PAS on the path to power?
How will the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party adjust to the
realities of governance on the Federal level.
Discussion with Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad.
II. PAS on the road to Power?: A Discussion with Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.
With a view to anticipating the concerns and questions that are bound to arise at the next General election, we took the opportunity to discuss some of the pressing issues in Malaysian politics today with Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad of PAS; during a joint discussion forum on ‘Liberty and Democracy’ organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) at the International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) in Kuala Lumpur on 24 July 2011. Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad received his doctorate in toxicology (the study of the effects of chemicals on living organisms) from Imperial College, London and rose to become one of the heads of the PAS research and analysis bureau. At the elections of March 2008 he won his seat in Selangor and has since served as a PAS Parliamentarian, as part of the ruling PR coalition state government of Selangor. The discussion below took place during the dialogue session organised by the IRF:
Q. The question of whether political Islam is compatible with democracy and liberty is, in my opinion, a question that is intended to establish the subject-position of the enunciator and respondent. One might as well ask if Socialism is compatible with democracy etc., and this doesn’t really get us very far. I suppose what people are really interested in knowing now – with the Malaysian elections looming over the horizon – is what sort of government are we to expect if PAS does come to power as part of a Pakatan Rakyat government? How will PAS adjust to power after being out of power – on the Federal level – for more than half a century?
Dr. Dzul: ‘The kind of modality you are asking me to describe is difficult for me to give at the moment, for as you note, we have never come to power on the Federal government level. Yes, I understand the concerns of scholars and even the public when they ask: what will PAS do when it comes to power? Will you legislate this law, that law? Will you ban this, ban that? But please excuse me if I say that these questions are unfair.
For a start, I ask you to look at our (PAS’s) record of governance in Kelantan, where we have been in power for more than 20 years. Despite the fact that Kelantan is overwhelmingly Malay-Muslim, we have never legislated any laws that were contrary to the needs and interests of the non-Muslim community. As you know, there is religious freedom in Kelantan and that has never been the issue. And beyond Kelantan, please look at our record recently since 2008 in Kedah and Selangor too. Note that even when the ‘Allah’ word controversy came up, PAS took the stand that it was perfectly all right for Bumiputera Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ in the Bahasa Malaysia bibles. We took this stand not to win votes, because it actually cost us some Malay-Muslim support. But we took this stand because it was the correct Islamic stand to take, for as you know nowhere in Islam does it say that the word Allah can only be used by Muslims. Our adversaries in UMNO even condemned us for ‘betraying Islam’, but we did not budge and we have not budged until now, because that is the correct stand to take.
But PAS is pragmatic and realistic. As you noted, we are now poised to – perhaps – come to power, but in such a situation it would be in a three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition. That is the first check-and-balance itself, for it means that whatever stand we take, it has to be agreed with the other two parties as well.
Secondly, it would be political suicide for PAS to think we can come to power as a national party alone. It cannot, and will not happen. Malaysia is a plural country with a Muslim- non-Muslim ratio of 60:40. There is no way that PAS can win power without non-Malay and non-Muslim support. So our view of the Malaysian state and society has to be a nuanced one too. We (PAS) are not asking for much from the electorate: just give us a chance – as part of the Pakatan Rakyat PR – and let us show that we can govern better, better for everyone.’
Q. Well on that note, how does PAS see the state as an institution or instrument then? I ask this because how political parties view the state and society invariably determines how they use the state and treat society as well. For instance, if you see society as a ‘garden’, then perhaps the state will be used to tend that garden and let it grow. But if you see society as a ‘wilderness’, then perhaps there will be the temptation to use the state to ‘domesticate’, control or even police that wilderness. So how do the ideologues of PAS see the state?
Dr. Dzul: ‘Well, we are not deconstructivists for a start. By this I mean that we do not seek to simply deconstruct the state and re-assemble it in our image. I say there because I know that there is always the fear that whenever Islamists come to power, they will simply dismantle everything about the state and reconstruct it to make it Islamically-compliant. For the reasons I’ve stated earlier (above), this cannot be done. Remember: PAS cannot come to power alone, but only as part of a coalition. And remember that PAS will only contest around 60-64 seats, and even if it were to win all of them it would still not be enough to win power and govern alone. That cannot happen, we must work as part of the PR coalition. Even then any reform measures we introduce will have to take into account the plural nature of Malaysian society.’
Q. And this, you assure us, will only be done via a democratic process that PAS is now categorically committed to?
Dr. Dzul: ‘Yes, yes. I categorically classify myself as an Islamist democrat, as do many of the leaders of PAS in the present line-up. You must remember that many of us (PAS leaders) have been exposed to these ideas and the works of (Rachid) Ghannouchi, (Yusuf) Qaradawi, (Tareq) Ramadan, et al. since the 1970s. I myself studied with and under (Rachid) Ghannouchi during my own days as a scholar in the United Kingdom. And the evolution of what we call democratic Islamism goes back to that era of new progressive and pragmatic thinking, where we deconstructed and superseded the old Islamic state model.
