PAS’s folly - awareness and containment
In the introduction of the Kelantan hudud bill its architect declared that those who question whether the legislation would bring in equal justice are “liars and immoral”.
This unbecoming language is what one expects of a fanatic dictator, rather than a genuine democratic leader. It speaks to the decay in the political fabric of Malaysia that is coming from leaders, who have lost the plot in having a national consciousness and the broader decline taking place in democratic governance. Given the passage of the Kelantan hudud bill, what are the likely political implications that will evolve from this measure?
Some political parties will begin the politics of containment, while others will fan division and will continue to use hudud for political gains. As of now, it is important to remember that no hudud measure will take effect. They are all measures on paper.
With respect to those who favour these measures, on many levels hudud does not holistically reflect the ideas of justice embodied in Islam or any faith for that matter and brings to light serious questions about fairness and administration of the rule of law for all of Malaysia’s citizens.
The stoning, chopping and whipping urged in the enactments are now threats over the public without adequate protections; they make up the politics of fear that has been deeply engrained in the Malaysian political landscape.
No implementation does not mean that there measures are not unimportant. Quite the contrary. The people of Kelantan in particular will be hurt economically by the bill, as its leaders across the political divide failed them in thinking holistically about their development.
Real questions can be asked about priorities and timing, namely whether Kelantan in the wake of the floods should be introducing these measures. Questions about fairness also can be asked about who will be potentially affected by these measures, those who engaged in corruption that contributed to the flooding or ordinary citizens.
These are beyond the issues of minority rights, religious freedom and the rights and protections of the constitution that emotionally divide the country in views.
There will be other important political tests ahead as well. Unlike in the two previous pieces, this piece looking at the broader political consequences of the passage of the bill yesterday. The fluidity of Malaysian politics will create opportunities ahead. The hudud issue will likely only remain a weapon of division if national leaders continue to wield it as one.
In opting for a touted ‘vote of conscience’ for Umno members in Kelantan, the Najib Abdul Razak government did not lead. In fact, the Najib administration effectively took the stance of allowing the reintroduction of Kelantan hudud law to move forward without opposition.
This was driven by Najib’s weakness, not strength. It will feed extremist religious divisions and make the task of governing Malaysia’s multi-ethnic mosaic more difficult. Najib’s inaction speaks to his failing leadership as prime minister and as the leader of Umno.
It is sadly not the first time when a divisive issue emerged and the PM went missing. Najib may not be able to survive in office until GE14 and his inaction on the hudud law will only make his struggle for survival in office harder.
Najib’s weak leadership over hudud does in fact have damaging consequences beyond himself. By most measures, Malaysia’s position in the region economically and politically has taken a serious beating in the last year, from airline disasters to the recent poor performance in the stock market caused by the shocking 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
The Kelantan hudud bill will add to these negative perceptions, and hurt the country by discouraging investment and reinforcing the view that the country does not effectively offer protections in the rule of law.To date, every country or region that introduced hudud - all in political efforts to shore up political legitimacy - has suffered an economic and political backlash. Malaysia does not have the resources of a Saudi Arabia and Brunei to weather yet another storm as effectively.
For Najib, there will be two tests ahead for the hudud bill. The first will be whether the Umno leadership will move ahead with implementing hudud legislation at the national level. PAS with less than 10 percent of the parliament do not have the numbers to go ahead. Umno will be the national driver.
Umno’s hudud partnership with PAS is driven by the goal of destroying the opposition and PAS in particular. Of late, the actions of the Najib government have repeatedly shown an apparent willingness to carry out actions that damage the country to hold onto power.
A national constitutional amendment allowing hudud is supposedly currently not on the cards, despite PAS ulama grandstanding, but given the climate of crisis and weakness that surrounds both Malay parties and the apparent void of national statesmanship leadership of Najib’s government, not to be ruled out.The second test is whether Najib will direct its members to follow a ‘vote of consciousness’ rather than one of ‘vote of conscience’. This is a vote that at its core gives all Malaysians confidence in their place in the country and faith in their constitution. It is not one that adopts the practice of the ‘politics of tyranny or the majority and punishment’ carried out in the supposed name of democracy by the conservative PAS ulama.
