PAS, Hudud and New Labour: Why political parties ought to grow up

Farish A. Noor

And so, as if Malaysians were not tired and jaded enough, the Hudud issue is back in the limelight in the country. It seems odd, to say the least, that an issue that dates back to the 1980s has been resurrected once again. There are those who state that this time round it was not PAS that put the issue on the table, but that the Islamist party was merely responding to a challenge posed by its detractors.

True though that may be, the fact is that PAS fell into the trap hook, line and sinker; and that as a result the deep ideological cleavages between PAS, PKR and DAP have come to the foreground once again.

This debate will never go away as it is a political debate, and as such will remain a political and politicised issue. To ask PAS to abandon the issue of Hudud and Shariah law is as odd as asking a Socialist party to abandon Socialism or a Conservative party to abandon Conservatism.

Islamism is, after all, the basis of PAS’s existence and why it came about, but perhaps the question can and should be re-framed thus: Granted that PAS is an Islamic party, how can it adapt and adopt its understanding of Islamism to suit the needs of the times?

What comes to mind is the Labour Party of Britain, and how it managed to come to power at last after five uninterrupted periods of rule under Margaret Thatcher and one term under John Major. For those of us living and working in the UK in the 1990s, it seemed as if the Labour Party was, by then, a relic of the past and that it ought to have been mothballed in some Museum of Natural History. Yet the Labour party did re-bound, but only after some serious soul-searching and a heavy dose of realism and pragmatism that saw the demise of its old guard leaders like Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, etc. Under Tony Blair the Labour party was re-packaged and re-sold to the British electorate as ‘New Labour’ (which some might say was a case of old wine in new bottles, or new wine in old bottles.)

Tony Blair and his advisers had, by then, realised that the social changes that had taken place in the UK were real, and that there were new constituencies to be catered to. They ultimately rejected the old Labour notion that political change had to come from a vanguard of the industrial working classes, and presented themselves as the Left alternative for the new urban middle-classes and professionals. This also meant abandoning once and for all the Labour party’s demand for the nationalisation of key national assets, and end of ‘envy taxes’ against the rich, and a more compromising attitude towards Capital.

Rightly or wrongly, the changes did pay off and Tony Blair did come to power in the end — but not without making serious and radical changes to the Labour party and its ideology.

Which raises the crucial question: to what extend does a political party have to make compromises and move to the mainstream middle-ground in order to be elected, or seen to be electable? Tony Blair’s reforms then were certainly not totally popular with the rank and file of the party, and he was also accused of selling out and compromising on some of the most fundamental tenets of Labour. But with hindsight, one might also argue that had these reforms not been undertaken, the party might never have come to power at all.

Which brings us to the present-day mess in Malaysia, and how the parties of the Pakatan Rakyat are floundering in a very public and embarrassing manner. One thing that can be said about the behaviour of PAS and DAP at least is that some degree of predictability has been institutionalised by now, rendering their behavior patterns as normalised. We can say with some degree of certainty that if PAS was pushed on the questions of Islamic State, Hudud, and Shariah their response would be ‘yes’. We can also say with some certainty that if DAP is pushed on the question of Chinese vernacular schools it too would say ‘yes’.

But it is precisely because both parties will not compromise on the key red-button issues that directly affect their constituencies that we suspect that the Pakatan coalition is an instrumental one at best.

Hence the natural tendency to ask: What then, if they come to power? Continued protection and promotion of separate ethnic schools and limited Hudud law but only for/on Muslims? What sort of nation-building programme is this, and how does this diminish the apparent ethnic-linguistic-religious divide between the communities?

ALL the parties of Pakatan have to realise that grand-standing before their own constituencies is just wayang kulit and theatrics, and does little to educate the Malaysian public. Worse still, the predictability of their political behaviour and responses also means that one can easily manipulate these parties and get them to squabble among each other, as they are doing now, like puppets on a string. I they are really sincere about building this amorphous, nebulous multi-culti Malaysia they seem to be talking about all the time, then ALL these parties have to realise that in coalition politics all actors have to make sacrifices and adjustments, and no-one should hog the limelight.

Furthermore parties like PAS should also remember that whatever ideological pyrotechnics they may employ may not necessarily translate into votes on polling day: In fact, if we were to look back at PAS’s history and its electoral performances, it would seem that PAS’s electoral performance has suffered whenever its own rhetoric reaches fever-pitch: In the early 1980s PAS’s rhetoric was decidedly revolutionary, with PAS leaders and writers even openly supporting the Iranian revolution and the Islamisation programme in Pakistan. PAS leaders then engaged in what was called the ‘kafir-mengafir’ controversy, with men like Hadi Awang openly labeling the Islamic party’s opponents un-believers. This overheated rhetoric peaked with the Ibrahim Libya crisis, when the PAS leader Ibrahim Libya was killed at the village of Memali in Kedah. Many PAS leaders then believed their cause to be just, and perhaps hoped that they would win big at the coming election as a result of the opposition they received from Umno and the state security apparatus: But instead they lost, badly, and managed to secure only one miserable seat in Parliament, which effectively silenced the party for the next five years.

A similar outcome came about at the elections of 2004, when PAS had hoped to win big as it stood against Umno that was then led by Abdullah Badawi. However in the years 2002-2003 PAS’s rhetoric had once again over-heated, as was made manifest at the ill-timed and ill-conceived demonstration in front of the US embassy in KL, in protest against the US-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The image of PAS members with banners proclaiming the “Taleban are our brothers” was an own-goal of gargantuan proportions, which reminded Malaysian voters that there were still such pro-Taliban elements within the Malaysian Islamic party, and that the demonised image of PAS was not some concocted media fiction.

To conclude on a pessimistic note that betrays my own irritation and frustration with all the politicians and political parties in this country, I can only ask that they think of the national interest for once, and less about their own ‘natural constituencies’.

Thus far we have been treated to a barrage of corruption scandals, slurs, abuse, threats, amateur heroics and all sorts of bongo-bongo nonsense that may be entertaining for some but not really constructive in dealing with real problems such as wage and income differentials, outflow of FDI, loss of competitiveness and the lingering worry about geo-strategic shifts and changes as Southeast Asia comes under the looming shadows of China, India and America.

Vainglorious talk and boasting about moral politics, grand visions and Hudud law do not really solve any of these problems — they merely add to the theatricality of our political culture which is fast becoming a joke to all. For heavens sake, politicians: Grow Up.

This article was first published by the Malaysian Insider on 28 September 2011.