We (in PAS) are committed to full democracy, not some half-and-half democratic compromise. This includes, as Ghannouchi insists, the possibility of us being elected to power and also being voted out of power if we do not perform and govern well. It has to be like that, and we cannot use democracy as a tool just to get to power, and then discard democracy when we have attained power. This is the fear that many people have about political Islam, and I understand where that fear is coming from. But again, I refer you to our record of governing the state of Kelantan, which we won, then lost, then won again. We have always played by the rules of the democratic game and remained within the limits of constitutionalism.’
Q. But unfortunately there are also many counter-examples of that not having been the case, and Islamists who on the one hand use the democratic process and then also use religious authority to seal their power. We have seen this in Pakistan, Sudan and other countries. How do you respond to that?
Dr. Dzul: ‘Like I said, the fear is understandable, but this is Malaysia’s PAS we are talking about; and our record shows we have not done that. We will not and should not use the word of God to impose our will on the public; and again the Malaysian public is a mixed, plural public too. Yes, we are Islamists, and we do not apologise for that. But we can only realise our Islamic vision in Malaysia by going through a democratic process that abides also by the rule of law. What I am talking about here is the rule of law, of due process, and of separation of powers – that is the framework of any working democracy.
The separation of powers is particularly important for me, for we need to put our trust in the people, and the institutions of the state whose integrity we need to restore. You see, I am also worried about the abuse of power and that can also happen in a religious-political system; so we need to have separation of powers to keep political power in check.’
Q. And you will maintain this commitment to democracy under whatever circumstances?
Dr. Dzul: ‘Yes, under whatever circumstances. Even when PAS lost elections and lost power, we have always remained within the constitution. We have never done anything extra-constitutional, never engaged in violence.
We remain committed to the modalities of democratic elections and even prior to the last elections (on 8 March 2008) I and several PAS leaders went to Europe to consult with our Islamist brothers and teachers, including (Rashid) Ghannouchi where we once again reiterated our commitment to the democratic system. When we took part in the 12th General elections of 2008, it was with consultation with our Islamist colleagues abroad as well, and that consensus remains.
As Ghannouchi, Qaradawy, et al have noted, politics (siasah) is in the realm of faraghat (spaces), and as such there are no doctrinal or theological impediments or restrictions for us to enter that space. And so yes, we remain committed to the modalities of democratic elections.
Q. Critics of PAS often raise the concern over ‘Islamic extremism’ or ‘conservatism’ but I think this is a non-issue, frankly; because it is not political Islam that oppresses citizens, but rather the state. The state is the tool of power and governance, but also policing and control; and it is the state that will impact on the lives of citizens and shape the lives of citizens. PAS, it has to be said, did not invent laws like the Emergency Ordinance, the Sedition Act or the Internal Security Act, but has criticised the BN government for its use of these laws and the state apparatus as a tool of political control. But what will PAS do if it comes to power, and what will PAS do to these laws (ISA, EO, etc) in particular?
Dr. Dzul: ‘Our stand on this is based on both theological and political arguments. Ibn Khaldun, the philosopher and social scientist, had warned against the accumulation of power in a small group of elites, or even an individual, and in the history of Islamic political though there has been a sustained criticism of the maximalisation of power. So we are wary of maximal state power, because as we all know and can see, it can be very dangerous and it can be abused too. Theologically the position we also take is that the maximalisation of state power means that the state supersedes God, and that is also dangerous; when the state has total power over citizens.
Islamic governance has to be based on trust – amanah – and this trust is one that places power in the hands of the state but only so that the state can empower people and make them complete human beings. The state has to therefore encourage the growth of people, of society, and that is what such repressive laws stand in the way of social development.
What we want to see is a minimalist state that frees society, frees the market, allows market forces to contribute back to society in order for there to be space for private capital, for the growth of the individual, for the freeing of the universities, where society can develop. Now let me state here that this is not an endorsement for a totally free market with no regulatory controls, but what I am talking about here is a sort of merchantalism where there is a bigger space for society to develop economically without too much state interference.’
Q. But of course the immediate question is: Does this mean you are not going to interfere into the private domain of citizens?
Dr. Dzul: ‘I suppose you are asking if we will do ‘moral policing’? The answer is no. No, because that is not the business of the state and unfortunately all the sort of moral policing we have seen in Malaysia is something PAS has never endorsed; and nor have the other non-political Ulama and religious scholars endorsed any of it. Why? Because the private space of citizens is inviolable, and there are plenty of examples in Muslim history, even going back to the time of the Caliph Umar, when Muslims have been told again and again: The private space of citizens is not to be controlled. All the noted scholars of today, Ghannouchi, Qaradawy, Malaysia’s own former Mufti Ustaz Asri Zainal Abidin, agree with this: The state cannot penetrate into the private domain of the citizen, even for the sake of policing his/her morality which is private. That distinction between the state and the private sphere must be maintained, and the state should not be given such maximalist power.
