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Islamic Opposition On the Rise?

October 8, 2008

An Interview with Dr. Dzulkefly of the Islamic PAS Party By  Mohamed Sharif Bashir (Islam-Online) 

Professor of Economics – Kuala Lumpur  

 “As an Islamic movement, the PAS has factual historical records of managing government,” said Dr. Dzulkefly. (IOL Photo)

The 2008 general elections in Malaysia saw a rise of the Islamic opposition parties’ seats in the country’s parliament and state assemblies. Cashing on the ruling party’s recent weaknesses in the economic level and the debate over a rise of sectarian-based inequality in the country, the opposition parties managed to achieve a victory that cost the ruling party the loss of its two-third majority for the first time in 50 years. has run this interview with Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmed, member of the Central Committee of the Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS.

Dr. Dzulkefly has become a member of Parliament after winning the seat of the Kuala Selangor constituency in Selangor in the 2008 General Elections. He has been involved in active politics after leaving academia in the “Reformasi Movement” since 1998, when the sacking of the then deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim generated an upsurge for reforms in democracy and governance, especially amongst the Malay-Muslim middle ground electorate.

Dr. Dzulkefly had all his tertiary education in the United Kingdom and a PhD from Imperial College, University of London in the field of Toxicology in 1993. He taught for some 15 years in the School of Medical Sciences before resigning from the Science University of Malaysia in 1997. He is now the head of the PAS –Islamic Party of Malaysia– Research Centre since 1998, and a member of the PAS Central Political Bureau.

“Globalization and democratization entails that Islamic movements should be more globally political-savvy and nationally more articulate and tactful,” (IOL): Would you please tell us about the mission and vision of the Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS?

Dr. Dzulkefly: As an Islamic movement that has chosen to be involved in active politics ever since its inception, the PAS has always shown a consistent commitment to democratic political advocacy as a means to achieve its goals and mission. Given the multi-racial, multi-religious and mixed demography of Malaysia, of which only 60 % are Muslims, and unlike many other Muslim countries and the Islamic movements working within, the PAS has always been realistic with its idealism.


As an Islamic movement, the PAS has factual  historical records of managing government. And despite the fact that it is at a state level in a federal system of government. It has been earlier than many other Islamic movements and parties. In this sense, our experience with regard to ‘power-sharing’ or involvement in government is unique, especially in light of understanding the concept of  “plural politics”.

The PAS objectives are quite categorically enshrined in the Constitution of the party as evident in the Article 3 whereby it stipulates:


(i) To strive for the establishment of a society, wherein the values and teaching of Islam and the laws of the country will eventually be in consonance with and for the seeking of the pleasure of the Almighty Allah.


(ii) To strive for the betterment of the country and its national security and to defend the sanctity of Islam.

The political wisdom of pronouncing such stated objectives in this manner would make one appreciates why the pioneering leaders have deliberately captured it in this narration and articulation, taking into consideration our political plurality and multi-racial demography. The challenge is ever more pressing now than ever.


Globalization and democratization entails that Islamic movements should be more globally political-savvy and nationally more articulate and tactful in their ideological advocacy. Otherwise, they become “unelectable” by their own choice.


We believe “Islamic Justice is for all”, yet Islamic parties have failed to communicate it convincingly. We usually end up with “proselytizing Islam” and not “advocating Islam” in the field of politics.

IOL: What are the most important points of the PAS Manifesto in the recent general elections?

“The opposition parties were in a much better shape and were perceived as helping each other,”

Dr. Dzulkefly: After our last bad outing in the 11th General Election of 2004, we did a post-mortem of our performance. We realized that we failed to ‘communicate and connect’ with the bigger segment of the Malaysian electorates. The results then showed that we were only able to muster our traditional chore supporters. Our failures were multi-factorial. Not the least was the success of the mainstream-media to demonize and portray us as being unfriendly and worse still forcing Islam or the Islamic State issue on others, especially on the non-Muslim section of the voters.

In the last general election our campaign tagline was: “A Trustworthy, Just and Clean Government – Towards a Nation of Care and Opportunity”. We focused on getting our message across rather than being embroiled in semantics or terminologies like Islamic or secular state etc. It is what we called a ‘Substantive Approach”, which is stressing more on the substance and embodiment of Islam and its principles than on forms and names – Formative Approach.

