The Changing Face of Politics

At the French Bastille Day reception today (14 July), I saw a sight I had not for 30 years: PAS' Subky Latiff, who abandoned journalism and his lounge suit for politics, in an unaccustomed lounge suit in the sweltering heat, in the spacious gardens of the French compound in Jalan Ampang. We have been friends longer than that, we met when I was at Bernama, joining it after leaving Reuters and seven years in Singapore, and he at Utusan Malaysia, he erudite and with the touch of whimsy he retains, prone to practical jokes, and I as ever with a bee in my bonnet, both interested in the undercurrents, more than the news itself.

He went on into politics, building a reputation for stolidity amidst electoral failures -- he lost to the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, in Kubang Pasu in 1999, an important backroom boy in a political party the rest of Malaysia loves to hate. He is a party apparatchik, make no mistake, but he is also its best face, when journalists and diplomats diplomats drops in for a chat. His commanding presence comes with it a stentorian voice which comes to life in front a microphone.

I had not seen him for almost a year. The last time he was in his customary white skullcap and baju Melayu. He was in a lounge suit, because he said the invitation had insisted on it. I was improperly dressed, as usual, in batik. I commented on his sartorial modernity, and he said he would not want to insult his host. It is more than that. It is a sign that PAS, with its pronounced fundamentalist image, readies itself for the centre stage. Somehow, talking of an Islamic state in a three piece suit is, in the language of modern diplomacy, more acceptable than more moderate words from an Ustadz as Haji Hadi Awang.

Conversely, PAS's arch rival, UMNO, holds to its secular vision by private concessions to its fundamentalist members. It tries to outbid PAS's Islam by a superficial secular presence. But without the confidence to see its beliefs through. It is frightened of an opposition front which has PAS and DAP, for that would uncomfortably challenge UMNO's dominance. PAS is on the ascendancy not because its brand of Islam is the better, but because it has a well-woven party with party workers in the Subky mould, putting their personal defeats to ensure a party that could one day form the government.

No other party has that dedication. Its election agents are the best prepared. They know the elections laws inside out, better often than the elections officers, is there to brook no nonsense, and little nonsense takes place. They hold classes in which the elections regulations are discussed ad nauseum until every one knows what it is about. The National Front ignores this in the belief it would thump through with ease.

The problem of ballot boxes arriving late is not an issue where PAS stands: they are nullified and not part of the counting because the laws provide for it and its agents know the sections by heart. DAP and Keadilan lost enough seats by electoral deux et machinas than any other cause. The clearest is the Lembah Pantai seat which Keadilan's Zainur Zakaria should have won; but the miraculous arrival of a ballot box hours after the counting changed the tide. It should not have been allowed, but few in Keadilan knew the elections regulations to challenge it.

This is the big difference in Malaysian politics. Apart from PAS, no one bothers about the nitty gritty of electoral politics. This gives the National Front a headstart. When the tide sways away, since 1998 over how UMNO mishandled its deputy president, one Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, it is the best organised party that moves in. This is how PAS got into the mainstream so dramatically. It has a collective fanaticism of the believer, knows the world is stacked against it, moves deliberately to rise to the top by sheer grit and stamina, unswayed by defeats, chipping away at majorities until one day, in 1990 in Kelantan and in 1999 in Trengganu, it seizes power.

It is this focus that unnerves lesser prepared parties, in the government and opposition. The DAP is frightened of its electoral sway; but it itself did little to prepare itself for such electoral sleight of hands where they stood -- the Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh defeats in Penang come to mind. Words alone cannot ensure electoral success. It is a pity DAP did not accept PAS's offer to train its election agents. Peace comes only when one is prepared for war.

The remarkable PAS confidence is another frightening worry. Before every parliamentary session, its MPS meet to discuss the issues, raise discussion points, and come to the chamber well prepared. This happens day in day out every day of the session that its MPs are never taken unawares. I know of no political party that prepares so thoroughly. While it firms its home ground, it reaches out. Patiently, persistently, it builds bridges, changes its public perception, moving artlessly from baju Melayu to Saville Row suits, its beliefs unquestioned, and one day its solutions acceptable.

In the same way, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode to power in India. There is nothing unusual amongst its members, only that those who ran it, and many who believed in it, were prepared to work for it. Money was not the cause of that belief, it is a new world shaped by their beliefs. It frighteningly challenges the laisse faire worldview we have become accustomed to. People are afraid of the unknown, and would not peer into it unless guided by someone they know and trust.

The National Front and UMNO, part of the landscape of those under 45, for all its faults, corruption, arrogance, rising irrelevance, is believed. The middle class is happy with them, the business man willingly works with them for he could make more from any projects he receives than he should. The average worker, however hard his life, would not want it reordered to add doubt and fear into his equation.

The unbending strength of incumbency is a powerful election manifesto to return it to yet another term in office. But the National Front and its principal patron, UMNO, is stuck in its groove of arrogant, oligarchic, dictatorial governance. Its principal supporters, the Malays, move away from it, insisting UMNO defied the cultural imperative that put it there in the first place.

Suddenly, Malaysian politics is not one in which the National Front dominates. UMNO is in tatters, the Malay cares not if it survives the next election, nor if the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed remains in office for the rest of his life. He sees UMNO in a lemming-like dash to disaster, and it would do nothing to prevent it. He waits patiently, as a man waiting for the ripe durian to fall, and he is prepared to wait as long as he wants.

Malaysian politics, despite the superficial stability, is in flux. UMNO's vaunted Malay Dominance is in danger because it was nurtured with the care it should have been. PAS's Islamisation, its antithesis, moves to fill the coming vaccum. Whether it would is not what matters now. It is UMNO's fear of that, and of losing power. Which is why it reaches out to the non-Malay partners it led by the nose all these years.

Malay Dominance comes unstuck, and UMNO does not know how to turn it around. It probably cannot. It does not have the men with the conscience of Malay Dominance accepted unquestioningly to repair it. Most had been seduced with unexpected riches from the national casino that Malaysia was for twenty years. But what goes up must come down. And these denizens of Malaysia Boleh now head for the bankruptcy courts. They have, understandably, no time for theories and fine-tuning of failed policies.

The Chinese community sees this clearer than most others. The MCA cannot respond with the flawed leaders it has. The DAP cannot step forward stridently to be the Chinese voice of the opposition coalition because of its gut fear of PAS's Islamic agenda. But both MCA and DAP, with Gerakan lagging a distant third, are caught flatfooted with their supporters, for having led them up the garden path, and react in haste and fright.

Islamisation is a bugbear that the Chinese think they understand, and react to back their leaders. But it is not done with thought or study. So, it is at best, as in India, a temporary means to prevent the inevitable. For when all it said and done, both UMNO and PAS have Islamisation in mind, it is only in how to implement it that brings them into opposition. There is both parties an unchallenged view of Malay Islam domination. Neither questions that.

But it is only PAS that attempts to project itself, as now, of a modernist view of Islam. it is constrained by its more extreme members who demand nothing short of the Middle Eastern sharia practices imposed, with the hudud laws implemented in its extremity. It is the modernist PAS member who holds the trump card. With the hordes of Malay professionals who rush into its ranks, it has to be. That lounge suit Subky Latiff wore on 14 July reflects that thinking. PAS shifts gears to attract those who once would have been angry at the prospect.

M.G.G. Pillai pillai@mgg.pc.my