So our Islamist politics can only operate in the public sphere, the public domain, and the role of the state is to regulate that public domain so that citizens’ liberty will be protected and enhanced, not diminished, for the sake of the overall public good.
Q. And this mode of limited, or even minimalist, governance, is going to be your model? A transparent system?
Dr. Dzul: ‘Yes, it has to be – which is why I emphasise the separation of powers and multiple checks-and-balances. Like I said, by virtue of being in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition we already have our first check, which comes from the other component parties.
People think that as soon as Islamists come to power they will ban everything, control everything, forbid everything. But like I said we are democratic constitutional Islamists. By binding ourselves to the democratic process we are exposed to due process and scrutiny: from our political partners, from the public, from the media. Also because we need to be careful of the ‘deep state’ where power is unseen and held in the hands of a few who are not accountable. This is what we need to avoid, and the only way to do it is to remain committed to the democratic system.’
Q. Finally, a realpolitik question: It is perhaps an open secret that over the past few decades the Malaysian government has signed many MOUs, contracts and treaties with foreign governments on matters related to economics, trade, joint-security and joint-military training exercises, arms deals, development projects, etc. Malaysia has had to widen its market options to secure investments from multiple sources, and this has also meant that we have developed a very open, and therefore exposed, economy. Many of these dealings (particularly in areas such as security, intelligence-gathering, joint-defence, etc.) have not been made public, understandably. How will a PAS/PR government deal with these agreements? Will you honour them? I am asking this only because during the election campaign of 2008 some opposition candidates had publicly questioned the wisdom of bilateral/multilateral economic deals Malaysia has made in the past. So would a PAS/PR government renege or re-negotiate certain agreements?
Dr. Dzul: ‘PAS’s stand is part of the Pakatan’s, and for that I refer you to the Buku Jingga manifesto that we have issued. PAS is concerned about creating enabling conditions for there to be economic changes. So our PR programme is made up of ten points that has been laid out in the document, and the ten points deal with how we intend to reform the state and our economy.
Now note that three of the ten points deal with structural-institutional reform: We address matters like the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, and what has to be done to reform these instruments to have a more open and functioning democracy. But let me stress here that we want to see positive reform of the institutions of the state: We need these institutions, but what we want is a better, more accountable police force (PDRM), Anti corruption agency (MACC), Human right commission (Suhakam), etc.
Note also that seven of our ten points deal with economic reform: That is because PAS wants to see an end to the economic crisis this country is in. Thus our approach is one of political-economy. (Prime Minister) Najib’s policies have led our economy to this state of fiscal deficit due to fund-priming and other practices that go back to the Mahathir era. Our economic model has been the same one, and it has led us to the present state of the weakened Malaysian economy. We do not propose to continue the same policies of the BN, or to do it better. Yes of course we want growth and development, but we first need to address the concerns of 60 per cent of the population that is living on less than three thousand RM a month. We cannot simply keep up this cycle of consumption that has led us to the middle-income trap where there is now the real fear that the next generation of Malaysians will not even be able to own homes, have healthcare or any form of social welfare protection.
Furthermore we must address the question of the talent or brain drain, whereby now in Malaysia 60 per cent of the workforce has only basic SPM (O level) education. Talk of Negara Kebajikan means having to create that social security network whereby we can address the concerns of those who are caught in the middle income trap and to stop the outflow of human capital from the country, but this cannot be based on rhetoric or historical-legal reductionism into historical nostalgia.
So of course we are pragmatic. Your question suggests the worry that if PAS/PR comes to power we will simply ban everything. Will PAS close the alcohol factories in Shah Alam for instance? Of course we will not. Because economic pragmatism has to guide the policies of the Pakatan Rakyat as a whole. Things like beer factories are not the priority- the priorities have to be socio-economic equality first, for all citizens. So again when it comes to economic reform, we need to think of the Malaysian public as a whole.
In answer to your question: no, we will not wantonly cancel or renege of the economic deals that have been made before us, because the deals with other nation-states have to be respected. But though there is continuity, there must also be equity and national economic rebuilding.
 The ‘Allah controversy’ refers to a controversy in Malaysia over whether Bumiputera Malaysians could use the word Allah to refer to God in their Bahasa Malaysia Bibles. PAS ultimately took the stand that it was permissible for non-Muslims to use the word Allah as well, as this has been the practices of many Coptic and Eastern Church Christians in countries like Egypt for centuries, The view was upheld by the spiritual leader of PAS Ustaz Nik Aziz Nik Mat and the PAS President, Ustaz Hadi Awang.