First published for Sin Chew Daily, 7 May 2017 by Wan Saiful

Malaysian politics has always been coloured by religion, especially by Islam. This has been the case for centuries. As the country grows and evolves over time, Islam has shaped Malaysia in more ways than one, covering sociocultural aspects, politics, and even the economy.

In modern times, Islam became more strongly mixed with Malay nationalism and the struggle for independence, especially from the late 1800s and early 1900s with the arrival of Muslim traders and scholars from the Middle East and their settling down in the country. This was further enhanced by the rise of Islamism in neighbouring Indonesia in the first half of 1900s.

The relatively open borders between us and Indonesia at that time enabled regular exchange of ideas between activists and intellectuals from the two countries. Leftist politics in Indonesia made its mark on the thinking of many Malay nationalist leaders at that time, especially among those fighting for our independence from the British.

Among political parties, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) is by far the most prominent one in championing political Islamism. Set up originally as a conservative Malay party in 1951, PAS too was touched by the rise of leftist ideas in its formative years. The key figure that brought leftist idealism into PAS was Burhanuddin Al-Helmy, its third president.


Burhanuddin came into office in 1956. In his maiden speech as PAS’ president, Burhanuddin made clear he believes the Malays must hold political powers in the land. He also opposed the granting of citizenship using jus soli principle, as he felt that the rising number of non-Malays in Malaya could create the risk of treasons that will endanger this nation’s independence. Distrust towards non-Malays is therefore not new in PAS. But it is important to add that this is also not unique to PAS alone.

Burhanuddin also had a very clear agenda to turn PAS from a Malay conservative party to a Malay leftist party. Ahmad Boestamam, founding president of the socialist-Marxist Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), recorded that in one of their conversations, Burhanuddin said that once he becomes the president of PAS “it would be easier for me to inject a leftist soul into it.”

Even Burhanuddin’s entry into PAS was done after obtaining the blessings of the leaders of the PRM. As far as the PRM leaders were concerned, Burhanuddin’s entry into PAS was beneficial to their wider leftist cause. According to Ahmad Boestamam, Burhanuddin even assured them in that meeting that “it is alright for us to sit in different places, so long as we sit on the same rug.”

Indeed as soon as Burhanuddin assumed the presidency of PAS in 1956, in his inaugural speech, he immediately started the incorporation of socialism into PAS’ Islamist agenda when he said that “The forces of healthy nationalism, religion and socialism in society must be utilised, brought together from now. … the similarities between the three must be upheld….”

At this point, I must add that Burhanuddin was not leftist in the conventional Marxist-Leninist sense. The term ‘left’ at that time was used as a rather generic term to describe those who chose to strive for independence by not cooperating with the British. If one were to examine the writings and speeches of Burhanuddin, it might be more accurate to say that Burhanuddin fits more comfortably into the category of a collectivist, and leaning more towards democratic socialism.

With that collectivist leaning, Burhanuddin planted the seeds for a belief in the need to create a strong and powerful centre to govern society. Generally speaking, collectivism gives primacy to the bigger group, and demands that individuals must sacrifice their personal freedom to ensure the sustenance of the group as a whole. The rules governing society would be determined by the ruling elite. They would decide what is best, often under the guise of representing the population as a whole. And if necessary, they would impose this discipline through coercion so that conformity towards the collective ideals are ensured.

Burhanuddin coined a term to describe his belief: “theocratic socialism”. The term implies a religiously-guided collectivist governance, whereby the claim to authority is derived from religious sources, and not just from simple electoral politics.

Burhanuddin was certainly a key figure in the evolution of political thinking within PAS. By injecting leftist collectivist ideas into an already conservative PAS, Burhanuddin laid the foundations for PAS to become the party that it is today.

It is no wonder that today we see a PAS that is very firmly and decisively controlled from the centre. They also have a vision to control society from the centre, using values and rules that their ruling elites determine, often by claiming that they are the only true interpreter of Islam. The powerful elites sitting at the centre is the essence of leftist collectivism. The seeds to this were planted decades ago and it has become deeply rooted in the party today.

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