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Partai Islam Se-Malaysia

Diane K. Mauzy, Max L. Gross
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Partai Islam Se-Malaysia

The Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), better known by its Malay acronym, PAS, was established in November 1951 as a breakaway group from the dominant United Malay National Organization (UMNO). From the beginning, it has represented the view that Malaysia should be an Islamic state. UMNO itself, the party that has dominated Malaysian politics since independence in 1957, was established in 1946 as an all-Malay party set up to counter a post–World War II British plan to establish a National Union combining all parts of the Malay peninsula into a single Crown colony, in which all inhabitants—Chinese and Indians as well as Malays—would be equal citizens. Fearing that this plan would result in political domination by the far wealthier, if less numerous, Chinese community of the Malay peninsula, UMNO sought to forge a common Malay front to champion Malay rights and to ensure the continued Malay personality of the peninsula. The former Islamist party, Hizbul Muslimin, and the radical nationalist as well as socialist Malay Nationalist Party (MNP)—later the primary constituent units of PAS—were at the forefront of the UMNO movement.

With its success in reversing British policy in 1948, a step that in no small measure contributed to the outbreak of the largely Chinese-based insurgency in which the Malay Communist Party (CPM) took the leading role during 1948–1950, UMNO emerged as the leading political movement, allied with the British in helping to suppress the insurgency while also emerging as the key interlocutor with the British in negotiating the terms of Malayan independence.

Emergence of PAS.

The 1951 split in UMNO that gave rise to PAS reflected dissatisfaction within the party over concessions offered by UMNO to secure the cooperation and support—vital to achieving independence from Great Britain—of the Malay Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). Those party members who broke with UMNO to form PAS objected to the secular leanings of the dominant leadership of the party and also reflected a fiercer, more chauvinistic sense of Malay nationalism, the latter being perceived as virtually identical to Islam in Southeast Asia.

PAS did not originally establish itself as a political party, but rather as an Islamic welfare organization, on the model of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī in India (now Pakistan), and the Muhammadiyah in Indonesia. It was only in 1955 that PAS registered itself as a political party and won only one opposition seat in the pre-independence election of that year. The growing politicization of the party reflected increasing alarm over UMNO's concessions to non-Malays during independence negotiations. PAS was strengthened politically, although changed in character, by the election in December 1956 of prominent nationalist Burhannuddin al-Helmy as party chairman.

PAS has always reflected the orientation and approach of its leadership. Under al-Helmy, a physician, the party appeared more as an ultranationalist rather than an Islamist movement. The party slogan, “Bangsa, Ugama, Tanah Ager” (Race, Religion, Native Land), had a powerful emotional attraction to many largely rural Malays, and in the first post-independence elections in 1959, PAS gained control of two of the country's then eleven states, Kelantan and Terengganu, located in the heavily Malay-populated northeast. The party was gravely weakened in the years after 1962, when the UMNO-led government imprisoned al-Helmy and other top leaders of PAS for collaboration with Indonesian President Sukarno in supporting his scheme for achieving Indonesia Raya, or union between Indonesia and the Malay peninsula.

A reunion of PAS and UMNO was achieved after the controversial elections of 1969 that gave rise to the Kuala Lumpur race riots of May of that year. The UMNO-led government responded to the 1969 riots by declaring a state of emergency (which has never been officially lifted) and by adopting the New Economic Plan (NEP), a twenty-year affirmative action program to advance the educational levels and economic well-being of Malays. Associated with this effort was the formation of the Barisan Nasional (National Front; BN), a coalition of ten political parties, aimed at strengthening Malay solidarity. Under the leadership of Datuk Asri Muda of Kelantan, who had become president of PAS in 1971, PAS joined this coalition in 1972.

Islamic Revival and the Decline of PAS.

Under Asri, the party's main efforts were increasingly devoted to governing in Kelantan, the sole state remaining under PAS rule. Despite Asri's personal popularity and his efforts to promote good governance in Kelantan, the strength of the party declined during the 1970s. In part this was due to internal dissensions. In part, also, it was due to the emergence of alternative Islamic movements during the period. The 1970s were a time of significant religious revival among the country's Malay population, as elsewhere in the Muslim world. In Malaysia, the revival was in part fueled by the social ramifications of the NEP, but also by international circumstances. The revival, however, gave rise to a number of alternative Islamic movements, all with different agendas. The most prominent among them were the apolitical Tablīghī Jamāʿat; the cultish, separatist Dar ul Arqam movement; and, most important of all, the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM; Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia), led by rising student leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim, Razali Nawawi, and Siddiq Fadhil. Although the emergence of such movements might be thought of as strengthening the appeal of PAS, it did not, and indeed, the party lost control even of Kelantan state in the elections of 1977.

