A Malaysian political revolutionBy Asia Sentinel Jun 06, 2011 9:46PM UTC
An Islamic party changes stripes, but for how long? writes Asia Sentinel
In what could well be the start of a political revolution, Malaysia’s rural-based opposition Islamic party underwent a sudden and dramatic transformation over last weekend, electing secular leaders and abandoning its traditional call to convert the country into an Islamic state.
In its new secular guise, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) has the potential to deliver a real challenge to the sclerotic United Malays National Organisation in elections expected late this year or early the next, say analysts from both the government and opposition camps.
PAS is the largest party in opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition but its resolve to impose Islamic law has often been seen as a serious barrier to its bid to win over non-Muslims, who make up nearly half of the population.
The implications for Malaysian politics are profound. Urban and moderate Malays have turned away from PAS because of its harsh advocacy of religious law. A reformed PAS, political analysts say in Malaysia, could provide a new refuge for disaffected ethnic Malays who have long been turned off by UMNO’s endemic corruption but are still not willing to opt for Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the urban, largely Malay People’s Justice Party headed by Anwar, who remains a polarizing figure laboring under his own problems from a long-running sexual perversion trial and a new film purporting to show him cavorting with a Chinese prostitute. He also suffers in some eyes from his perceived ties, rightly or wrongly, to western governments, in particular the US.
PAS’s new face could present a serious problem for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and UMNO. If Sarawak state elections earlier this year are any indication, the Chinese, who make up about 25 percent of the population, have abandoned the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, made up of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. Some UMNO strategists have advocated simply abandoning support from the other major ethnic groups and counting on the party to take all of the ethnic Malay votes, with perhaps a smattering of other ethnic groups to push it over the top.