By Farish A. Noor
THE overwhelming victory of PAS in Kelantan deserves some degree of analysis and reflection. This commentary is based on observations made by myself and Danny Lim of MalaysiaVotes.com during our 10-day stay in Kelantan (and Terengganu), where we witnessed first-hand the preparations for the elections and the campaign by both PAS and Umno in the state. It begins with some observations on the variable factors that may account for PAS’s spectacular come-back and Umno’s equally spectacular defeat; and ends with some observations – both optimistic and cautionary – about how and where PAS may proceed in the near future.
How PAS won Kelantan
It is interesting to note that despite the fact that PAS has been in Malaysia for more than half a century (since 1951), relatively little is known about the party. Even more interesting is the fact that PAS, which originally emerged from the bosom of Umno, is understood even less by its opponents in Umno. That PAS would have retained Kelantan was a foregone conclusion to many political analysts who have been studying the rise of the party and its grassroots network in Kelantan in particular. Having said that, it should also be noted that PAS has never taken its position in Kelantan for granted and for that reason has always worked to ensure that it remains a living, relevant and organic presence in the state.
This time round, PAS’s overwhelming success in Kelantan has demonstrated the efficiency, coherence and co-ordination of its party machinery and electioneering apparatus as never before. There are several factors that may account for PAS’s strong showing in Kelantan at the 2008 general election.
I. PAS’s organic links and networks
PAS’s organic links and networks have been put in place in Kelantan since the 1950s and were deeply entrenched during the time of the presidency of Asri Muda (1970- 1982). Working through its network of religious schools, seminaries, mosques and suraus, PAS has been able to maintain a constant living presence in the state despite the period when it was out of power and even after its catastrophic defeat in the mid-1980s when it won only one parliamentary seat. It should be noted that the dual function of many PAS leaders, as both politicians and religious functionaries, means that PAS leaders have an added aura of social respectability that their counterparts in Umno do not possess and cannot cultivate.
It is interesting to note that in some of the state assembly and parliamentary seats such as Perupok and Tawang, there also exist many important religious schools and seminary communities that lent their support to the PAS candidates. We noted that the markaz and madrasahs of the Tabligh Jamaat were closed during the election campaign, and that a significant number of youths who were campaigning for PAS, and taking part in many PAS-organised ceramahs and sembahyang hajat ceremonies, were also from the religious schools and seminaries of the state. This additional network of religiously-dedicated student-activists meant that PAS had enormous manpower resources at its disposal, and many of them may have also contributed to PAS’s own vote bank.
PAS’s strong grassroots network that remains ever-ready for any election may also account for the success of the so-called ‘parachuted’ candidates who were sent to contest at the last minute. One candidate who comes to mind is Dr. Hatta Ramli, who is not Kelantanese by birth and who was sent to contest the parliamentary seat of Kuala Krai. Despite his last-minute posting to the constituency, Hatta was helped by his local state assembly candidate-counterparts who had settled in the Kuala Krai area three years earlier and who had developed very strong and effective networks and support systems. Hatta’s entire campaign could be said to have been fought and won by the local PAS network of dedicated volunteers and reserves.
II. PAS’s technocrats and modernisers
PAS today also relies on a secondary rung of leaders who come from a more technocratic educational background, led by men like (Datuk) Husam Musa, Nasharuddin Mat Isa, Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, Hatta, et al. It is not known to what extent such technocratic expertise lent a hand in the winning of Kelantan by PAS, but it was clear by the form and content of the slogans, banners and propaganda used by PAS that the campaign fought by PAS was of a more sophisticated nature compared to past elections. In particular, PAS members and activists were able to translate information from the Internet to the public through the use of large billboards, posters, banners and slogans that were widely distributed all over the state. Much of this information was objective, clear and precise, and consequently informed and empowered the public in the process of their voting and decision-making.
Notable examples included large billboards and posters that conveyed empirical and statistical data about relative poverty levels across the Malaysian peninsula, and which showed clearly that after 18 years of PAS rule, Kelantan was no longer the second poorest state in the country. The billboards also showed that the neighbouring state of Terengganu was suffering under much higher levels of absolute poverty, with more people there living below the poverty line. This had a significant impact on the public’s reception of propaganda from the Barisan Nasional/Umno, and allowed PAS leaders to further discredit the developmental model favoured by the BN-controlled government in Kuala Lumpur.
