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Tuesday July 22, 2008

Nasharudin Mat Isa and Malay unity

Malaysians voted for a two-party system on March 8, not for a hastily assembled collaboration between PAS and Umno.

NASHARUDIN Mat Isa, PAS deputy president, is a neat, well-dressed man. Unlike many of the opposition MPs, Nasharuddin does not come across as a street activist.

His spoken English is exact and he conducts himself in a manner that is both calm and statesman-like, selecting his words with extreme care. This is a very polished and considered politician.

With talk circulating across the country about the possibility of an Umno-PAS tie-up, Nasharudin’s pronouncements have attracted greater scrutiny, especially since he is viewed (along with figures such as Mustafa Ali, Terengganu PAS chief, and Hassan Ali, Selangor PAS chief) as a more Umno-inclined, PAS leader.

When asked about the talk of the collaboration, he tells me: “I was mandated by the Syura Council of Ullama after the general election to explore and to look at the political landscape with anyone and anywhere.

“I didn’t meet (Umno deputy president Datuk Seri) Najib Razak in London but I have met him in Parliament.”

He adds the last comment as a cheeky aside, all too aware of the rumours about his supposed meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister in London recently.

While many in Umno would welcome closer ties with PAS in the oft-stated interests of ‘Malay unity’, PAS’ rank and file (most of whom have tussled with Umno for decades) are sceptical – and in certain cases downright angry – about the possibility of just such a move.

The issue reveals deep fissures within PAS, which might also explain the recent contradictory statements made by party leader Hadi Awang, who has confirmed both his party’s on-going commitment to Pakatan Rakyat as well as acknowledged high-level meetings with Umno.

The relationship between the two largest Malay parties has increased in importance as PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim’s position has come under fire.

Indeed as PKR struggles to cope with the fallout from the Saiful Bukhari scandal, PAS could end up as the ‘king-maker’, delivering both Umno and Abdullah from their current ‘funk’.

Whether it chooses to do so is a major test of the Pakatan’s solidity and PAS’ commitment to its oft-stated principles of good governance, anti-corruption and institutional reform.

Given that there has been very little actual progress from Barisan Nasional in terms of the reform agenda, any collaboration would seem to suggest that race and religion – and specifically securing and ensuring Malay dominance and power – are more important to PAS than issues such as civil liberties, justice and governance.

I would hesitate to call PAS hypocritical, but certainly this would be an extremely disappointing development were it to be true.

Malaysians will be watching to see how PAS responds to these challenges. PAS’ credibility hangs by a thread as does its future expansion: power play could ruin the party’s hard-won reputation for integrity.

It should also be remembered that many newly elected PAS MPs such as Khalid Samad, Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud and Dr Lo'Lo Mohd Ghazali – representing Shah Alam, Kota Raja and Titiwangsa, respectively – were carried into Parliament on the back of a strong anti-Barisan wave.

They also secured unprecedented non-Malay support. It is unclear whether voters would be willing to forgive PAS were the party of the Ullama to leave the Pakatan for short-term gain and power.

Now, I would be the first to state that I am definitely not a PAS supporter – its insistence on Islam as the basis for all its political activity is something I cannot accept.

Nonetheless, I have to commend the party’s principled commitment to the reform agenda. Moreover its ability to remain at one with the rakyat is something that Umno desperately needs to (re)learn.

Still, it is hard to see how PAS can manage such a controversial move (a linkage with Barisan and Umno) without losing credibility. Having attacked Umno consistently for decades a rapprochement would surely undermine the Islamicist party's popularity.

Indeed there are those within PAS who consider it better to team up with non-Muslims (the DAP) rather than with a party that has been viewed as cruel and unjust.

Clearly the power play could have immense costs for PAS.

Nonetheless, when Nasharudin speaks it’s important to listen very closely – partly because he speaks so quietly but also because of his carefully calibrated language.

When I asked him about Anwar Ibrahim, he is circumspect: “I am not sure of his popularity when compared to 1998. The latest developments – the Saiful event and the statutory declaration by private investigator P. Balasubramaniam – have affected Anwar’s credibility.

“Still, his ability to lead is unquestionable. It’s arguable that the Malay community is also starting to believe the accusations against Anwar. His delay in taking an oath to swear on the Quran is also an issue.”

Nasharudin is frank about his views on the coalition: “With recent developments, my personal view is that the Pakatan is very fragile; but we are trying to strengthen the coalition.

“Nobody can deny this. There are problems at both state and federal levels. Pakatan must get its house in order and consolidate its position.”

When asked how this can be achieved, he answers: “The level of communication among ourselves isn’t up to standard. This is because everyone is busy. We need to increase the regularity and frequency of communication.

“We are still to a large degree polarised (Malays, Indians and Chinese) and are still finding it difficult to overcome these differences which remain at the core between the different Pakatan members.”

Given his more cosmopolitan west-coast background, it’s perhaps disappointing that Nasharudin hasn’t been leading the engagement across the racial and political lines. Certainly he must be one of the few senior PAS leaders to have studied at a mission school – St Gabriel’s in Kampung Pandan, Kuala Lumpur.

At the same time, his educational background includes time spent both in the Middle East (eight years in Amman, Jordan) and in Britain (Glasgow University).

Indeed Nasharudin who was very much the late Fadzil Noor’s anak emas (blue-eyed boy) appears to be the personification of PAS’ modern leadership.

He is an impressive mix – a Malay professional with a deep knowledge of Islam, even though he resists labelling himself as an Ullama (one with knowledge).

Maybe I’ve made Nasharudin sound overly calculating, which he wasn’t; he was open and thoughtful, as befits a man with such a scholarly demeanour.

Still, I am very troubled by the reluctance to deal across the racial divide. The Malaysian voting public entrusted the Pakatan with a mandate for change and even if the putative leader Anwar Ibrahim has been (perhaps temporarily) derailed, we expect PAS to continue with the venture of building on what Nasharuddin himself concedes as “the shared ground of equality and fairness”.

Should it fail to do so, it will show us that the men in green are no less susceptible to money and power than their friends in blue.

I hope PAS will resist the temptation. On March 8, Malaysians voted for a two-party system.

They did not vote for a hastily assembled collaboration between PAS and Umno. PAS should be extremely wary of misinterpreting the March 8 results.

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