By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star under the title ” A new hope for progressives?” on 21 July 2015

This Raya week marks the beginning of a more concerted effort by some towering figures in the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) to set up a new political party.  Calling themselves “Harapan Baru”, they have started a nationwide tour to speak to the public in all states across Malaysia.

The event in Kelantan and Perlis on Sunday received a very warm reception.  Turnout was very good and people that I spoke too who attended the events were clearly excited.

PAS’ response to Harapan Baru is expected.  They see it as a threat and they are painting Harapan Baru with bad light.  This is sheer hypocrisy.

Various individuals in PAS, including their President Dato’ Seri Haji Abdul Hadi Awang, have gone overboard to insult their former colleagues who lost in the party election in June.  Hadi was even quoted to use words such as “barua” and “tolol” when referring to the Harapan Baru leaders, albeit without mentioning them directly.

Some others claimed that the outcome of the party election is a sign that God is helping PAS to “cleanse” the party.

But when they realise that Harapan Baru could become a threat, PAS changed their tack and started to get upset.  They are now saying that it is sinful to leave PAS to form a new party, despite earlier saying that they want them out anyway.

If Harapan Baru does end up forming a new party, the one person who will take the biggest blame will be Hadi.  He will be remembered as a president who is completely impotent to prevent the break up.

History will also record Hadi as one of the main causes of the break up.  When this party members were insulting each other, he did not urge restrain but he joined them.  I have never seen a party president who just does not care about the fate of his own party like Hadi.

Having said that, I must also put it on record that Hadi remains as one of the Islamic scholars that I respect.  Unfortunately when it comes to political acumen, Hadi has lost his marbles and I regret that he will be remembered for this political failure.

The Harapan Baru movement has committed to forming a new party.  This will come with many hurdles and it will not be easy.  Registering a new party is a challenge by itself.  Then there is the problem of grassroot machinery.  The party will have to work hard to create their own campaign teams on the ground and this too is no easy task.

When I heard the results of the June party election, I was hoping that those who lost would remain in the party.  I would have preferred if they allowed the conservatives full and free reign for two years.  That way, everyone will eventually realise that the conservatives are nothing but empty heads who have no real ideas to offer the country.

And during the two years, I was hoping that the progressives would turn themselves into an organised force to win back important posts in the next party election, just before the 14th general election.

But the PAS progressives seem very certain that the party is beyond redemption.  I have now realised that too.  The reality is, PAS has always been a conservative party and they have only allowed the progressives to hold certain positions temporarily without the party changing its nature.

The progressives have miserably failed to change the party when they had the chance.  Ultimately, the progressives charted their own demise in PAS when they mistakenly refuse to educate party members about what progressiveness means.  They even refused to acknowledge the need to do it when they had the chance.

The formation of a new political party could signify a major shift in Malaysian politics.  But looking at the messages coming out from the Harapan Baru leaders, I worry about another mistake that they are now making.

They are positioning themselves as a competitor to PAS.  One of the Harapan Baru leaders, YB Khalid Samad, said that the only difference between them in PAS is their commitment to working with other partners and their commitment to the Pakatan Rakyat concept.  He also said that in terms of belief and understanding towards Islam they are the same.

This “PAS-but-different” strategy means that they are pitting themselves not against their bigger political enemies but against PAS.  Of course PAS will go ape because this also means Harapan Baru will focus on stealing PAS’ members and voters.  When two parties who are supposedly on the same side fight each other, the only beneficiary is the party on the other side.

I do understand that the Harapan Baru leaders are looking at the next general election and therefore they want to fill in the gap left by PAS.  But this is too short-sighted.

It would have been much better if Harapan Baru were to position themselves as completely different from PAS and from all other parties in Malaysia.  Their real sign of success is if they can attract not just current PAS members, but also the progressives from UMNO, PKR, DAP, Gerakan, Sarawak’s PBB, and all the other parties plus those who are not yet in any party.  Then only will they add real value to Malaysian politics.

Malaysians are tired of ethno-religious politics and obsession in one political overlord.  Malaysians are looking for a party that fight for universal values who will champion the rights of all of us. Many are waiting to see if Harapan Baru can turn their Islamic rhetoric into universal messages acceptable to all.

This is the real challenge faced by those who want to take Malaysia into the next stage.  We may believe in different things.  We are a diverse country and each one of us may lean towards different directions.  But we will all gather around those who can project a message of hope and unity.

If Harapan Baru positions themselves  as just another Islamic party, then I doubt they will survive in the long term.

Wan Saiful is the Chief Executive of IDEAS.

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A version of this article also appeared on The Malaysian Insider

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