Asia Watch: New Broom

Michael Shannon


New Broom

With Malaysian Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim still detained by a farcical trial and Prime Minister Najib Razak’s sclerotic UMNO-led coalition firmly in control, the entrenched political stalemate could yet be upset from a surprising direction. Long viewed as a promoter of fundamentalist Islam in politics, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is undergoing something of a renovation that could turn the fortunes of the struggling opposition coalition.

The traditional, rural-based party underwent a sudden and dramatic transformation at its annual meeting over the weekend of June 4-5, electing secular leaders and abandoning its traditional call to convert the country into an Islamic state.

The secular slate replaces many of its former religious leaders in a bid to widen its public appeal and mesh more effectively with the two other parties that make up the opposition alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) – the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Anwar’s largely urban Malay People’s Justice Party (PKR). Religious leaders now make up only six of the 18 elected central committee members. The rest seem to reflect the majority Malay middle and working classes that PAS has lately begun to court.

Perhaps the most notable victory was that of the party’s newly elected deputy president, Mohamad Sabu, a galvanising speaker who connects well with the grassroots population, over the incumbent Nasharuddin Mat Isa – who headed a minority of conservatives seeking to lead a splinter group to link up with UMNO in a “unity” government. His defeat likely represents an end to PAS attempts to seek common ground with the endemically corrupt UMNO.

Then there is Husam Musa, who has pushed to moderate the PAS stance on a theocratic state. He won one of the three vice-president posts and vowed to reach out to non-Muslim minorities.

While the party remains headed by an Islamic religious leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, the deputy presidents and vice presidents below him – dubbed “the Erdogans,” a reference to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan who is perceived as a successful, progressive Islamic leader – are expected to move the party from promotion of a conservative Islamic state with strict sharia laws to a more inclusive agenda that prioritises justice, “benevolence” and good governance.

The new line-up has been well-received outside the party’s ranks, especially among supporters of Pakatan Rakyat. With a revamped party leadership and appeal to populism, PAS aims to capture the moderate Muslim voters that UMNO and its ruling coalition partners have traditionally won, and in doing so, give a shot in the arm to an opposition alliance that has been widely viewed as an unconvincing marriage of convenience.

Crime and Punishment

The ongoing 10-year saga of trying to nail Abu Bakar Bashir, the ideological godfather of Jemaah Islamiah, has been resolved for the time being with the Islamist cleric sentenced on June 16 to 15 years behind bars for recruiting and encouraging terrorism activities.

At 72, Bashir should probably die in prison. But if the past is any indication (and the question of health notwithstanding), the odds on him serving his full term would appear slim.

Prosecutors demanded a lifetime sentence, but South Jakarta District Presiding Judge Herri Swantoro limited the term to 15 years, and in the Indonesian penal system usually those convicted serve half the time and get additional time off for good behaviour. Certainly Bashir’s past record in the Indonesian courts bears that out.

Critics point out that as a repeat offender, unless Bashir is sent to an isolation cell in a maximum security prison, he will be preaching his message of hatred and gaining new recruits while he is in jail.

Although prosecutors dropped several serious charges against the cleric including illegal possession or smuggling of arms and explosives and the use of violence to terrorise people, the charge that finally stuck concerned incitement to commit terrorism through an Islamist training camp he was operating in the remote, jungle-covered province of Aceh. The camp was closed down in a violent military operation in February 2010.

Prosecutors presented a list of witnesses including members of the Jemaah Ansharuf Tauhid, another group he had founded, who testified against him.

Bashir himself told the court that he opposed the sentence because it had been delivered by a court and laws “that are made by infidels, not based on sharia. It is haram (forbidden) for me to accept the ruling.”

He also maintained a number of fanciful explanations, insisting that Jemaah Islamiah doesn’t exist and was invented by the United States in conspiracy with Australia to put him behind bars; and even that the Bali bombs were only intended to injure people and not kill them, and that the CIA had replaced them with stronger weapons.