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Tuesday September 30, 2008

Steering PAS westward

The PAS success in the March general election has given the Islamist party a multiracial image tinge, something that is detested by its conservatives and purists.

SHAH Alam MP and PAS Selangor deputy commissioner Khalid Samad is a 51-year-old former petroleum engineer. Before his victory in March, the British-trained Khalid (he’s been a party member since 1983) had stood, unsuccessfully, as a candidate in various parts of the country, ranging from Kuala Kerian and Arau in the north to Sri Gading in the south.

In 1987 he was even detained for nine months under the Internal Security Act as part of Operation Lalang.

Given his lengthy record with PAS (he served on the central committee from 1987 to 1993), not to mention his professional and well-connected background €“ his elder brother is Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Datuk Shahrir Samad €“ Khalid has emerged as one of PAS’ most important non-ulamak voices.

Indeed, the party’s unprecedented push into the west coast of the peninsular will depend on whether or not men like Khalid can retain PAS’ traditional support base among lower income and rural Malays while also attracting non-Malays.

This strategic thrust is fraught with pitfalls €“ most notably the resistance of the party’s more conservative and purist Terengganu wing led by men such as Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang (PAS president) and Datuk Mustapa Ali (the state commissioner), for whom the advent of multi-racial politics and, it must be said, Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s increased influence, appear to be an anathema.

In person, Khalid is a stern if laconic presence. He also enjoys a reputation for being a straight-talking maverick, not unlike his elder brother.

This personality trait has placed him at the centre of both PAS’ internal strategic discussions as well as the party’s attempts to reach beyond the Malay/Muslim community.

There’s no false charm about Khalid. He is what he is: a politician who happens to believe in persuasion and engagement €“ two aspects of political life that Umno leaders would be wise to adopt if they wish to hold on to power.

Khalid’s approach is respectful but firm. If you’re interested, he’s the type of guy who’d sit you down (non-Muslims in particular) and explain why you should vote PAS, which is why I’d recommend people to visit his lively blog http://khalidsamad-shahalam.blogspot.com/.

Back in March, Khalid was able to turn a traditional Umno stronghold (with a 13,410 majority) into a 9,314 margin of victory. As he himself concedes, he won because of an unprecedented shift in non-Malay sentiment €“ fully 33% of the vote in the case of Shah Alam.

Khalid explains: “We’ve been trying to break the racial barrier for some time. We’ve always been trying to portray ourselves as multiracial. The results show that voters are willing to believe us.

“We’re not just fighting for Muslim votes, issues and interests. We are taking on the interests and concerns of all Malaysians. PAS takes up issues of relevance to all communities, such as issues of social justice, which is in itself a central theme in the Quran. We aren’t so exclusive in our focus.”

Khalid is particularly critical of Barisan Nasional’s handling of the Indian community: “Barisan has failed the Indian community. They never showed any seriousness handling their issues. Besides, the community has had no alternative.”

Soon after the election, Khalid also made a point of visiting a church in Shah Alam. The simple gesture was to have an enormous impact on the Christian community nationwide, many of whom had felt increasingly embattled under Barisan rule.

“I don’t regard what I did as a breakthrough with the Christian community. Tok Guru Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat has been doing such things for some time.”

However, he adds emphatically: “We need to modulate our strategies to match the environment we’re in.”

While men like Khalid won to a large extent because of the public’s frustration with Umno and Barisan, it’s clear that they are working very hard to secure victory on their own terms in 2013.

Moreover, his sincerity and commitment to multiracial living is especially important at a time when many in the establishment (especially those in Selangor) appear to have lost the art of engaging across the racial divide.

Once again, I must stress that there seems to be a seismic shift in mainstream Malaysia. Basically, non-Malays are beginning to acknowledge that PAS (and PKR to some degree) could well end up being a better arbiter and protector of minority rights than Umno.

However, Khalid’s openness is not without its critics. PAS, like Umno, has its extreme forces €“ in this case those emanating from Terengganu and their followers.

To them, Khalid is an ‘Erdogan’. They see this as a pejorative label, almost an insult. ‘Erdogan’ is also the name of Turkish Premier Tayyip Erdogan €“ a man who is thought by some to have sacrificed his Islamic credentials in his bid for national power.

In the eyes of the critics, the ‘Erdogans’ include virtually anyone who has shown interest in seizing power at the federal level, ranging from vice-president Datuk Husam Musa and secretary-general Datuk Kamaruddin Jaafar to MPs Dr Zulkifly Ahmad and Dr Hatta Ramli.

But the ‘Erdogans’ have a powerful supporter in Nik Aziz. If they succeed, they look set to shift the balance of power within PAS from the east to the west coast. Indeed, the frail but all-powerful cleric has been an uncompromising advocate of plans to topple the Barisan government, attacking the nay-sayers with a rare assertiveness.

Still, the frustration of the Terengganu clique is understandable. Hitherto, they had been at the forefront of PAS’ battle against Umno. However, in March all they could do was watch from the sidelines as Terengganu’s voters remained in Umno’s embrace.

Instead, relatively minor PAS figures such as Mohamad Nizar Jamaluddin (Perak MB) and Azizan Abdul Razak (Kedah MB) assumed positions of real power.

For men as driven as Hadi Awang (currently a mere MP), the experience must have been galling and their response has been to champion PAS’ ‘Malay-ness’ starting with the Malay unity talks initiated by Umno in the aftermath of the polls.

They have also stressed the importance of securing a majority of Malay/Muslim MPs in the event of a crossover. Their reluctance is also fuelled by a scepticism of Anwar, something the ‘Erdogans’ are more than willing to live with.

Men like Khalid Samad have spent a quarter of a century preparing for this opportunity. They have given ceramahs the length and breadth of Malaysia. They have staked out dialogues and discussions on inter-religious issues and civil liberties.

Although the right-wing of their party balks at such an engagement, Umno would be unwise to underestimate PAS’ ability to rise to the challenge.

As Dr Zulkifly, MP for Kuala Selangor and head of the party’s think-tank, argues: “While there is no denying the intensity of the debate within PAS on this issue (crossovers and forming the government), unity and good political sense will prevail.”

If Umno doesn’t act fast, it could well be reduced to being little more than a regional party representing the Malays in Johor and the southern quadrant as PAS occupies centre-stage.

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