Tok Guru Nik Aziz – guardian of the progressive generation

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I would like to thank the organiser of today’s seminar, Parti Amanah Negara, for inviting me to share my thoughts on the legacies of former Mursyidul Am of PAS and Menteri Besar of Kelantan Tok Guru Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat.

As much as I am a DAP politician, I hope the organiser invited me at least in part because I had spent considerable time researching on the recent history and internal dynamics of PAS, especially on the Reformasi era between 1998 and 2004.

PART I Tok Guru the unique ulamak

As a young DAP party worker in 2000, I led two separate groups of non-Malay constituents from Seputeh to visit Kelantan and Terengganu Governments, and were very warmly received by Tok Guru himself. That was of course a very different milieu when DAP was at its rock bottom when Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh lost their parliamentary seats in Penang in the 1999 general election, while PAS won an unprecedented 27 parliamentary seats and massive majorities in the Kelantan and Terengganu state assemblies.

In my later visit, as an academic, I interviewed Tok Guru with Wong Chin Huat in 2005, through the arrangement of Hu Pang Chaw.

To someone who grew up in an urban setting, visiting the frugal setting of Pulau Melaka house, next to a mosque and religious school complex, was educational. Nik Aziz shunned the JKR 10 official residence in Kota Bharu for the community of which he was the central figure. While the man was thin and not very tall, he was certainly larger than life size in his home base.

For that particular interview, Chin Huat and I actually arrived at the State Secretariat complex (Bangunan SUK) in the morning, after more than 10 hours of train ride from Kuala Lumpur. That day Tok Guru did not have enough time for us as he was busy with some meetings. We continued our journey to Pulau Melaka to meet the man in the afternoon.

What was striking to us then was a casual comment by a staff member at the Menteri Besar’s office that, on that particular Tuesday, the State Exco was having a private “pre-council” meeting to prepare for the official Exco meeting on the next day. Appointees of the Palace (State Secretary and State Treasurer) as well as Federal Government (State Legal Advisor) are official members of the Exco meeting proper, hence the need for a pre-council among PAS Excos before the official meeting.

In the current milieu in which PAS is a de facto ally of UMNO, it is important to remember that the Nik Aziz Government was operating with numerous challenges and constraints placed upon it by the Federal Government, as well as the Palace. And the Kelantan Government held together and survived for more than two decades largely because of Nik Aziz’s moral authority in the eyes of Kelantanese voters, as well as his pragmatism and ability to navigate and negotiate in difficult circumstances.

Indeed, Nik Aziz was a unique ulamak.

During Tok Guru’s decade-long sojourn as a young man in the 1950s, he studied at Darul Uloom Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, India, and at Al-Azhar, Egypt. Besides Arabic, he also spoke Urdu. In Egypt, he was among the circle of youth leaders including Anwar Sadat, who later became Egyptian president. Despite being an Islamist, Nik Aziz said he read through books and writings on various mazhabs of Islam, nationalism, Marxism and liberalism, “in order to know what others say about the world”. Nationalist fervent was the main theme of Egypt/Arab politics in the late 1950s when Nik Aziz was there.

The other point to note about the 1950s and 1960s was that, apart from Pakistan, virtually no other Islamist party had tasted power. The Muslim Brotherhood was persecuted harshly in Egypt during this period. Sayyid Qutb was hung in 1966. PAS was a rare case in the Islamist circle which had achieved government at regional level since 1959.

My point is that Nik Aziz had seen the world before returning to Kelantan as a religious teacher.

PART II Legacies

In many ways, Tok Guru played a major role in the history of PAS and Malaysia. Although not as the dominant protagonist, when history calls on him, he rose to the occasion to be the guardian that sets the movement on the right path and protected a generation of progressives. His soft approach steered the party to winning in Kelantan in 1990, after a disastrous election rout in 1986 when PAS campaigned on radicalism.

