By Augustine Anthuvan, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 07 May 2008 0059 hrs

KOTA BAHRU, Kelantan: Malaysia’s Islamist party PAS says it is time for true federalism to prevail as lawmakers from the five opposition-held states take on the ruling Barisan Nasional in parliament. 

But despite having secured a strong mandate in the March elections, the PAS stronghold in Kelantan state could be facing new challenges from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is re-engineering itself. 

Channel NewsAsia looks at what PAS would have to face up to in this second of a 10-part series on post-election Malaysia.

Sunrise at Tok Bali – a fishing village located about an hour’s drive from the state capital of Kota Bahru. 

Even with development encroaching onto Kelantan’s natural heritage, the rustic charm still prevails. 

But the landscape in this PAS stronghold is changing fast as the state government sets firm targets for growth in areas ranging from agriculture to tourism. 

Hu Pang Chaw, Chairman of National PAS Chinese Supporters’ Club, said: “Talking about development, the state government would prefer to develop this state according to the people’s needs and not to the leaders. We only provide them with the assistance whereby we set up the system for them. Kelantan is moving so fast that even the Chinese investors are coming in to invest in agriculture, mining and tourism.” 

But despite the optimism, the reactions on the ground have been mixed to say the least. 

A newspaper vendor said: “I hope the PAS government will continue its good work. Nothing needs to change.” 

A food seller said: “If UMNO takes over, I hope there will be development because under PAS, we’ll stay this way.”

Another pressing concern for Kelantan residents is the role of religion, alongside culture and family values, against the backdrop of a PAS agenda for an Islamic state. 

Dr Mohd Fadzli Hassan, PAS State Assemblyman and Executive Councillor, said: “We have never discarded our main agenda of establishing an Islamic state. But we focus on what is important now, what people can now accept. 

”In our last general election, we put up something acceptable to the people which is an important element of Islamic state – Negara Berkebajikan or welfare state. But it is not a 100 percent welfare state. Negara Berkebajikan is for the interest of the people.

”We want to do things for the interest of the people – having a trustworthy government, good governance, and these are actually the elements of an Islamic state. We want people to understand us first and then know later that this Islamic state was promoted by the PAS government. It is not something alien to the people but something that people may find it acceptable.” 

Hu added “Nowadays when you go around and ask the Muslim people what is the concept of an Islamic state? I don’t think everybody can give you a very clear picture on that. To me it is just a political slogan. We try to get the Muslims to support the Islamic state concept. But to a non-Muslim, what we are doing in Kelantan state is to set up a good model to convince them to tell others about it. So there is fairness and equality in this state. Nobody complain about it.

”Last year we launch a new logo to inform the people that PAS struggle is not just for the Malays but for everyone. With that logo we managed to set up the PAS Supporters’ Club in every corner of the country. And now we have the Siamese PAS Supporters’ Club, Indian, Chinese and even the Iban in Sarawak. This shows that PAS belongs to all the people, all the Malaysians in this country.” 

Non-Malays in Kelantan are allowed to practice their respective religions in peace. A case in point – Wat Phothivihan in the district of Tumpat near the Thai border – is believed to house the largest reclining Buddha statue in Southeast Asia. 

But amid the ongoing PAS experiment – political commentators and bloggers alike say the party is facing new challenges. 

PAS is no longer alone as Malaysians and Kelantanese in particular will be watching developments in the other opposition-held states closely. 

Syed Azidi bin Syed Abdul Aziz, Blogger, said: “Now the challenge is stronger on PAS Kelantan. Previously they are the only one that represents the opposition. Now we have four other states. And we have four other states of a combination or variety of leadership, that sort of things. 

”You have seen Penang and Perak, both states have taken the lead and have been good models. The things that they implement, the things the leaders are saying, they have made a good model. Penang and Perak will be a challenge for PAS Kelantan.

PAS Kelantan meanwhile has this problem of being a party in power for 18 years now. They have become too complacent, they have been playing with power for so long, so they are becoming more UMNO now.

”That is the problem. So that is the challenge they are facing. And I know they are monitoring the situation in UMNO because any wrong step they take will lead them to lose Kelantan in the next five years. 

Another challenge is Tengku Razaleigh’s close relationship with the Kelantan palace coupled with his quest to try for the UMNO presidency. This is being closely watched by the PAS leadership – as by tradition in Malaysian politics – the UMNO president is also the Prime Minister of the country. 

Tengku Razaleigh is the uncle of the current Raja Perempuan royal consort of the ruling Kelantan Sultan. 

Tengku Razaleigh, Gua Musang MP and UMNO Division Chief of Kelantan UMNO, said: “It’s a big party and its got a long history, but definitely it needs re-engineering. I think we need to take into consideration the changing times. The young must be looked into and I think they must have felt ignored and I think its high time that we embrace them and give them a place and the future is theirs and I think the party (UMNO) is the vehicle for us to do just that.” 

The duet between UMNO and PAS in winning the hearts and minds of the majority Malay population is central to understanding how the Kelantanese vote. 

In 2004, PAS held onto the state – winning by only a two-seat margin with razor-thin victories in a number of state assembly seats. However in 2008 – PAS strengthened its hold on Kelantan with an almost clean sweep of the state, clinching 38 of the 45 state seats which gives it a two-thirds majority victory. PKR won one state seat and the Barisan Nasional won six. As for parliamentary seats, PAS and PKR have an electoral pact. Together they swept 12 of the 14 seats. 

But some analysts say the latest PAS victory should be credited to its coalition with the DAP and Keadilan parties. 

Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Director of Institute of Occidental Studies at the Universiti Kabangsaan Malaysia, said: “If we see the history of PAS in Kelantan, after they lost to BN and then BN was ruling for 10-12 years, whatever happened to PAS after that, they did not win on their own. They won with Semangat 46, they have the support of PKR. 

”So it was in the year 2004 for the first time in history, after the BN lost, that they were on their own, one-to-one, so to speak. What happened? They nearly lost … But now they are part of the PKR and DAP. So therefore they managed to translate the little winning that they had into a bigger one because of the support of the other parties, not PAS on it own. 

“I could see that in fact PAS was not organised by PAS. PAS was organised by Anwar Ibrahim and the whole of PKR team like the way the whole opposition coalition has been. So you could see that PAS did not win on their own. For me, PAS won because of its association with PKR and DAP.” 

Whatever the case, the Kelantanese electorate has spoken – giving PAS the mandate to govern for the next five years. 

As often quoted, politics is the art of the possible and the only way for the Barisan Nasional and UMNO in particular to win the state back is to ensure that its re-engineering process will meet with the expectations of the Kelantanese electorate. – CNA/de