Partyforumseasia: MALYSIA’S CHANGING COALITION ARCHITECTURE
UMNO stands for UNITED MALAYS NATIONAL ORGANISATION, but the nation’s Malays are not as united as UMNO leaders like them to be. In fact they are divided since 1951 when Muslim clerics split from UMNO and founded Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) or Pan Malaysian Islamic Party. PAS developed into a leading opposition party with a cleaner public image than UMNO which is perceived as corrupt by many Malays, but also as the better defender of Islam. The decades of competition for the same voter pool of rural and pious Malays had a number of detrimental effects in a country with strong ethnic and religious minorities. Trying to harp on religious credentials in an era of growing international Salafism and Jihadism and the continuing attempts to introduce hudud, the harsh Muslim criminal law, had rather polarizing effects and undermined the multi-cultural concept of the country.
But as old as the PAS-UMNO rivalry are discussions about reunification:
There are weaknesses on both sides. The now defunct opposition coalition without imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim tries to resurrect as Pakatan Harapan (or Hope Alliance, consisting of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Democartic Action Party, and Parti Amanah Negara which last year splintered from PAS). The three parties just inked an agreement on ideology and dispute settlement on 9 January. And the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is losing the anaemic component parties of the Chinese and Indian minorities. This is why a rapprochement between UMNO and PAS could be easier than ever before since the split in 1951.
The debate is on in the media and among party members. Here are some recent headlines:
(Deputy Prime Minister) “Zahid is confident of Umno-PAS compatibility” (December 26, 2015, The Malay Mail Online, Link here),
“Despite decades of bad blood, PAS members ready to work with Umno“, (December 27, 2015, The Malaysian Insider, Link here),
“PAS advising BN to save Malaysia, says Hadi”, (the PAS president, December 26, 2015, The Malaysian Insider, Link here).
So far only mildly challenged by the break-away group Parti Amanah Negara in the renewed opposition coalition, the remaining more clerical “ulama faction” in PAS must nevertheless be concerned about the Malay dominance which they share as central concept with UMNO. To convince skeptics in his party, Hadi has packaged his insinuated co-operation in religious terms: “We start by advising the people in power to abandon what is wrong and do what is good, and if in the end they do not change their ways, we take over as saviours, without any rancour. (…) In defending PAS’s new advisory role, Hadi cited verses of the Quran and a few hadith, or prophetic traditions, on the importance of good counsel. “Advice is one of the words in the Quran (a miracle of knowledge) that has vast meaning, to the point that it encompasses all words and methods used to enjoin others to what is good and forbid what is bad.”
For UMNO the partnership with PAS would certainly be a safety belt of sorts, but difficult to get used to. As a Spanish proverb says, partners are also potential bosses, so PAS might be a rather uncomfortable partner for a party like UMNO that is used to rule more or less alone for 60 years.