At GE 1986, riding on the wave Islamic revival momentum after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the new leaders of PAS misread the ground went for a hard-line campaign filled with overly optimistic and unrealistic assumptions. Contesting the largest ever number of seats in PAS’ history – 90 over seats – the party won only one seat. It was the Pengkalan Chepa parliamentary seat that Nik Aziz held from 1967, and given to Nik Abdullah Arshad in the 1986 election.

Against some internal dissent, Nik Aziz chose to work with his Kelantanese former arch-rival Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Semangat 46 party. PAS played second fiddle to Semangat 46 nationally but contested more seats at the State Assembly level. The strategy paid off. Semangat 46 did not achieve much nationally but PAS was back in power at the state level.

With the seat of power, the unique ulamak groomed a generation of progressive leaders with national prominence. Federal seats in Kelantan were given to non-Kelantanese PAS national leaders to contest. Many young Malays, including technocrats and urbanites who previously shunned PAS, were attracted to PAS as Nik Aziz’s incorruptibility was the moral gold standard in the 1990s when money politics in UMNO became rampant.

The “Membangun Bersama Islam” tagline was representative of Nik Aziz’s soft approach towards Islam and governance that attempted to marry the dominant idea of “development” with Islam and not rejecting it, which was common to many other more radical elements in the party.

When Anwar Ibrahim was sacked on 2nd September 1998, his erstwhile best friend Dato’ Fadzil Noor visited him and steered the party towards supporting the cause of freeing Anwar.

Most top PAS leaders initially opposed to the move as Anwar was PAS’ most important opponent as the face of Islam for UMNO between 1982 and 1998. Nik Aziz sided with Fadzil Noor, and the move paid off, as evident in the 1999 general election which saw PAS’ greatest victory to date.

Before the 1999 general election, PAS was mostly confined to Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis. But the uprising of Malay voters as a result of the Anwar crisis brought PAS to Peninsular West Coast states, with many younger and urban-based professionals joining the party.

The engineer of this “mainstreaming” strategy was Fadzil Noor who aimed to make PAS a party acceptable to all Malaysians, non-Muslims included, and to prepare itself as a future national ruling party with other coalition partners. Nik Aziz was the guardian-protector for the newcomers, as well as for Fadzil’s mainstreaming ambition. Sadly, Fadzil passed away in June 2002.

The demise of Fadzil put a halt on the mainstreaming of the party and heightened the importance of Nik Aziz’s protector role for the “mainstreaming” faction.

PAS under Hadi Awang took the radical position of pushing for the Islamic State agenda in 2003, and resulted in massive losses in the 2004 general election. The party won only 6 parliamentary seats, down from 27 in 1999.

The defeats however opened up opportunities for the “mainstreamers” to set a progressive agenda for the party and bring the party to work with other opposition parties including DAP via the Bersih movement.

The election result on 8th March 2008 caught everyone by surprise. In hindsight, the fruits of Malaysian democracy were somehow preserved on 8th March 2008 in part thanks to then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s acceptance of election results, and Nik Aziz’s rejection of “Unity Government” between UMNO and PAS.

In the ensuing days after the March 2008 election, forces in UMNO and PAS tried to exploit PAS’ kingmaker role in Selangor and Perak to force UMNO-PAS governments in those states. Nik Aziz stood firmly against the idea.

It is fair to say that without Nik Aziz’s firm stand against PAS working with UMNO, the fruits of democracy in 2008 could have been stolen much earlier. In that sense, all Malaysians who love democracy should thank Nik Aziz for setting PAS in the righteous path during the tumultuous time post-2008 election.

PART III Reflection on political Islam

Tok Guru’s life coincided with the development of political Islam globally and domestically in the past half century. Reflecting upon his life helps us to understand the future better.