The 1977 electoral defeat of PAS led to the eventual demise of Asri and the immediate withdrawal of the party from the Barisan Nasional. It also led to fierce internal debate about the party's future. The example of the ʿulamāʿ-led Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 proved to be the decisive influence. Increasingly, Malay ʿulamāʿ emerged to leadership in the party, and in 1982 they took it over with the establishment of a Majlis al-Shūrā (Council of ʿUlamāʿ) as the major decision-making body within the party and the election of Yusuf Rawa of Penang as party chairman. Closely associated with him were two men, Fadzil Noor of Kedah and Abdul Hadi Awang of Terengganu, who subsequently succeeded him as chairmen in 1989 and 2003, respectively. These three, all of whom were educated in the Arab world, were inspired by the Iranian revolutionary model and considered it appropriate for Malaysia. They have dominated PAS into the 2000s, and the party has represented a clear Islamist rather than nationalist agenda.

The year 1982 also saw the departure of the ABIM leader Anwar Ibrahim from the Youth Movement he had helped to found; he subsequently joined the UMNO-ruled government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. His decision was based on assurances from Mahathir that the government intended to adopt initiatives to make Malaysia more Islamic in character. Such steps were soon undertaken, including the establishment of an Islamic bank, the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), and an Islamic insurance company, as well as a ban on gambling and imported beef not slaughtered in accordance with Islamic procedures, the introduction of Arabic script (Jawi) in public schools, and the establishment of training courses on Islamic ethics for all government employees. All of these measures were responses to the Islamic revival among Malays during the 1970s, and politically they were aimed at co-opting popular support that might otherwise go to PAS.

Resurgence of PAS.

The government's strategy was successful during the 1980s, but PAS began to make a comeback in the 1990s. In part, this was due to the increasingly repressive character of the dominating UMNO/BN regime, which was showing increased signs of corruption and tended to press its advantage by arrests and incarcerations of dissident opponents, control of media outlets and the judiciary, financial patronage to manipulate the electoral process, and gerrymandering of electoral districts to ensure UMNO/BN control of the government. In such an environment, PAS leaders, now increasingly former ABIM activists who had begun to flock to the party, were able to portray PAS as the liberal (rather than conservative) party in Malaysian politics that opposed the authoritarianism and corruption increasingly associated with UMNO/BN rule. PAS leaders also made effective use of the concept of takfīr (pronouncement of apostasy) as a propaganda weapon against the government, associating its sins with unbelief in Islam and alleging that it was an infidel regime that needed to be purged by a return to Islamic values. Such a message found resonance particularly in the traditional rural Malay community that was increasingly unsettled by the changes taking place in the rapidly modernizing urban society of the country.

In the 1990 elections, PAS regained control of Kelantan after an interval of thirteen years, and in a demonstration of how the party had changed under the leadership of PAS clerical leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the new state government moved quickly to adopt the sharīʿah as the prevailing law of the state and banned gambling, closed nightclubs, restricted the sale of alcohol, and imposed the death sentence for apostasy. Such actions brought Kelantan into conflict with the federal government over the wider issue of whether state law prevailed over federal law, an issue that remained unresolved through the 1990s.

The political fortunes of PAS gained greater momentum following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, but more importantly, after the summary and arbitrary dismissal from the government and the subsequent arrest of the highly popular deputy prime minister and former ABIM leader Anwar Ibrahim by Mahathir in September 1998. Police mistreatment of Anwar and political pressure on the judiciary to ensure his conviction brought considerable discredit on the ruling UMNO regime, both domestically and internationally. In an effort to preempt growing disenchantment with UMNO, Mahathir shrewdly called for early elections in 1999. Although UMNO retained control of the government, opposition parties cut deeply into its dominant political position, and PAS regained control of Terengganu state as well as strengthening its hold on Kelantan. In Terengganu, the party leader Abdul Hadi Awang, who would become party chairman in 2003, began implementing the same sharīʿah reforms adopted in Kelantan a decade before. A feature of PAS politicking at this time was its decision to join with a group of other opposition parties opposed to the ruling regime in a common front called the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front; BA). Despite its strong ideological orientation, PAS and its leaders demonstrated political flexibility and a willingness to compromise in an effort to achieve electoral gains.