III. PAS’s critique of Umno’s Islam Hadari
A key theme in the campaigns in both Kelantan and Terengganu was Islam, both in terms of its formalistic content as well as its normative praxis. PAS has always projected itself as a party that has Islam as its ideology and the Islamic state as its goal. During the course of the campaign, PAS was able to discredit Umno’s claim as the promoter of the brand of ‘Islam Hadari’ (Civilisational Islam) by attacking the personality and lifestyles of the Umno leaders themselves. Particularly effective was the attack on the personal life of Prime Minister (Datuk Seri) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was shown on posters, placards, billboards and leaflets in the company of an actress. Other attacks included the attacks on the private life and lifestyle of Khairy Jamaluddin, whose photos were also featured in much of PAS’s propaganda material.
Related to this was the sustained attack on Abdullah’s vision of Islam Hadari itself, that was re-cast as a diluted, secular and profane brand of state-sponsored Islam: PAS leaders continually attacked Umno’s record of building 62 mosques in the state of Terengganu next door while neglecting the plight of the rural poor in the same state. The focus of the attack was the Islamic Civilisational Theme Park built in Kuala Terengganu, which was deemed as a waste of money, exploitative and which made a mockery of Islam and Muslims.
How Umno lost Kelantan
It should be noted from the outset that Umno’s prospects in Kelantan were dim from the beginning, despite the positive media coverage given to its campaign in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. Umno was fighting an uphill battle against a PAS machinery that was well-entrenched, organically rooted and thoroughly embedded in the local socio-power structures of Kelantan society.
There were, however, several key mistakes that were made in the course of the election campaign, notably in the second week of campaigning from March 1 to 8. Among them were:
I. The scrapping of the use of indelible ink by the Election Commission (EC).
The scrapping of the use of indelible ink by the EC immediately sent off the signal that there might be massive vote-rigging and other irregularities during polling day, and this served as a catalyst to further mobilise PAS’s election campaigning machinery to go into full gear. As soon as the announcement was made, PAS offices and branches all over Kelantan set to work to begin monitoring the roads leading to Kelantan (highways 2, 3 and D146) from Perak, Kedah and Terengganu. We observed PAS Youth volunteers manning roadside camps, setting up teams of observers and bike patrols to shadow buses coming from outside the state heading to Kota Bharu and the inner constituencies.
In the event, the buses that were thought to carry phantom voters did not arrive in large numbers (save for reports of buses being stopped at Tanah Rata), but the fear factor introduced by the EC’s announcement also mobilised PAS leaders at district and branch levels to remind their supporters to go out and vote nonetheless, for fear of election fraud through postal ballots, etc. Though no figures are available to support this observation, during our own coverage of the voting process in Kota Bharu and Bachok, it seemed that almost all PAS supporters went out to vote on the day. One possible reason for Umno’s poor showing may have been the relatively lax approach taken by Umno supporters then.
II. The attack on Anwar Ibrahim by the mainstream media
The attack on the figure of (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim and by extension Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) that began four days before polling was another factor that may have influenced voter sentiment in Kelantan and the other predominantly Malay states. It has to be remembered that in Kelantan and Terengganu, the main newspapers remained Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian, with little or no exposure from the English and non-Malay vernacular press. The tone and content of the Malay vernacular papers was abrasive and personal, and it was noted by many interviewees that almost half of the contents of the Malay vernacular papers were devoted to attacking Anwar personally.
Many interviewees noted with disgust that Anwar was given almost no opportunity to defend himself, and that the attacks were ‘below the belt’. This has the effect of earning Anwar and PKR even more sympathy and support than ever before – an important point to note as PKR was contesting very few seats in Kelantan and Terengganu. The Malay interviewees we met also expressed their intention to vote for the opposition as retribution against what they regarded as an insensitive and excessive attack on a defenceless man, reminiscent of the attacks on Anwar in the late 1990s. It was clear that the media onslaught against Anwar had the opposite effect. By sheer overkill and excess, the mainstream vernacular Malay media had turned Anwar into a martyr and hero, while also emphasising Umno’s distance and indifference to Malay-Muslim cultural norms of proper conduct and manners.
III. The arrival of Khairy Jamaluddin
The third factor that seemed to predominate in all the interviews and discussions in Kelantan (and Terengganu) then was the figure of Khairy Jamaluddin, son-in-law of the prime minister. Among all the Umno leaders who did whistle-stop visits to Kelantan, it was Khairy’s arrival that was most divisive and which had the most counter-productive effect. PAS leaders confided to us that they were privately happy with the visit of Khairy as it served as the tipping point that swung the votes in their favour. The comments made by Khairy and other Umno leaders about the poverty and lack of development in Kelantan were easily nullified by solid data collected and disseminated by PAS leaders in Kelantan, who merely noted that there were more families living below the absolute poverty line in neighbouring Terengganu, despite Umno’s record of development there.
