KOTA BAHRU, Malaysia — Malaysia’s opposition theocratic Islamic Party (PAS) sees Chinese support as crucial to its bid to head an alternative broad-based multiracial coalition party capable of taking over the federal government of Malaysia in future, and is working very hard to dispel their fears of its cardinal principle — an Islamic state.

Since emerging as the largest opposition party in Malaysia’s last general election, PAS has been inviting Chinese from the west coast states to visit its two bastions — the 95 percent Muslim-majority eastern states of Kelantan and Trengganu — to have dialogue sessions and judge for themselves how the concept of an Islamic state has been implemented.

The aim is to persuade the Chinese to cast their votes for PAS in Malaysia’s next general election in 2004. As PAS — with its deeply-etched image of fanatical Malay leaders sporting goatee beards in traditional Muslim long flowing robes with white turbans and skull caps on their heads — is still distrusted and feared by many Chinese as “an extremist Malay party,” the task of reaching out to them is left to its two allies in the Alternative Front (AF) coalition: the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the secular-oriented Malay-based National Justice Party (Keadilan). The latter is headed by the wife of former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

Both DAP and Keadilan have been organizing the visits for their Chinese members, supporters and friends in the west coast states. To date, many of such visits have already taken place. As most of those people have never visited Kelantan and Trengganu, the visits were arranged not just for them to enjoy picturesque spots and shop for handicraft, but to to have dialogue sessions with top PAS leaders as well so as to clear whatever misperceptions they may have on an Islamic state.

Muslim Malays and Indians who are Keadilan members, supporters and friends from the west coast states, also join the Chinese to project a multiracial image to the visiting delegations.

While PAS also intends to garner Malay and Indian support, the main target of the dialogue is the Chinese who comprise about 30 percent of Malaysia’s 20 million people. The Chinese hold the balance of power in the bipolar political struggle for control of Parliament and the 13 state assemblies between PAS and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) which leads the incumbent multiparty National Front (NF) coalition government.

“Malaysian politics is Malay-dominated and Malay-based, with power alternating between two Muslim-Malay parties such as UMNO and PAS, very much in the same way that politics in Britain is dominated by the Labor and Conservative parties,” says PAS parliamentary member Kamarudin Jaffar in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur, the capital.

Analysts say the overwhelming victory of the NF in Malaysia’s last general election on Nov. 29 of last year – when it bagged 148 of the 193 parliamentary seats and control of 11 of the 13 state governments — was due to the strong rally of the Chinese to the NF.

In contrast, the AF managed to win only 42 parliamentary seats of which 27 went to PAS, 10 to the DAP and 5 to Keadilan.

Only 56 percent of the electorate voted for the NF compared to 44 percent vote garnered by the AF. PAS and Keadilan sources contend that in the trend of racial voting, had the Chinese voted for the DAP to the same extent that they did in the 1990 general election, the NF would have lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority, with the AF securing some 70 parliamentary seats.

They cite statistics to show that in 41 parliamentary seats where Malays form at least 80 percent of the majority, UMNO could only garner some 43 percent of the total vote.

AF leaders have accused the NF of threatening the Chinese with riots, like what happened in Indonesia prior to the fall of Suharto to force them to vote for the incumbent government coalition in the last general election.

In particular UMNO’s Chinese ally, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), had been successful in exploiting Chinese fears of PAS’s concept of an Islamic state and making them vote against the DAP.

Among the things MCA leaders told the Chinese were that an Islamic state along the lines of Iran would prohibit the consumption of pork and alcohol, forbid gambling, introduce the chopping of chop off of the hands of thieves and infringe on the right of women to dress freely by forcing them to put on the tudung or head-scarf.

PAS’s motive in working closely with the DAP and Keadilan was based on the premise that only significant Chinese support for an AF that already has strong Malay support for PAS would be able defeat the coalition front in the next general election in 2004 and cause a paradigm shift from the race-based politics of the present NF government.

During the Kelantan and Trengganu visits, top PAS leaders had long dialogue sessions in the Malaysian language with their Chinese guests. The PAS hosts tried their best to be open in their answers to questions. When the answers needed further clarification, the PAS leaders were helped by their Chinese allies present in Kelantan and Trengganu, who spoke in Mandarin.

At a dialogue session in the Kelantan state capital of Kota Bahru on April 30 with about 200 Chinese, Malay and Indian visitors from the west coast states of Penang, Perak and Negri Sembilan, top PAS leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat told them Islam stood for justice and nondiscrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims.

“If the people can accept things like air, water and trees which are created by God, why can’t they accept Islam which is also created by God,” said Aziz, who is also the chief minister of the state of Kelantan, his voice resonating in the hall as the 200 visitors listened attentively.

The party’s effort to downplay its theocratic Islamic image is reflected by their decision to bring along English-educated professionals like well-known author professor Shahnon Ahmad, Kamarudin Jaffar, Husam Musa and former Chief Justice Salleh Abas to those sessions.

The interesting part of the three-hour dialogue was questions asked by the visitors and the answers from Anuar Tan and Ong Tim Kuang, a Chinese businessman. Questions were asked about Islam, including controversial and sensitive issues such as pig farming, the head-scarf issue and the provision in the hudud or Islamic law requiring the amputation of the arms of thieves.

The choice for the Chinese has always been between a secular Malaysia with injections of Islamic values advocated by the UMNO-led NF and an Islamic state advocated by the PAS-led AF with equal treatment for all. Prior to the PAS dialogue campaign, the Chinese have traditionally opted for the NF’s secularism which allowed them to freely practice their culture and customs.

In states like Trengganu and Kelantan where the Chinese are a small minority, they can afford to give equal treatment to both Muslims and non-Muslims. This is but a small price to pay to gain the support of the more numerous Chinese in other states who are unhappy with the secular-oriented NF’s discrimination against non-Muslims by according favorable treatment to Muslim Malays on the grounds that they are the indigenous.

What PAS would do to the non-Muslims should it win control of the federal government is still a matter of conjecture. Even Anuar Tan concedes that in view of the deep-rooted suspicions of the Chinese against PAS, it would be an uphill task before they can eventually be won over.

Whether this will take place in future, the important thing is that PAS has already taken the first steps to gain their confidence.

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