PAS Youth’s ‘war’ parade could let Anwar govt burnish moderation credentials, analysts say

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 23 — Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim could capitalise on a provocative war-themed parade by PAS Youth and demonstrate his coalition’s rejection of communal politics ahead of crucial state elections this year, according to political observers.

After a tense period following the 15th general election, senior fellow at Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research Azmi Hassan felt PAS has given Anwar a golden opportunity to show the country he was steering it towards being more united and harmonious instead of worsening racial and religious strife.

Given the resounding message for Malaysians to reject the politicisation of race and religion, including from the Malay Rulers, he said PAS’ insistence on carrying on could turn public opinion against it.

“I feel that the general consensus is that Anwar Ibrahim and this unity government have the upper hand in gaining political mileage when it comes to this scenario compared to PAS or Perikatan Nasional (PN).

“Especially if many feel PAS’ actions were something they were not supposed to do and not suitable for the current political climate in Malaysia.

“This is an opportunity for the unity government and they should use this issue to distinguish themselves from PAS or PN by showing that we do not need such practices to gain political votes, where in this case it’s race and religion,” he told Malay Mail.

PAS Youth organised the Himpit gathering over two days on February 17 and 18 in Bari Indah Beach Resort in Setiu, and held a parade in which attendees dressed as medieval Arabic warriors brandishing replica swords, spears, bows and shields.

After public anxiety emerged over the parade, Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail told the Islamist party that such concern was natural given the war-themed elements and messaging that accompanied the event.

Among others, the minister pointed out that videos of the event were accompanied by Arabic hymns with elements of war, and said this naturally begged the question of whether the parade was meant to fire up emotions.

After his party was criticised over the parade, PAS deputy president Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man engaged in whataboutism by likening the paraders to Chinese operatic performers.

Azmi said while that may be true superficially, he noted that the Islamist party and PN had campaigned heavily using communal politics during GE15, which gave the parade an entirely different context from what Tuan Ibrahim was suggesting.

“PAS can say it’s a normal procession or liken it to a Chinese opera but because of them using race and religion to campaign it (the Himpit parade) could be a camouflage to gain more votes. It won’t be a surprise to see what happened at GE15 happen at the state elections but there are certain quarters from PAS who are uneasy with this portrayal.

“No matter how innocent the organisers want to portray the parade as, from past experiences, there are implicit signals of what the organisers would truly like to transmit during the procession,” he added.

Senior Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun felt PAS’ defence of the events and the party leaders’ refusal to offer any form of apology only reinforced the perception that the parade was political posturing.

He said there were already many examples worldwide of how parties espousing religious supremacy could tear countries apart, and warned that Malaysia was not immune to such a phenomenon.

“Copious examples in many other countries indicate that for parties espousing religious supremacy or absolutism, there is usually only a very fine line between peaceful political advocacy and non-peaceful ideological assertion, with the latter typically irrevocably tearing apart the multicultural social fabric in such countries, and there is no reason to assume that Malaysia will be any different from this ubiquitous phenomenon.

“And the mainstreaming of such non-peaceful socio-political downward spiral would typically start with condoning public demonstration of non-peaceful exuberance. It is against this background that what took place was most deplorable.

“But in the current fragmented political landscape where the regressive, illiberal electoral cohort is being hotly courted, it is doubtful that any action would be taken against it,” Oh said when contacted.

So far, leaders from Anwar’s government have been openly critical of the event, including Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Mohd Na’im Mokhtar who called out the organisers for being callous with their choice of outfits and portrayal of Islam.

He said by choosing to use Islamic symbols, their parade had caused members of the public to raise their concerns that the parade could cause racial disharmony.

Universiti Sains Malaysia’s political science professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid felt there was no connection between the PAS event and upcoming state elections, but agreed the parade was meant to be a show of strength for its supporters.

Giving the party the benefit of the doubt, he said it could also be just organisers in the Marang PAS division who wanted to parade themselves as medieval warriors.

However, he said PAS should have clearly addressed concerns about the Himpit parade when public anxiety first emerged.

“But, unfortunately, what we hear are unapologetic defences of the controversial act, even if it involved only fake weapons,” he said.

When asked if the parade could be a precursor to the campaigns for the six state elections due this year, he disagreed but said it was likely part of a larger strategy to win supporters over to the Islamist party’s views.

He also said authorities should not overreact to public concern over the parade and crack down excessively without justification.

“This would only serve to draw people further away from PH, which already suffers a trust deficit among Malay-Muslims.”