Khairy also featured in much of the black-ops propaganda material distributed by the opposition, where photos and short commentaries on his alleged lavish lifestyle and accumulated wealth were used to further draw a distance between the Umno elite and the common folk of Kelantan. It was clear during the course of our interviews with young Malay-Muslim males in Bachok, Kota Bharu, Kuala Krai, Macang and Besut that few of them could identify with Khairy, who was projected as the young ‘model’ Malay-Muslim for others to emulate. In the words of a young man in Bachok: “How can I identify with Khairy? Look at the house he lives in, his big cars, his helicopter, his wealth. Look at his family connections. I can never be like that. I am stuck here in Kelantan and I don’t have his sort of connections.” It is interesting to note that among all the Umno leaders who paid a visit to the northern states during the election campaign, no Umno figure was as divisive as Khairy.
Some cautionary points
Though the opposition coalition between PKR, PAS and the DAP did not manage to deny the governing BN parties the simple majority in Parliament that was needed to bring about a change in government, they have managed to gain control of five state assemblies and are therefore in power in five states at least. With the exception of Kelantan where PAS has been in power for 18 years however, the other states have remained under BN rule for decades and the casual association and overlapping between the ruling parties and the local bureaucracy of the local state governments mean that there will probably be some degree of institutional inertia on the part of pro-BN local government authorities who may do everything to scuttle the reform measures that the opposition governments wish to put into place.
Notwithstanding these obstacles and difficulties, it is also important to note that the division of power between the three main opposition parties is not entirely equal, opening up room for unilateralism that may be both unwarranted and counter-productive in the long-run. On that note, we proceed with these cautionary observations.
PAS has secured the chief ministerial posts for Kelantan, Kedah and Perak thus far. While PAS has been in power in Kelantan for nearly two decades, it should be noted that PAS has always been active in Kedah where its party machinery, cadre network and religious schools network are equally strong. Undoubtedly, the sudden rise of PAS to power in three states has caught many observers, both local and international, off guard and this shock was further compounded by the media-driven efforts to demonise PAS as a party of (potentially militant) religious fanatics and extremists. Rumours were spread that PAS intended to introduce Hudud law in Kedah, much to the dismay of PAS moderates who immediately denied such reports.
However, the leadership of PAS, at both the central and state levels, has to recognise that the massive vote swing for PAS this time round was in some ways a repeat of the massive gains the party made in 1999. As was the case in 1999, this massive vote swing was on the back of a protest vote against the total failure of the Abdullah administration, and therefore should not be read as an endorsement of PAS’s ideological goal of creating an Islamic state or implementing Hudud law in any part of the country.
PAS should not make the same mistake of growing too emboldened by the 2008 election results to the point where it takes unilateral actions that are detrimental to the image of the party, the opposition coalition and Malaysia by extension. Between 1999 and 2004, PAS committed serious blunders as a result of its own misreading of the situation on the ground locally and internationally: Its unilateral support for the Taliban regime in 2002 effectively re-cast the party as a potentially violent, anti-Western and anti-Christian organisation and consequently alienated it from the mainstream of Malaysia’s plural society. Furthermore it also cast the party as a pariah in international circles, and allowed its detractors to label it a potential militant threat. Yet this decision to support the Taliban was based on short-sighted and ill-informed intelligence that clearly did not reveal the true nature of the Taliban to many of the PAS leaders and supporters themselves.
PAS also took several unilateral actions between 1999 and 2004 that alienated it from important sections of the Malaysian mainstream public; ranging from its attacks on moderate Muslim intellectuals, writers and activists, to its own persistent attempts to enforce Islamic laws and moral policing. Such measures further alienated PAS from the mainstream of Malaysian society, and rendered political co-operation with other potential allies more and more difficult.
It is imperative that PAS now expands its spectrum of feedback and public opinion, and actively court the feedback and advice of public actors and agents from civil society on a host of issues ranging from local governance to inter-religious dialogue and religious pluralism. Failure to do so would mean squandering both the faith and trust placed on PAS by the voters, and to also limit PAS’s range of political options and room for manoeuvre in the future. But this also means that PAS – which has endorsed the Peoples Declaration by civil society – has to adjust to the new political realities and parameters of a new Malaysian politics where pluralism and multiculturalism are permanent realities that cannot be by-passed or over-ridden.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.