We highlighted our commitment to democracy and the need to ensure a level-playing field by having a sound and vibrant electoral process through eliminating various irregularities in postal voting, the unclean electoral roll, the use of indelible ink to mitigate phantom voters and a free and fair access of media to all contending parties.

We addressed the issues of the rising cost of living that affected everyone and provided solutions to it. Other critical issues included the threatening increase of crime rate, the endemic and malignant corruption, and the continuing assault on the judiciary and the rule-of-law.

We called on realizing the need for establishing a trustworthy, just and clean government as a prerequisite to deliver proper health care, education, housing and equal opportunity to the entire citizenry regardless of race, religion and culture in respect of business and economic enterprises. Besides, we called for a prudent financial management system in place so as to avoid mismanagement of public funds, crony practices and extravagant spending on mega-projects that do not benefit the people.

IOL: What are the main reasons for your party and the opposition parties’ victory in the recent election?

Dr. Dzulkefly: Again, the main reasons are multi-factorial. For me, it is finally all the factors working in tandem and in concert to create what we call here a “Political Tsunami” that descended on the ruling regime as it has never seen before. It was worse than the 1969 and 1999 elections for the ruling regime, the National Front (BN). They lost heavily – 5 states – and were denied the two-third majority in the parliament.

Amongst the main factors are the failure of the BN’s government to deliver its promises especially of the fight against corruption, rising cost of living, and the insecurity caused by the rising crime rate. All these have escalated to a level of “crisis proportion”.

Equally important is the fact that in the election you have an emerging “new media” trend coming trough the internet: On-line papers, activists’ websites, and blogs of individuals and parties. With more information and exposure, voters are in fact able to make ‘informed choices’.

“Imagine our woman candidate winning a seat in parliament in a constituency where the Malay-Muslim voters represent only 47%,”

Arguably, I think the greatest factor of this victory was the rejection of the race-based politics and the introduction of a ‘new politics’ based on a multi-racial approach that is colour-blind. I must say that the former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has a strong influence in forging this new trend. The opposition parties were in a much better shape and were perceived as helping each other, even though a formal election alliance came up only after the election.

IOL: Are the election results indicative of the rise of the Islamic parties and movements?

Dr. Dzulkefly: This election has never been about the Islamic Movement or Islamic agenda per se. We came into the election as a partner in a Coalition with the Peoples’ Justice Party (PKR) of the former Deputy Minister Anwar Ibrahim. So I think it’s wrong to retrospectively talk about the success or failure of Islamic movements or parties.

However, I think that the results showed very well that the Islamic party (PAS) is now better accepted by voters of other races, religions and cultures. This is phenomenal. The PAS worked so hard to engage with and get our message of Islamic Justice and leadership accepted by others. Imagine our woman candidate winning a seat in parliament in a constituency where the Malay-Muslim voters represent only 47%. She won by a big majority of over 20,000 votes.

Our message of “PAS is for all” is finally making headway and inroad. That is certainly consoling and reassuring, given our unique demography of 60 % Malay-Muslim majority. Therefore you have to think differently from the other Islamic parties elsewhere in the world.  You have to have a different strategy and mindset in approaching your electoral challenges.

IOL: How did you manage to have a coalition between three different ideologies: The PAS, PKR, and DAP?

Dr. Dzulkefly: Firstly, all of these opposition parties fully understand that in order for them to mount a serious challenge to the ruling 14-membered Coalition Front (BN), we must also be in a Coalition, Pact or Alliance. Secondly, we have solid common grounds to work for a common goal of establishing a “Clean and Transparent Democratic Government”, besides of course wanting to deny the BN government of its 2/3 majority in the parliament.

Therefore, even if we have different ideologies, we are able to come to a common platform of the Pakatan Rakyat or a People’s Coalition (PR) because we do not want to disappoint the voters that have mandated us to run five state governments. In four state governments we have the PR government, where the PAS, PKR and DAP (Democratic Action Party) work in a coalition government. Kelantan, however, has always been under the PAS for the last 4 parliamentary terms. This state is a Malay belt state with a Malay-Muslim community of over 95%.