Whether Najib will be conscious enough to provide wise national leadership in his politically beleaguered state is unclear. One should not underestimate the betrayal, fear and anger that many Malaysians across faiths feel about the passage of this bill that divides the country.
The political effects of unanimous support for the Kelantan hudud bill goes beyond Umno. It was not just Pakatan that was betrayed by its coalition partners, the same happened to the parties within the BN. Umno has been adopting a primacy for some time, which has deepened post-GE13.
Gerakan, MIC, MCA and other component parties in East Malaysia will all have to come to terms with this act of Umno and conservative PAS ulama political partnership. They have to come to terms with the fact that they are also allied with a party that supported hudud.
The Kelantan hudud bill will have ripple effects from the cabinet to the Sarawak elections. The pressures inside the BN component parties is there, and they face the same problem as Pakatan partners do over the hudud issue. The glue that keeps Barisan together is power and money, but there has been a similar sense of betrayal at play.
As discussion of the bill evolves, expect pressure within the BN to rise, with Najib becoming the target of these frustrations. He failed to protect the component parties within the BN. A key test ahead will be how the component parties manage in the shadow of Umno dominance.
Where that pressure will be most felt will be is in East Malaysia. Umno will now have to face the music in Sabah, and the vote yesterday will assure that in the short term Umno is not entering Sarawak. But, it is hard for East Malaysians to distance themselves from the action of their fellow party members in Kelantan, as they are of the same party.
They politics of containment have already begun in East Malaysia and they are coming on less reception ground. Since before 2013 there has been a powerful wave of federalism taking root in East Malaysia and this will likely deepen.
Another key test ahead will be the how Umno can convince its East Malaysian partners to work with them, when this Umno ‘vote of conscience’ showed a lack of consciousness of genuine national leadership of all of Malaysia’s citizens.
The main immediate focus however is understandably the opposition, the coalition and individual parties. It was PAS conservative ulama intention to break up Pakatan, but they and their hudud partnership with Umno is not exclusively responsible for the opposition coalition’s strains.
As I have written elsewhere, the causes of Pakatan’s problems cannot be boiled down exclusively to hudud or to PAS, there must be some shared responsibility. The Kajang move, differences in style and the reality of catering to different constituencies have made for a problematic marriage.
The Kelantan hudud bill will now force the opposition partners to come to terms with the issues that have divided them. This is never easy. Addressing Kelantan hudud will be the Pakatan’s greatest test.On all sides questions are being asked. How do you work with a partner you no longer trust, a partner who you see as selfish, a partner who is unable to fulfill responsibilities and a partner who thinks and claims to represents a core group of views that are so different from your own? Most would say you don’t. Others would say you have to try.
As with every problematic relationship, there is a need for distance and reflection. Statesman leadership requires that a difficult decision be carefully considered. How Pakatan will solve this problem will reveal how it will govern, and unlike Umno it does not have the same resources and bounty of position to woo support and keep the coalition together.
The strategic response to the hudud issue divides all the Pakatan parties. The Kelantan PKR representative’s vote and Selangor Menteri Besar Azmin’s Ali’s own alliance with PAS ulama point to some of these ambiguities.
Pakatan will face even more public pressure than the BN component partners. The decision will have spillovers for governance in Penang and Selangor. While both of these governments can survive without PAS, there will be political implications for exclusion.
Pakatan partners will likely need to enter a long cooling off period for assessment and review. Urgings for freezes have already begun. This distance will allow the path ahead to emerge.
After the PAS election this June, it will be clearer whether the PAS members will vote for a leadership that has opted for personal power and undermined the party’s option at national power or will allow for the possibility of collaboration.
As the opposition moves forward, PAS will need to show that it has something to offer politically besides its focus on hudud and reaffirm its commitment to Pakatan emphatically in its party polls.
The other Pakatan component parties will also have to find common ground, work toward respecting the choices of others, move away difference, and strive to build a stronger fabric of leadership for Malaysia. Pakatan will now have to engage in its own politics of containment and national consciousness.
There are limited reasons for optimism, but the possibilities of learning on all sides offers promise and a path ahead.
Part I: PAS’s hudud folly - a political putsch
Part II: PAS’s hudud folly - it’s not chosen by all
BRIDGET WELSH is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.