Hadi Awang and the Barisan Alternatif

By Chan Chee Khoon

The new Terengganu MB: making a point?

Being a novice political observer of PAS and the Terengganu scene, I can’t quite make out if Hadi Awang is prone to politically inastute timing, or if his post-election initiatives have been deliberately crafted to make a point. He almost seems to be working hand in glove with Barisan Nasional propagandists in stoking the phobias of non-Muslim Malaysians and other liberal urbanites. (For the record, I am not one of those greatly alarmed by the further spread of progressive, humane aspects of the Islamic faith. I welcome it).

Up until the eruption of the Anwar affair, the UMNO-PAS contest for the Malay-Muslim constituency hinged upon the politics of ethnic representation, and more recently, upon a greater emphasis on Islamic orthodoxy. PAS in particular, given its ideological roots (and by dint of necessity in the contest for Malay-Muslim allegiance), differentiated itself from UMNO by emphasising its truer commitment to Islamic ideals, symbolised by its declared aim of an Islamic state.

One of the refreshing consequences of the Anwar affair was that it vastly opened up the terrain for political contest between UMNO and PAS -- kezaliman, justice, corruption, social inequities, the arrogance and abuse of power, cronyism and nepotism, transparency and accountability of government, the alarming decline of crucial institutions of society, etc. -- and thereby potentially broadened the appeal of PAS to liberal Muslim urbanites and possibly even to some non-Muslims.

With the Anwar affair then, the circumstances changed dramatically, but the inertia of historical momentum and legacy remains. Hadi Awang represents the powerful influence (the ulamak tradition) within PAS which was a product of the pre-Anwar crisis era. Just as militarists become ascendant in situations of warfare and strife, so ulamaks can be influential if not pre-eminent when the contest is on largely religious terrain.

Precisely for this reason, Hadi Awang and the ulamaks must have been ambivalent about the emergence of the Barisan Alternatif. The BA after all was a declared political vehicle to contest for federal power, but by virtue of that was necessarily an exercise in compromise and accommodation. UMNO is currently in crisis, but the formation of BA and its accompanying strategy, tactics and contingencies must have, even earlier on, generated tensions within PAS. BA strategy required the sidelining of the doctrinaire ulamak faction in PAS and the ascendance of the more compromising "liberal" faction in PAS.

If this reading is correct, Hadi Awang’s introduction of the apostasy bill in parliament shortly before its dissolution was perhaps a (desperate?) move at the time, a (last ditch?) effort to draw the line on the "secular betrayal" of the "liberal pragmatists", by throwing a spanner in the works of an emerging BA.

That is now history, and the balance has shifted perceptibly. As Menteri Besar of Terengganu, Hadi Awang now has at his disposal some RM500 million annually from oil and gas royalties, in a state where at least US$3.6 billion (as of March 1999) had been committed by Petronas and its joint-venture partners in a massive integrated petrochemicals complex (IPC).

The "IPC comprises numerous components (and) includes a joint-venture with Union Carbide to build an olefins cracker, ethylene oxide/ethylene glycol and a multi-unit ethylene derivatives complex, an acetic acid plant in partnership with BP Chemicals, an aromatics plant with Mitsubishi of Japan, and PVC-based projects with Mitsui" (The Sun business section,1 December 1999).

In February of this year, Petronas also entered into a joint-venture with Polifin Limited of South Africa and DSM Polyethylenes BV of Holland to build, own, and operate one of the largest low density polyethylene plants in the world at Kertih, just north of Kuala Terengganu.

Petronas, as the federal cash cow for, among other things, bailing out (crony?) companies, will think twice about cutting back on oil and gas output (5 per cent of which goes to the Terengganu state treasury). Federal leverage could be further weakened by the state government’s prerogatives over land acquisition and approvals for phased development of the extensive petrochemical complexes.

As one of my colleagues remarked, BN (but not Dr Mahathir) might ponder along with BA whether it would have been far better if Kedah, rather than Terengganu had been won by PAS.

7 December 1999