Such flexibility continued to characterize the party's leadership in the early years of the twenty-first century, finally enabling PAS to take political control of Kedah state for the first time in 2008 and to enter into coalition governments with other opposition parties in Perak and Selangor. Such growing strength at the state level was not reflected at the federal level, where the UMNO/BN coalition remained dominant. PAS had in fact been weakened, as demonstrated in the elections of 2004, by its association in the public mind with the Islamic radicalism of the Taliban and al-Qaʿīda, whose revolutionary agenda raised suspicions that PAS was of the same order. These fears seem to have been allayed by 2008. Nevertheless, PAS's share of the national vote in 2008 was only 14 percent. Only in association with other opposition parties—in that year called the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance), which together obtained 46 percent of the national vote—could PAS be a major player at the federal level.

Despite its origins and its continuing commitment to a vision of Malaysia as an Islamic state, PAS remains a minority party in the tumultuous democratic politics of Malaysia. The fundamentalist orientation of the party's leaders since 1982 is not necessarily shared by the large majority of rural Malay peasants and traditional village leaders who make up the historic basis of PAS political strength. PAS remains an important player in Malaysian politics, however, and it has found strength through coalitions with other opposition parties desirous of putting an end to the rule of UMNO, which has governed the country since independence. Such coalition-building requires flexibility on the part of PAS's otherwise ideologically oriented leaders. It seems likely that PAS will continue to play the role it has played since its establishment in 1951, as the conscience of the nation, ensuring that Malaysia remains committed to Islamic values and Malay supremacy in the Malay peninsula.



  • Alias, Mohamed. Malaysia's Islamic Opposition: Past, Present, and Future. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1991. This short, lightly footnoted book discusses the history and politics of PAS from the perspective of a Kelantanese critic. Find it in your Library
  • Anwar, Zainah. Dakwah among the Students: Islamic Revivalism in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1987. A brief but comprehensive examination of the Islamist movement in the 1970s. Find it in your Library
  • Crouch, Harold A.Government and Society in Malaysia. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996. An important study of Malaysian society and politics centered on the argument that a “ moving equilibrium” exists between authoritarian and democratic tendencies, leading to a continuously reconstituted continuum. Find it in your Library
  • Funston, N. J.Malay Politics in Malaysia: A Study of United Malays National Organization and Party Islam. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1980. Good comparison of the origins and development of the two major Malay political parties. Find it in your Library
  • Gross, Max L.A Muslim Archipelago: Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia. Washington, D.C., 2007. Malaysian chapter places PAS in perspective in the larger political scene. Find it in your Library
  • Kessler, Clive S.Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan, 1839–1969. Ithaca, N.Y., 1978. Interesting defense of PAS politics in Kelantan. Find it in your Library
  • Lee, H. P.Constitutional Conflicts in Contemporary Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and New York, 1995. Key study examining the relationship between politics and constitutionalism in Mahathir's Malaysia. Find it in your Library
  • Marican, Y. Mansoor. “Malay Nationalism and the Islamic Party of Malaysia.”Islamic Studies16, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 291–301. Explores the link between Malay nationalism, ethnicity, and Islam inside PAS. Find it in your Library
  • Mauzy, Diane K.Barisan Nasional: Coalition Government in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1983. Account of Tun Razak's coalition-building strategy that brought PAS and several other parties into the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. Find it in your Library
  • Means, Gordon P.Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation. Singapore and New York, 1991. Comprehensive modern political history; very useful successor to his original Malaysian Politics. Find it in your Library
  • Milne, R. S., and Diane K. Mauzy. Malaysia: Tradition, Modernity, and Islam. Boulder, Colo., 1986. Solid overview of modern Malaysia's political history with special reference to the role of Islam. Find it in your Library
  • Milne, R. S., and Diane K. Mauzy. Politics and Government in Malaysia. Rev. ed. Singapore, 1980. Includes detailed discussion of post-independence party politics and the political process. Find it in your Library
  • Mutalib, Hussain. Islam and Ethnicity in Malay Politics. Singapore and New York, 1990. Find it in your Library
  • Mutalib, Hussain. Islam in Malaysia: From Revivalism to Islamic State?Singapore, 1993. Find it in your Library
  • Muzaffar, Chandra. Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 1987. Discussion of the nature of the insurgence and its political ramifications. Find it in your Library
  • Nagata, Judith. Malaysian Mosaic: Perspectives from a Polyethnic Society. Vancouver, Canada, 1979. Solid study of ethnicity in Malaysia, especially strong on the role of Islam. Find it in your Library
  • Nagata, Judith. The Reflowering of Malaysian Islam: Modern Religious Radicals and Their Roots. Vancouver, Canada, 1984. Detailed investigation into and analysis of the Islamic resurgence and the groups leading it in the 1970s. Find it in your Library
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