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Date: 13 Dec 1999
Pas or Fail in Trengganu The party gets a chance to prove itself By JONATHAN SPRAGUE and ARJUNA RANAWANA Kuala Trengganu
"Do you think they will close the pubs?" asks the young Chinese woman tending bar in a Kuala Trengganu watering hole. They are the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas). Since winning control of the Trengganu state government in the Nov. 30 elections, the Islamist party has vowed to "eradicate vice." The cozy pub does not look like a den of iniquity. Most of the customers are Chinese regulars here to have a beer, watch football on the satellite TV and play some darts. Women and kids are present as well, listening to the Canto-pop on the sound system. Pas insists that it does not want to shutter all pubs and places of entertainment, but wariness remains. "This is certainly the talk of the town," one drinker says.
Trengganu is where the future course of Malaysia will be set. Pas has governed neighboring Kelantan for 10 years, but that state is a quiet, resource-poor backwater. In Trengganu, Pas will run a state with 64% of Malaysia's proven oil reserves, substantial heavy and tourist industries, and controlling stakes in several listed companies. "We are sitting on a gold mine," says Syed Azman Syed Ahmad, a Pas member of Parliament. A political as well as an economic gold mine, because this is where Pas will be able to prove that it can manage a modern economy, balance the interests of various ethnic and religious communities, and become a credible alternative to Mahathir Mohamad's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) at the national level. Or this is the place where Pas will show that it can't
The state could be an ideal proving ground. About 95% of the population is Malay Muslim. It is a conservative region likely to be comfortable with Pas's puritanism - head scarves are common and short skirts are rare in the capital of Kuala Trengganu. The state's 5% cut of the estimated $3 billion in annual oil and gas production provides a steady stream of cash for investment. "If they do well, spend wisely, then we will find it very hard to recapture the state," says Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, an UMNO Youth leader in Trengganu. Pas has already carried through on campaign promises to abolish bridge tolls and residential property taxes.
And there is plenty to reform. Despite oil revenues, the state is Malaysia's second-poorest after Kelantan, and many of its oil and tourist industry facilities are in the hands of investors regarded as cronies of UMNO leaders. "Resources have not been managed properly, and money does not go into the right hands," says Pas vice president Mustafa Ali. Many of the state government's holdings are lackluster at best - what is believed to be its biggest investment, the Kuala Lumpur-owned steel maker Perwaja, is hemorrhaging money. Cleaning house, fighting for a greater share of oil revenues - the new state government is demanding 20% - and putting more contracts and business licenses into local hands will win Pas support.
But Pas stumbled slightly at the kick-off. The new state government said it plans to levy a tax on non-Muslims called kharaj. In Pas's eyes, it will simply balance a tithe, zakat, that Muslims pay. But zakat is a religious obligation that goes toward maintaining mosques and helping the poor, so non-Muslims, including the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), Pas's allies in the recent polls, are crying foul. "Pas should seriously weigh the political costs of imposing kharaj at the expense of alienating the sensitivities of non-Muslim Malaysians," DAP national chairman Lim Kit Siang says. Pas's Syed Azman promises that any tax on non-Muslims will be imposed only with the approval of their community leaders, but that hasn't eliminated non-Malay suspicions.
Those suspicions will be difficult to ease. Pas has always made the imposition of strict Islamic law a core policy, and Trengganu's new chief minister, Abdul Hadi Awang, has a reputation as an ideologue - as a parliamentarian, he repeatedly tried to table a bill penalizing apostates with death. Stock-market investors are playing things safe by selling off shares in gaming and liquor companies. But the president of the Trengganu Chinese Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Low Kian Chuan, is keeping an open mind. "What we want is a progressive, efficient and transparent government," he says. "Pas must continue policies that will attract investment from other parts of the country as well as from overseas. If this is done, they will have no problems."
In Kuala Trengganu's small but bustling Chinatown, cans of beer still stand next to the soft drinks in grocery stores. But one shopowner says he plans to clear his beer stocks as soon as possible. "We don't want to get stuck with something we can't sell," he says. If that becomes the attitude of too many businesses, Pas could be in trouble. But if the new state government learns how to balance its Islamist ambitions with the needs of business, investors and non-Muslims, then it could be Mahathir and UMNO that is in trouble.