Friday, June 20, 2008

The weakest link in the Pakatan armour

Friday, 20 June 2008

By : Zubaidah Abu Bakar, New Straits Times

THERE they go again. Argument over Islamic laws and practices between the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) and the secular-socialist Democratic Action Party (DAP) seems to be never-ending. The parties have become embroiled in yet another argument over the issue, confirming the sceptics' belief that the implementation of Islamic laws will remain a thorn in the side of Pakatan Rakyat.With component parties having contrasting Islamist and secular stands, one wonders whether the yet-to-be-formalised Pakatan Rakyat alliance is tenable. Pas and DAP are on extreme opposite sides, leaving the other component, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, caught in the middle every time the issue is raised.

Does this amount to cracks in Pakatan? Some people say once the "honeymoon" is over, the Pakatan allies will go separate ways as they have different dreams and were forced into a coalition. Pakatan Rakyat was indeed formed as an afterthought after the March general election.T

he three parties had worked together before as "Barisan Alternatif", but DAP left the loose coalition in 2001 over Pas' insistence on setting up an Islamic state.When Pas Youth vice-chief Azman Shapawi Abdul Rani told youth members in Kelantan recently that Pas was going ahead with its agenda of introducing siasah syariah or Islamic lifestyle and practice in Pakatan Rakyat states, he knew very well it would evoke negative reactions.

He went ahead, perhaps because there was nothing to stop him conveying the party's message. Pas leaders say that as a young Islamic scholar, it was his duty to make known that Pas has never discarded its struggle for Islam despite collaborating with secular parties.After all, Azman did not say that Pas would bulldoze the idea through without first consulting the state governments, organising a brainstorming session and looking into existing laws.

"In other words," said a party leader, "we are saying that no laws will be implemented without the consent of Pakatan allies. So why the big fuss?"

Pro-reform and secular-trained Pas Youth chief Salahuddin Ayub admitted that the youth wing had discussed the proposal to introduce Islamic governance in Pakatan states, citing combating corruption and introducing welfare insurance schemes for the poor as part of what defines siasah syariah.

"It's a general agenda, not about policy," Salahuddin said. "We are also not talking about implementing syariah criminal laws. It is just a proposal thrown for further discussion. "The implementation part, if approved by all parties, will take many years, as non-Muslims have to fully understand Islam first."

Implementing Islamic laws or practices in this multiracial country is bound to draw flak from Malaysians, including Muslims, as proven in the past. More often than not, issues arising from statements made either by those in government or representing political parties would be so sensitive they risk hostile reactions.Some in Pas think Azman should be more realistic and practical, especially in view of current political uncertainties in the country.

Pakatan cannot afford to be derailed by such public statements, betraying the trust and mandate given to the alliance as the new administration in five states.Azman, the former Rantau Abang state assemblyman, is relatively unknown outside Pas except in his home state Terengganu, where he is the party youth chief and a protege of Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang.

A graduate in syariah law from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Azman also pursued his studies in the United States. He is considered a rising star in the ulama group in Pas; a firebrand with good oratory skills.

Some time last year, Azman was caught in a "little controversy" when he issued a decree during a ceramah in Terengganu that Muslims who supported the Islam Hadhari concept were apostates, going so far as to challenge the religious authorities to take action against him.

Some people would remember him as one of the Pas leaders who supported the idea that Pas should be the backbone of Pakatan Rakyat, reasoning that "the party had been in existence much longer than PKR and DAP and most Malaysians are Muslims".

Azman is confident that there is a workable solution despite Pas only controlling Kelantan and Kedah while Selangor, Penang and Perak are held by PKR and DAP, but this has not gone down well, particularly with DAP stalwarts.

Even so, Kedah Menteri Besar Azizan Abdul Razak, while not ruling out the introduction of Islamic ethics at all levels of administration, assured that only Islamic laws acceptable to all races would be implemented.

"Any change of policy will not be done in haste," he said. "Non-Muslims need not fear the government not being fair to all races."

However, DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang responded: "Pas Youth's proposal to implement an Islamic administrative system in Pakatan Rakyat states is totally unacceptable."

DAP chairman Karpal Singh was more direct, saying Pas did not have the right to extend the "syariah lifestyle" to Penang, Perak and Selangor. Such a move, he said, would have negative implications and consequences and was not a step in the right direction.

Azman must have anticipated such reactions from the two, as he quickly dismissed their views when reporters asked him whether the proposal - which includes banning gambling, limiting the sale and public display of alcohol, imposing a dress code for government office workers and separate counters for men and women in supermarkets as in Kelantan - would be accepted by DAP leaders.

"DAP is not just Karpal Singh or Lim Kit Siang," he said. "They have other leaders who are positive and open-minded, like Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng."

Hadi, however, is concerned that this new controversy will affect Pakatan. He was overseas when Azman issued his statement, and asked for clarification from his aides as to what was said. He knew he would have to explain the situation to PKR and DAP leaders at their regular meetings.

The party president understands that for any leader or party in the PR to make a demand like this would contradict the collective spirit of the Pakatan Rakyat and betray the spirit of their "People's Declaration".

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