2017 marks the fiftieth year after Nik Aziz entered politics. Globally, Islamic revival began around the same time after the despairs arising from Arab defeat to Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967, the oil crisis in 1973 which gave the Arab states new found sense of power and cash, and the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Islamic revival became fashionable on Malaysian campuses in the 1970s, and culminating politically in Anwar Ibrahim’s co-option into UMNO a week before the April 1982 general election, and the young Turks’ revolt in PAS in October 1982 which created the contemporary PAS that we know. It has been 35 years and definitely the time to take stock and chart a future for political Islam and for the nation.

In 1980s, Anwar introduced Islamic elements into government policies, such as Islamic banking, Islamic finance, etc. In order to battle Anwar’s brand of Islamic symbols, PAS tries to be more radical in order to take the moral high ground. One of the key “product differentiation” was hudud, hence the beginning of the polemics of hudud, that was never a political issue before 1980s.

PAS was very much a single-issue party in the 1980s. But with state power in Kelantan under Nik Aziz’s leadership, PAS moved beyond a single-issue party and embrace talents, especially young professionals, and a myriad of issues beyond the polemics of hudud.

Anwar’s Reformasi and the entry of large number of members and leaders from West Coast, and with the “mainstreaming” ambition to be a federal government with other coalition partners, broadened further the party’s appeals and agenda. PAS’ tacit leadership role through Mohamed Sabu in the first Bersih in 2007, and the subsequent idea of a “Welfare State” are notable examples.

Half a century of contemporary global Islamic revival, and nearly 40 years of local Islamic revival means that the Malay-Muslim society is very different from that of in 1982.

Islam is of course more salient as a political factor than 35 years ago. However, the Malay-Muslim society is also far more sophisticated. In the 1980s, many would be very glad to see Islamic finance becoming a choice. Anything with the Islamic brand was a welcome sign then.

Today, I am very sure more than half of Muslims in Malaysia would say “no” if a sukuk (bond) is issued to rescue 1MDB. Likewise, I am quite sure many Muslims would reject the idea of hudud being promoted in exchange of support for the 1MDB kleptocrats.

In a way, what happened in Parliament last week was a throwback into history: that PAS becomes a single-issue party again after moving away from such positioning in the 1990s, and PAS becoming an ally of UMNO, something that PAS, especially Nik Aziz, had rejected since 1977 when it was booted out from Barisan Nasional, at a heavy political cost.

The Malay-Muslim society is far more sophisticated than most politicians would like to think. Many politicians, including the Malay leaders, who believe that Malays are closed minded, afraid of change, and can’t think for themselves. I strongly disagree with this negative view.

I am confident the Malays, together with other Malaysians, can and will see through racial and religious politics which are being recycled on a daily basis. I am sure the Malays are not easily swayed with the old dirty games.

The problem is the politicians. I believe politicians must offer hope, visions and policy solutions for a contemporary society to match the aspirations of a new generation and a more knowledgeable and sophisticated audience.

We can rise to the occasion to lead with better ideas. We need to have ideas that work, ideas that can improve lives, and ideas that show Islam is not merely an ideal but something that is beneficial and fair to all, including non-Muslims.

The nation has wasted more than 3 years arguing on hudud as well as the RUU355 which is essentially a helpful tool for UMNO to distract the people corruption, mismanagement and mega scandals such as the 1MDB fiasco. In fact the hudud/RUU355 “non-issue” has given UMNO both the time and the lifeline needed to consolidate its power.

When we revisit the legacies of Nik Aziz, it is important to note his ever-expanding reach of influence and engagement. Post-2008, Nik Aziz was even seen as an icon among the non-Malays.

Leaders and parties have to grow together with their voters and bring them to scale greater heights in achieving a better society through leadership, principles, and some doses of pragmatism. Mixing high moral authority, strategic clarity, and principled pragmatism, Tok Guru has left big shoes to fill.

Speech by Liew Chin Tong at “Seminar Pemikiran Tuan Guru Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat” in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday 9th April 2017 (Released on 11th April 2017)

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