conservative segments within PAS want to implement Islamic criminal code, known as Hudud law, in the event that it gains the two-thirds majority needed to change the country’s federal constitution.
But right now, it will be difficult for PAS to reach this threshold. Secular parties are opposed to Hudud law, although many grassroots PAS supporters and leaders want it to be implemented.
“In Malaysia, we have the death penalty. What’s the difference between death by hanging and death by beheading?” asked a young, male PAS supporter who declined to be named, referring to the provision of Hudud that calls for beheading those condemned to death.
Twenty-five-year-old Aminah, a student from the country’s east coast state of Trengganu, said: “As Muslims, it is our duty. I believe if there is Hudud law, everything will change for the better. There will be no more corruption, and more transparency.”
Spike in membership
PAS members have more than doubled since 1998, when Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister by then-Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who accused Anwar of being “unfit” for office.
That same month, Anwar was arrested after leading 30,000 protesters through the capital. He was later sentenced to six years’ jail for corruption, and received a second, consecutive nine-year term in August 2000 on a sodomy charge.
“PAS membership doubled or even tripled since the jailing of Anwar in 1998, as PAS was the only opposition party [Malays] could join,” said Ibrahim Suffian, programme director of Merdeka Centre, an independent research institute.
Anwar was largely seen as bringing Islamisation to the political agenda, Suffian explained, but when he was jailed, many Malay voters found PAS to be a natural draw for them.
“A lot of Anwar’s sympathisers joined PAS and found a well-established structure there which they did not find anywhere else. The people stayed on in PAS even after Anwar’s party was set up,” Suffian added.
Anwar’s PKR party was established in 2003 by his wife and supporters while he was in prison. He was freed in September 2004 when the Federal Court quashed the sodomy charges, but was still banned from seeking office until April 2008.
As a consequence of Anwar’s jailing, Ibrahim said PAS expanded its support base beyond its traditional stronghold in the rural states of Kelantan and Trengganu in the east coast of Malaysia to urban centres throughout the country by attracting “the middle-class, the business class and professionals from the urban centres”.
Ibrahim explained that the new members contributed towards increasing the number of Western-educated, English-speaking members in PAS, giving the party a more modern look. The fresh crop of PAS members, while religious, also speak of democracy, human rights and good governance.
The party’s ideology is shaped by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The party’s founders were exposed to the ideas and teachings of the organisation when they were students in Cairo in the 1940s.
“PAS is held up by the Muslim Brotherhood as a model of a successful Islamic party that can win elections and rule,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive officer of the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), a private think-tank.
In 1990, PAS won local elections and has governed the state of Kelantan for the past 22 years.
“PAS is often invited by Muslim Brotherhood to speak in foreign countries of its experiences,” said Wan Saiful, who is also a PAS member.
During a Muslim Brotherhood event in London in 2005, Hadi Awang was invited to speak alongside renowned Muslim Brotherhood scholar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the world’s most influential clerics.
Qaradawi’s TV programme, al-Sharia wa al-Hayah (Sharia and Life), which is broadcast on Al Jazeera, has an estimated worldwide audience of 60 million.
“The fact that Hadi Awang was put on the same stage as Yusuf Qaradawi shows the level of respect that [the Muslim Brotherhood] gives to him,” said Wan Saiful.
And perhaps because of Malaysian students’ greater interaction with transnational Muslim organisations, young Malay Muslims seem to be becoming increasingly conservative.
In a poll published in July 2011 by Merdeka Center, 72 percent of Muslims aged 15 to 25 said they favour replacing the federal constitution with the Quran as the country’s highest law.
In comparison, only 20 percent of its Muslim youths in Indonesia – the country with the world’s highest Muslim population – said “yes” to the same proposition.
Still some way off
But despite the growing conservatism, Malaysia is still some way off from turning into an Islamic state.
According to the Merdeka Centre’s Ibrahim, a conservative bent does not automatically translate into a vote for PAS, as voters demand a strong economic and social agenda when making political decisions.
Ibrahim compared Malaysia to Egypt, a country plagued with high unemployment and poverty that voted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party into power last year.
“Malaysia is not like Egypt. Malaysia has a strong, central government providing a lot of services to the people. There may be gaps, but they are pretty small,” said Ibrahim.
The ideological difference between PAS and the two other coalition parties has given rise to discord in recent months.
The discord is expected to cost the opposition some votes from the many fence-sitters.
Many observers expect the opposition to make serious gains in the coming elections, and some even expect them to win, owing to public dissatisfaction over alleged government corruption and a series of financial scandals involving individuals linked to the government.
During the last elections in 2008, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time.
In recent days, however, the election has revolved around BN Prime Minister Najib Razak’s battle for his survival within his party, rather than BN losing the election.
“This elections is not about BN’s survival,” Wan Sainful said. “I see BN winning with a smaller majority, but more of PM Najib fighting to survive as certain quarters will use the reduced majority as an excuse to oust him.”