Written by Farish A. Noor.

Following the death of the Spiritual Leader (Murshid’ul Am) of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the leadership of PAS has been handed over to its current President, Tuan Guru Hadi Awang. Since the passing of Nik Aziz, the Malaysian Islamic Party’s links to the opposition coalition in Malaysia has weakened considerably. This has lead to the situation that we see today, where PAS has, for all intents and purposes, severed its links with its former allies and chosen to go it alone in the lead-up to Malaysia’s next General Election which has to be called before the end of 2018.

Under Hadi Awang’s leadership, PAS has opted for a more strident expression of its Islamist principles, calling for the promotion of Shariah law and the introduction of Hudud punishments in the country, a move that was crystalized in Hadi Awang’s private member’s bill that was brought to Parliament last year. By this stage it is clear that PAS has broken ranks with its erstwhile allies. Though the move has been met with some positive response among its own rank and file, it has also irked its former coalition partners.

Few have considered the pressure that these demands imposed on PAS’s leadership, who felt that by virtue of being in a coalition with non-Islamist parties the party was losing its own Islamist identity … this was akin to asking a Socialist party to abandon Socialism altogether, for the sake of holding together a coalition.

At the heart of the matter seems to be PAS’s own struggle to maintain a sense of cohesion and purpose in a Malaysia that has seen the growth of a plethora of new political parties, and where the public political domain is hotly contested by more parties than ever. The change in direction has already incurred a political cost, which came in the form of yet another splinter party – Amanah – being formed by former members of PAS who were widely seen as the ‘moderates’ who had thrived under the leadership of the departed Nik Aziz.

Yet PAS’s yearning to carve its own space and maintain its identity is understandable, when one considers the pressure it was put under while it was in the coalition with the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and left-leaning secular Democratic Action Party (DAP). The long-running dispute between DAP and PAS is known to most Malaysians by now, with DAP demanding that PAS water down its Islamist demands and compromise on issues such as Shariah law and Hudud punishments. Few have considered the pressure that these demands imposed on PAS’s leadership, who felt that by virtue of being in a coalition with non-Islamist parties the party was losing its own Islamist identity. In the words of one PAS leader I interviewed years ago, this was akin to asking a Socialist party to abandon Socialism altogether, for the sake of holding together a coalition.

The passing of Nik Aziz was the turning point, where the conservative leadership of PAS saw the moment to act and seize control of the party. The net result is what we see today: a PAS that has broken its links to its former coalition partners, while at the same time being courted – in some instances blatantly – by its former rival United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) for the sake of building a solid Malay-Muslim bloc that would ensure UMNO’s survival, and by extension the survival of the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN) coalition. In an episode that almost seems like a repeat of PAS’s flirtation with UMNO in the 1970s, when the party was led by the Malay nationalist Asri Muda, PAS seems to have fallen back upon its default setting, eyeing the Malay-Muslim majority voting bloc as its primary base of support. In doing so, Pac lost whatever goodwill it was able to garner among the small clusters of non-Malays and non-Muslims who were willing to give the party their votes at the elections of 1999, 2004 and 2008.

While scholars, political observers and partisan activists may bemoan the twists and turns that PAS has made over the past couple of years, it has to be remembered that pragmatism has been the driver of PAS as a political entity. As a political party, PAS’s calculations have been political in nature, and in keeping with the norms of Malaysian political praxis. PAS’s critics today may lament the fact that it is seen to be visibly closer to UMNO than ever before, but it should be remembered that while PAS was in the opposition coalition not too long ago that too was a political move of the part of PAS’s political elite, and that the party was then likewise driven by political ambitions – the chief of which was state capture through winning at the General Elections alongside PKR and DAP.

What this tells us is that while Islamism may well be the bedrock of PAS’s ideology and identity, it is also a political party that is motivated by exigent ends and goals that are mundane and normal in the realm of politics. Talk of ‘betrayals’ and ‘U-turns’ may reflect the disappointment of some, but seasoned observers of Malaysian politics, and politics in general, will note that there is nothing extraordinary or unusual about PAS’s behavior at present. This is the nature of politics, and the landscape of politics is where that political party abides and thrives, as it always has.

Dr Farish A. Noor is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He is the author of ‘Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS’ (MSRI, 2004), and ‘Islamism in a Mottled Nation’, (Amsterdam University Press, 2014). This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled ‘Islamism in Southeast Asia.’ Image Credit: CC by Firdaus Latif/Flickr.

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