For the time being, our common goal is more important and of utmost priority, but at the same time we have much respect for each other’s respective political conviction and ideology. This is truly democracy, which is mainly the right to dissent and be different, yet working together without fighting over each other’s ideologies. This is, for me, truly the defining criteria of a democrat and we would like others to know that we are truly Islamic Democrat. The western media should stop demonizing us, calling us by various negative names, and stereotyping us in a way that injures our democratic credentials.

“The ruling BN government lost five states in this ‘political tsunami’,”

IOL: Have you signed an agreement with the three parties for cooperation? What are the areas of cooperation and the common issues of agreement?

Dr. Dzulkefly: We are in the process of writing some concrete common rules and agreeing upon a mechanism to operationalise our structure at all levels. We want to make sure we do not rush this process because we had a bad experience before.


IOL: Are there any fears that the DAP, or any non-Muslim in the PKR, would ignore the rights of the Muslims and their electoral demands and would not give enough attention to reserving and protecting Muslim rights and privileges in this country?

Dr. Dzulkefly: Well, the fear and anxiety are mutual on both sides, as it works both ways. Worse still the mainstream media are always out to cause dissension and discord amongst the members of each party. We must not allow our members to be dragged into controversies and disputes. You know there are always overzealous people everywhere including ourselves. But it is always good to have a basis and reference point. In our context, the Federal Constitution is certainly one, while some universal and timeless principles could also be our benchmarks.

IOL: What measures have been made to unite and convince Muslims and non-Muslims to work together?

Dr. Dzulkefly: We have been working together in many campaigns like the advocacy for a free and fair election, human rights, the fight against the draconian laws, the rising cost of living, and burdening inflation etc. All these are real issues for the society and citizens and bind us closer. Talks, theories and ideological discussion are least helpful as they may divide us and not bring us closer. But we have to face it nonetheless because we must know our differences and manage them well democratically.

IOL: Would you please comment on the election results by analyzing the PAS and other Islamists’ results? Please provide some figures.

Dr. Dzulkefly: Of course, but I don’t think I have to go into deep details. In Malaysia, by the way, there is only one Islamist party. The PKR is multi-racial and multi-religious. But the BN government is ethnic-based or race-based Coalition of 14 parties. So really you are only at PAS as an Islamist party. Sorry, I don’t intend to be judgmental but that is the way things are here, unless a political party declares its ideological commitment openly like we do and takes the “good-sides and not-so-good-sides” of doing so, especially in a multi-racial-religious country.

Briefly, the ruling BN government lost five states in this “political tsunami”: Kelantan, Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor. It was only able to secure 48.7% of the popular vote, including the spoilt votes. The total opposition parliamentary seats are 82, while the ruling BN won 140 seats. The PAS won 23 parliamentary seats, the PKR 31 seats, and the DAP 28 seats. While in the state assemblies, the PAS got 82 assembly seats, the DAP 73, and the PKR 40.

Based on our econometric model, on average of mean value at the parliamentary level for Peninsular, in west Malaysia, the swing as compared to the 11th general elections of 2004 was as follows: The Malays experienced a 5.13% swing, the Chinese a huge 56.26%, while the Indian a whooping 69.09%. Therefore, as compared to the 1999 elections where the Malay swing was the major cause of the UMNO/BN (United Malays National Organization/National Front) defeat, the last elections saw the Indian-Chinese swing. But because there is a majority of Malays, i.e. the bigger base, the swing is also significant.

Let me elaborate on the Malay swing for parliamentary seats according to states as we have just finished with this ethnic group. Look at Selangor. In 2004, 59% of Malay voted for the BN, while in 2008 only 52% did. This represents a swing of 11.82%.  In Kedah, 66% Malays voted for BN, while in 2008 only 47% did. This represents a swing of 15.84%. Kelantan experienced a “stand-alone” rejection of the UMNO/BN phenomenon of the mood of 1990’s election, triggered by the “overkill” of the UMNO-BN’s campaign. This would require a separate treatment to do justice to the issue.


Dr. Mohamed Sharif Bashir is a writer and professor of economics at the Malaysian University of Sciences.

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