Will PAS’s new dream team be Umno’s nightmare?
ANALYSIS, June 5 — The election of veteran activists, parliamentarians, state administrators and think tank experts into the top PAS leadership has appeared to put the party on a firm war footing.
This line-up of Mohamed Sabu as the PAS deputy president and vice-presidents Salahuddin Ayub, Datuk Husam Musa and Datuk Mahfuz Omar is expected to not only stand shoulder to shoulder with allies in Pakatan Rakyat (PR) but it is said that they want to spearhead the coalition in its march to Putrajaya.
Their election perhaps speaks of the party’s changing membership and support base, and the rank-file’s desire to see the party move beyond an Islamist movement to a national-level ruling party.
And there is very little doubt about working or talking to Umno or Barisan Nasional (BN). Not only will this leadership have no truck with them, PAS’s new war cabinet fervently wants to replace Umno as the representative of Malay Muslims.
Yet despite the optimism that the new leadership could widen PAS’s public appeal, a significant number of members are uncomfortable with the shift in the voting trend.
“I wished that an ulama had won. PAS should be lead by an ulama because it is an Islamic movement,” said a Kuala Lumpur grassroots member when he heard the new line up.
For the first time in 20 years, a majority of PAS’s top leadership are made up of those who don’t come from a religious education background or to use a much-misunderstood term, ulama (religious scholar).
“This is the leadership that will put the fear in Umno,” said Kelana Jaya delegate Abdul Rahman Othman. “It is a dynamic dream team for us to go into the next general election.”
The headline-grabbing personality is the very amiable new party deputy president Mohamad. A former MP, senior Pakatan leader/activist, ex-Internal Security Act detainee, popular ceramah speaker and a veteran civil disobedience insurrectionist.
Mohamad defeated incumbent Nasharudin Mat Isa and another popular challenger, Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man for the coveted post.
Below him are three vice-presidents, each of whom has crafted huge public profiles as national parliamentary opposition leaders — Salahuddin, Husam and Mahfuz.
Of the central committee members, only six are considered “ulama” personalities. The rest of the 18 elected members are lawyers, doctors, engineers, — individuals that more reflect the majority Malay middle and working class that PAS courts.
Mohd Rashidi Hasan, a popular pro-PAS writer, explained that though delegates still wanted the ulama to be “guardians of the party”, they realised it would take more than religious scholars to beat Umno.
“PAS wants to lead Pakatan, but to do that it needs to win more Malay majority seats,” said Rashidi.
In a way, the election results are an out-growth of the sentiments that elected the new Muslimat (women’s wing) leadership, where the top three posts went to two MPs and a Senator.
“We wanted a leadership that would be able to take Muslimat forward,” said a Muslimat member from Perak, who requested anonymity.
It is a desire for PAS to move beyond Malay society’s religious set and appeal to mainstream Muslims, whose ties to the faith are basic and who are more worried about making ends meet.
Delegates however took pains to stress that the polls was not a manifestation of the “ulama vs professional” schism that has dominated media reports about PAS..
“We choose based on who we think can best perform,” said Temerloh delegate Syed Hamid Syed Mohamed.
“We want leaders who we think can raise PAS to the level of a ruling party,” he said. To get there, it needs to coordinate a united, hand-in-glove relationship with the DAP and PKR.
“Mat Sabu” as Mohamed is popularly known, brings with him an almost three decade-long legacy of working closely with DAP and PKR leaders.
He is said to enjoy a close friendship with DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, which was forged when both were detained under the ISA during the 1987 Ops Lalang crack down.
Though to the public Mat Sabu is known as the jester of PAS, those who’ve worked with him say he has wide experience leading campaigns against BN policy.
“He coordinated a campaign to oppose a plan to privatise health care that was eventually dropped. He has also been at the forefront of many civil society demonstrations and actions,” said Alor Star delegate Adnan Saad.
However, Mat Sabu still has a long, difficult road ahead and one of them is convincing the more conservative members that his methods will suit PAS’s Islamist brand of politics.
At the same time, Mat Sabu and the new leadership will have cut through the mental barriers of racialism that Umno has grafted into the non-urban Malay electorate.
They may have convinced PAS members that they can bring the party forward, but the real test will be whether Mat Sabu and the new leadership can persuade Malay Muslims that it will be PAS and not Umno, that can bring the community forward.