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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's conservative Islamic party will not oppress other faiths

PAS wants Muslim 'spirit' in government, but does not advocate radicalism

Malaysia PAS President Hadi Awang
Hadi Awang, president of the Malaysian Islamic Party. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

MARANG, Malaysia -- The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a conservative Muslim political group that won an influential position in the May 9 general election, has no agenda to oppress people of other religions or links to radical religious groups, according Hadi Awang, the party's president.

PAS won 18 among a total of 222 parliamentary seats -- five more than previously. That made it the third largest group after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's Alliance of Hope coalition with 113 seats, and former Prime Minister Najib Razak's National Front coalition with 79 seats.

The four parties in the Alliance of Hope came together for the general election, and Mahathir set aside his differences to partner with among others Anwar Ibrahim, his estranged and imprisoned former deputy prime minister. The departure of any of the four parties from the coalition would deprive it of its parliamentary majority, possibly opening the door to PAS involvement and its political agenda. PAS could potentially hold the casting votes if the ruling coalition fractured.

PAS President Hadi Awang told the Nikkei Asian Review that his party's "back to Islam" mission was intended to return "a spirit of Islam" to the government. As an example of what that means, he said government leaders should bear in mind that they will be punished for corruption in the next world by God, even if they are not charged for it in this world due to lack of evidence.

Islamic influence in government "does not mean suppressing people of other religions," he said. "They are free to practice their own religions, and they are free to worship." He said that "justice for everybody" is a basic precept of Islam.

Hadi said Islamic ideas can fit in with the administration of the multi-ethnic country with 23% of its citizens Chinese and 7% Indian. He said PAS even has non-Muslim supporters. "This is proof that non-Muslims can be part of us," he said.

Terengganu state of Malaysia The flag of the Malaysian Islamic Party flying in an eastern part of the country. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

There is an increasing presence of hardline Islamic groups elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia's Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). FPI appears to be expanding ahead of next year's presidential election in the world's most populous Muslim nation. The group has demonstrated against religious tolerance in government and been involved in violence against non-Muslims.

PAS is careful to distance itself from hardline religious zealots or extremists such as Islamic State from the Middle East, which has been expanding its footprint in Southeast Asia and was involved in last year's fighting on Mindanao in the southern Philippines.

"Extremism is not part of Islam," Hadi told Nikkei. "It does not represent Islam at all."

Norshahril Saat, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that PAS is a political party whereas FPI remains a movement. "FPI's appeal is more populist, and its influence on policies centers on lobbying and forging alliances with politicians," he said. "PAS can change policies in the states it controls. It can make alliances at political party level, and became a king maker in some of the states it lost marginally. Even if PAS pushes for hard-line policies, it may be halted by the federal government," he said, noting that Mahathir has never supported harsh Islamic laws. 

Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at Italy's John Cabot University and an expert on Malaysia, told Nikkei that PAS and FPI share the goal of introducing Sharia law (Islamic law) to their nations, but PAS's "tactics are different." PAS will try to influence government policy by using its position and electoral weight.

In his interview with Nikkei, Hadi said PAS will not enter a coalition, but cooperate with other parties on an issue-by-issue basis. "We go on our own," he stressed. "Our concept is to cooperate with everybody. If something is good, whether it is from Alliance of Hope or National Front, we can cooperate. For something which is negative, we cannot cooperate with anybody."

Hadi said his party supports the Mahathir government's decision to scrap a high-speed rail project connecting Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. "Singapore benefits more than Malaysia from that particular project," he said.

Welsh said an important focus now is on the United Malay National Organization, the main party in the National Front, which has its presidential election on June 30. "The outcome will determine what sort of opposition pact emerges," she told Nikkei.

Hadi said his party will continue to expand its support base ahead of the next general election. PAS currently governs two of the 13 states in the country -- Terengganu and Kelantan on the east coast -- and plans to "activate party branches all over the country." He declined to evaluate Mahathir's new government on the grounds that it is "too early."

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