Worrying signals from the heartland

Young participants at the 405 rally. - NORAFIFI EHSAN / The Star

KHAIRY Jamaluddin had been unsure about whether he wanted to be part of the increasingly cosy ties between PAS and Umno.

But a chance meeting with Kedah politician Datuk Suraya Yaacob during the Rantau by-election campaign helped change his mind.

Suraya, who is Sungai Tiang assemblyman, told him that “we need the alliance” and that without PAS, Umno had little chance of returning to power in Kedah.

Several weeks later, the Rembau MP stood on a dimly-lit stage in Pen­dang, Kedah, speaking at a joint cera­­mah of PAS and Umno.

More interestingly, he was there at the invitation of Pendang MP Awang Solahudin Hashim of PAS who, incidentally, is somebody to watch in Parliament.

Hundreds of such joint gatherings – known as himpunan perpaduan or solidarity gatherings – of these big Malay parties have been taking place all over the country since last November.

They have ranged from smaller ceramah like the one in Pendang to a mammoth rally in Kuantan last weekend where Datuk Seri Hadi Awang and Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan were the star attractions.

It was quite a sight to see the Umno deputy president driving a buggy with the PAS president by his side through a sea of people with the brightly-lit state mosque as the backdrop.

When the emcee asked the crowd to switch on their handphone torch, the field lit up like stars in the sky.

These are powerful optics from the Malay heartland that are sending shudders through the cafe society on the peninsula’s west coast.

The PAS-Umno hook-up has been one of those game-changers.

The Malay momentum is growing, and leaders of the two parties claim that the cooperation has gained acceptance among their base which was initially sceptical about working with a former enemy.

“The last three by-elections opened their eyes to what is possible if the Malays unite.

“Together, our voice is bigger,” said Datuk Seri Mohd Sharkar Shamsudin who is Lanchang assemblyman in Pahang.

Yesterday’s Malay rally was a continuation of this momentum.

And coming on the threshold of Pakatan’s first anniversary, it was obviously aimed at signalling that the Malay ground is not with the ruling coalition.

Critics have slammed the PAS-Umno cooperation as a racist grouping, political expediency and a marriage of convenience that will take Malaysia down a dangerous road.

“The rise of identity politics isn’t unique to Malaysia. It is happening globally and has always been there. Simply dismissing voters who go for this brand of politics as racist does not help.

“Politicians must understand the root causes that allow identity politics to thrive.

“The politics of fear feeds on socio-economic and cultural insecurities and should be challenged by politics of hope and vision,” said KRA strategy director Amir Fareed Rahim.

As Amir pointed out, the just concluded Indonesian election was marked by the rise of identity politics and political Islam, with Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi taking an elderly cleric as his running mate.

Jokowi’s social media platforms on the last lap were flushed with images of him in various stages of prayer and worship.

Those speaking at the PAS-Umno gatherings have been at pains to stress that non-Muslims have no need to fear the coming together of the two Malay-Muslim parties because Islam will defend them.

But it is doubtful that non-­Muslims will buy into that given their experiences in recent years.

The Malay heartland has been restless and unsettled for months.

“Don’t blame us for being angry when you have DAP politicians asking the government to throw out Islam from our ICs or when an egg costs 50 sen each,” said Kok Lanas assemblyman Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad, referring to a DAP senator who had proposed that religion should not be stated in the identity cards of Muslims.

It is unclear when the Malay ground went sour on the government.

It probably had to do with the endless string of issues from the Cabinet appointments to the Rome Statute, all building up like layers of an odorous onion amid disappointment over unfulfilled election pro­mises.

“Do you know that (Attorney General) Tommy Thomas is now a household name even in the kampung? I don’t need to elaborate why,” said Alwi, a much sought-­after speaker at these solidarity gatherings.

How worried should Pakatan leaders be about the Malay swing to the opposition?

Amir said the ethnocentric narrative has to be swiftly tackled because it is difficult to undo once it is ingrained in their hearts and minds.

The irony is that while all this has dented Pakatan’s image, it has strengthened the hand of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad over the coalition. The Prime Minister has emerged as the only person who can hold the ruling coalition against the surging Malay tide.

But it is rather awkward for the incoming prime minister because this Malay momentum is also rather anti-Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

During the inaugural meeting of top PAS and Umno leaders at the home of Mohamad, Hadi had set the tone by asking the Umno deputy president whether he is with Dr Mahathir or Anwar.

Mohamad’s answer that he had always regarded Dr Mahathir as “my former boss” seemed to satisfy the PAS president who said bluntly, “that’s good because we don’t want Anwar”.

Alwi said there will be less politics during the fasting month but it will be an opportunity for Umno and PAS leaders to further bond as they break fast together.

“It’s a long way to go before GE15. Can they sustain the momentum?” asked Amir.

Well, according to some accounts, the PAS-Umno cooperation is not only about preparing for the next general election.

They think something may happen within the next year when it is time for Dr Mahathir to hand over the reins of government and they want to be ready for that.

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