Umno battles PAS for Malay hearts

The exorcising of Anwar Ibrahim's ghost at Umno's general assembly grabbed the headlines; but equally important at the meeting was the demystifying of Parti Se-Islam Malaysia. By BRENDAN PEREIRA


WHEN Dr Mahathir Mohamad appointed Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as the Umno chief in Kelantan on Sunday night, he was thinking beyond his government's chances of re-claiming the north-east state from Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS).

It was a declaration of war on an Islamic group whose influence in the country has spread like blood through veins since the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim created fissures in the Malay community. PAS says its membership has jumped from 500,000 in September to about 700,000 today.

Umno, with 2.7 million members, is still way ahead in the numbers game. But the party leadership is concerned that it is running second in the battle to win the hearts and minds of Malays in the rural areas -- the bastion of Umno support since independence in 1957.

PAS has gone on the offensive to make inroads in 115 Malay majority parliamentary constituencies, of which only seven belong to them. Nothing has been sacred.

Dr Mahathir's policies have been dissected, his sons' business deals scrutinised and Umno members brushed aside as unIslamic. The psychological warfare has gone unchallenged for months, and reports by government agencies suggest that some people are finding the PAS message inviting.

Datuk Mahazhir Khir, a university lecturer and political analyst, said: "Umno has surrendered the initiative to PAS on the ground. The party was distracted with the Anwar issue. The PM also knows that Umno members sometimes give too much respect to PAS because of its Islamic image."

Step one in curing party members of their paralysis was to appoint Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as Umno's number one official in Kelantan. The Kelantan prince knows his green-robed opponents well, having been allies in 1990 and 1995 when he led Semangat 46. An aide said: "Ku Li knows what PAS has been up to all this time. He is not impressed with their Islamic image. They may wear the garb of religion, but their lifestyle is far from pure. "He knows about the allocation of timber land in the state. He will expose their hypocrisy."

Twenty-one years ago, Tengku Razaleigh delivered Kelantan to the National Front government, ending PAS rule. But obstacles may prevent him from repeating the feat. His shifting political affiliation over the years has alienated a body of supporters in the state.

Kelantan PAS Youth chief Takiyuddin Hassan told The Straits Times: "Ku Li's supporters did not follow him when he returned to Umno. They joined PAS. He is not a threat to us." Also, Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, or Tok Guru as the Kelantan Mentri Besar is known, is a formidable figure. The slightly-built politician with a wealth of homespun anecdotes is good for several thousand votes in each Kelantan constituency. His moderate lifestyle and the halo he wears from being a spiritual leader has made him an untouchable.

Umno veteran Tun Ghafar Baba once remarked: "You have to be careful when taking on Tok Guru. You can't use a knife to slice jelly." That advice went unheeded during the general assembly when the PM tried to lift the veil of religion from the revered leader. He noted that when PAS member Shannon Ahmad used vulgar language on him and his mother in the book "Shit", Datuk Nik Aziz defended the author, arguing that there were instances in the Quran where Prophet Muhammad also used swear words. Shaking his head, Dr Mahathir said: "That is PAS for you. It will twist religion for its political ends. It is not an Islamic party."

Flowing robes and skull caps have not equalled piety. PAS members have been arrested for various offences, including close proximity with women, he said. The onslaught continued throughout the assembly. Two books, "PAS -- Between Reality and Fantasy" and "Knowing PAS", were distributed to delegates, to help them prepare to take on the opposition.

Mr Nawawi Ahmad, a delegate from Malacca, took the cue from the top leadership and ripped into PAS. He hit out at it for saying that people "would go to heaven" if they voted for it. He said: "This is a lie. Is it so easy to go to heaven?" Sources said that Umno has roped in former PAS members to discredit the fundamentalist party and provide inside knowledge on the psychological war it is waging.

Lesson No.1: Do not be taken in by reports that groups of Umno members are joining PAS or be cowed by the number of party flags flying atop trees and buildings. These tactics are to give the illusion of strength, a one-time leader of PAS told his former foes.

Datuk Ibrahim Ali, a deputy minister who has called Tok Guru "Mr Bean" and other less flattering names, said: "Once we see PAS leaders as politicians and not religious experts, we can take them on in any debate and win."

True, but winning over the Malay hinterland takes more than fire-and-brimstone speeches. It means cutting the umbilical cord that has developed between PAS and a more religious community. Ten years of growth has brought about an explosion of wealth in many areas in Malaysia, even rubber and palm oil settlements. With it has come a bagful of problems: 69 per cent of drug addicts are Malays, 60 per cent of juvenile offences were committed by Malays; over 70 per cent of HIV cases involve Malays; 61 per cent of child rapes were committed by Malays.

 Opposition parties have blamed the rise in social ills on the pursuit of materialism over spiritualism. PAS was first off the mark with its getting-back-to-basics scheme, urging parents to give more thought to the hereafter. Datuk Nik Aziz put it simply: "Life in heaven is a certainty if you follow a certain path. If you follow that path, you will not go astray."

The path, an uncompromising stand on Islamic practices, has since bonded PAS and many Malays. Inadvertently, the government has pushed students towards the fundamentalist party. In 1974, university students led by a young Anwar Ibrahim marched to draw attention to the plight of poor farmers. Dr Mahathir, then Education Minister, enacted laws governing student activity. Politics on campus was barred.

When Anwar served as education minister in the late 1980s, the restrictions stayed. Those strict laws meant that many students turned to the only outlet of expression left to them: Islam. Inspired by the resurgence of Islam that began in the Middle East, students met in mosques and prayer halls, the only venues where they did not have to apply for permission to gather.

Today, many young people find fundamentalist Islam more appealing than Umno's moderate version. Many of them were among the 5,000 undergraduates who booed an Umno Youth speaker off the stage at a debate between the parties. The most rapturous applause went to the PAS man.