On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Uphill task to soften image

The party was eager to shed its  extremist image. In a bid to garner  votes from the non-Muslims, it set  up the Chinese Consulative Council, which
comprised non-Malay  Muslims.

Party secretary-general Halim  Arshat,
then a state PAS secretary,  was among
the speakers.

They had expected questions  about the
Internal Security Act and  other laws
which were regarded as  draconian. These
were laws the  party readily promised to

So confident were the PAS leaders in dealing with the audience  that they opened the session to  journalists.

But what transpired was not as  what the
leaders expected.

The non-Muslim representatives  wanted to
know how the party's  viewed fashion
shows, beauty pageants, mahjong, mini skirts and eating pork.

The PAS leaders were not prepared for these questions.

A self-proclaimed DAP supporter  asked
whether a PAS government  would allow the
staging of fashion  shows. The reply was
a vague “certain fashion shows will be permissible'', but the PAS speaker
could not  be specific.

Asked how PAS could work with 
non-Muslims when the party could 
not even work with Umno members, Halim answered that PAS was  non-discriminatory because Islam  required the party to be fair to all.

When an Indian lawyer asked  whether
Islamic laws would be applicable to all, another PAS leader  reassured him that Islamic laws  were only for Muslims.

Someone from the floor then  asked
whether civil law, which was  also good,
would continue. There  was no reply from
the PAS leaders.

Another non-Muslim wanted to  know
whether special privileges  for
bumiputras would be done  away with,
given the fact that PAS  had promised a
“fair distribution of  wealth.'' Again,
the answer was  non-committal.

What about mahjong, empat ekor  and
beauty pageants?

Halim promised that the party  would not
restrict non-Muslims  from their
practices and culture,  but asked whether
it was good “to  have anak gadis
telanjang sini (to  have your daughters
naked here),''  pointing at his arms and

He again said “PAS will not curtail your rights and tradition'' when  an elderly Chinese man asked  whether he could still have his daily bah kut
teh, 4-D and kuda (horse  racing).

Finally, Halim was asked whether PAS would hold elections after it  had won. The answer given was  that the party would let the people  decide.

The dialogue ended with a promise that Chinese and Tamil schools  would continue.

There was much goodwill as the 
participants and PAS leaders adjourned for tea. Some of the non Muslim
representatives wished the  PAS leaders
luck and pledged their  votes.

But many were not convinced by  the

To show that it was serious in  getting
non-Malay support, PAS  fielded several
Chinese Muslim  candidates such as
Mohamed Redhuan Daniel Oon Abdullah and Ghazali Ho in the Merbuk and Tanjung  Malim parliamentary seats, respectively,
while Kamal Koh contested  in the
Seberang Jaya state seat.

PAS also put up several candidates in predominantly Chinese  constituencies but the strategy  failed.

The majority of the votes went to  the
Barisan Nasional who promised  a stable
government, good constituency service, liberalisation, and  funds for Chinese and Tamil  schools.

More than 10 years later, PAS  leaders
are doing the same again.  The party has
a new set of younger  leaders, but the
leadership structure headed by Datuk Fadzil Noor  is still intact.

The party has not changed its  policies
but there are moves, albeit  cautious
ones, to amend its constitution to allow non-Muslims to become associate

As associate members, they will  have no
voting rights and no influence in the party decision-making  process.

The party is aware of the possibility of non-Muslim voters tipping  the scale in a tight contest against  its traditional foe, Umno, during  the general election.

PAS has made early moves by  forging ties
with non-Muslim based  political parties
and non-government organisations, including the 
DAP, Parti Rakyat Malaysia, 
Suaram, Just, Abim, Aliran and 

It has, to some degree, successfully propagated the ideals of social justice
among young, middle class non-Malays, many of whom  were still in school when the Alor  Star dialogue took place.

PAS has also cleverly seized the 
euphoria over reformasi to gloss its 
somewhat conservative image, preferring to emphasise values and  concepts which cut across religion  and race.

Pre-empting possible criticism  that it
was working with DAP, Fadzil announced that it would not  work with any non-Malay or non Islamic party
during the polls.

Likewise, the DAP realises that  to be
seen working with PAS would  only mean
the kiss of death from  its traditional
backers in the urban  areas.

As a community-oriented organisation incapable of developing a  genuinely multi-ethnic, all-rounded  national character, it is understandable that
PAS wants to project  a softer

Realising that neither PAS nor  DAP can
offer itself as a viable alternative to the Barisan Nasional,  the two parties and some NGOs  have tried to cooperate on a minimum

For the first time, both opposition parties have talked realistically of
denying the Barisan a two thirds majority instead of capturing the

It is through this strategy that  they
hope to get a bonus. If enough  protest
votes go to PAS and DAP,  the two parties
may just get more  than what they hope

Many PAS leaders and supporters have taken to wearing the white  ribbon instead of the party's symbol of a
white moon on green background.

Like many of the NGO leaders,  PAS has
said the party is against  injustice but
not supporting the reformasi movement.

Aware of the anti-establishment 
resentment of some Malaysians, 
PAS has, however, exploited the issue.

In some ways, PAS has succeeded if their claims over the increase  of membership and the sale of Harakah are

The willingness of PAS to be  more open
is good for the country  as it will mean
another step towards removing communalism 
from Malaysian politics. After all, 
Umno has provided membership to 
non-Muslim bumiputras from Sabah.

But PAS leaders must realise  that the
Chinese community, in  particular, is
known to be pragmatic.

Moderate Malaysians are aware  that good
governance and political  and economic
stability are better  bets for long-term

It is easy to be a leader of a community or to whip up emotions on a  single issue. It is harder to be a  leader to all Malaysians.