Goodness, it’s Mat Sabu, was one reaction heard when Mohamad Sabu was elected PAS deputy president a fortnight ago. While most people know him as a political figure, few know that he is married to his college sweetheart and has four children. He is among PAS’s new leaders who feel it is time for the party to wrest control of the government.
Mohd Sabu told HEMANANTHANI SIVANANDAM and ALYAA ALHADJRI, in English, how.
Sun : Quite a number of people were surprised that you were elected PAS deputy president. They were surprised that for the first time a non-ulama is deputy president, but more surprised that the members elected you, a rabble rouser and a perceived non-intellectual.
Mat Sabu : I know that's their perception of me. I am aware of that. It is a perception that the newspapers helped to perpetuate. It's all based on the way I make my campaign speeches – loud and full of parodies. I hit out at Barisan Nasional leaders and reserve some choicest words for some of them, I curse and swear at them. But the crowd loves me. But what most people do not know is that I contribute ideas during party meetings especially with Pakatan Rakyat leaders. I also write for Harakah every week.
What do the leaders of the DAP and PKR think of you?
They know I have ideas. And they are willing to try them out.
You said the media helped perpetuate your image as a person who is vocal, loud and brash. But now that you're Number 2, are you going to change that?
I am not going to change my style, if that's what you mean. Now that I am Number 2, I will of course set my sights on Putrajaya. But at the same time, I will keep one eye on Kamunting camp.
You think some people in BN and Umno are worried that PAS has a fighting man as its deputy president?
Of course they are. If not why are they supporting the so-called kepimpinan ulama when they themselves have been always against it? And now that the ulama's role is in a slight eclipse, they are supporting it. Actually they know they are in trouble now. Those things that they have been criticising us about are no longer there. We are de-emphasising those aspects of the party that they have been criticising for a long time. Our party is now more appealing and the team that is leading it is a fighting team.
What is your educational background?
I went to the Bukit Mertajam High School. I remember I gave a speech on the ping pong diplomacy between China and the US in 1971 when I was in Form Five. I was already interested in politics then. I went to the Mara Institute of Technology and did a diploma course in applied sciences. It was where I met my wife, Normah Alwi. I did not complete my studies because I spent too much time with the Islamic Youth Movement or Abim which was founded by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. At that time I was working with ICI Malaysia.
In 1978, Anwar and I went to Kelantan to observe the state elections. I wasn't pleased with the way in which they were conducted. A short while later I joined PAS, and a short time after that Anwar joined Umno. At heart I am a democratic activist.
Weren't you several times detained under the ISA?
Yes, some people see me as a budak nakal (mischievous fellow). The first time I was detained was in 1984. At that time, they said I was a radical young man, they said I was very dangerous to our country. After two months in a lock-up, they sent me to Kuala Pilah on restricted residence for two years. Then in 1986 I was released, but in 1987 they detained me again in Kamunting under Operasi Lalang.
In January 1989 when they released me from Kamunting, they put me under house arrest and I had to report every week. When I was at the Kamunting camp, I established good relationships with all the DAP leaders – people like Karpal Singh, Lim Guan Eng, Lim Kit Siang, the late P. Patto, (Dr) Tan Seng Giaw, Dr Kua Kia Song and church leader Anthony Roger. We were there together for one and a half years. We discussed many national and international issues. That is why there are those who say I'm a liberal leader as I can mix with all races.
What is your immediate plan, now that you are deputy president?
My immediate plan is to support Bersih's 2.0 walk for democracy on July 9. For us, what we demand is that the government implement recommendations made by Bersih in 2007, things like postal voting, equal access to the media and automatic registration as a voter on reaching 21.
So you feel there should be automatic voter registration?
Yes, because the political parties, their duty is just to campaign to persuade the people to support your party; it's not to register voters. Developed countries have done this, but in Malaysia, we are still practising a style like it was before independence – our campaign style is like in the 1950s. I was in England once when parliament was dissolved. I waited for a few days, I wanted to experience the rally in Britain, but they did not have it because all campaigns were through radio and television. But we still have to go to the villages every night like in the 1950s; so we are very backward.
You feel strongly about equal media access and that all parties be given time on radio and television?
Yes, the house-to-house ceramah is an old-fashioned way of doing things. We are a developed country. Why do we have to do it this way? But we find ourselves having to because we don't have access to the media. So in terms of campaigning, it is still like 50 years ago. Singapore has also changed. In last month's general election, they allowed campaigning through the media. Candidates from any party were allowed to talk on television and radio. Even Indonesia has this. We are very far behind. So the walk for democracy is also one for freedom of media and speech.
But there is fear among journalists that when Islamic parties come to power, they don't honour the promise of press freedom. We have seen it happening in many countries, not just press, but other freedoms too. I don't think PAS is like that. We are not like the Taliban or the other parties. We are going to take power through elections. We are going to do it by working with other parties. We will then share power. When you are sharing power, you have to do a lot of consulting with other parties and even NGOs. So don't worry.
And next on your agenda?
Next is to counter what other people are saying about us. To counter their propaganda and to win over the people. Actually now we have to concentrate on the Malays first. Because from by-elections, we can see that there is a little drop in Malay support for us. And we have to work hard to fight such propaganda that should BN lose, DAP will control Malaysia. How can that be? But some people believe (that). Politics is perception. It's not fact, but perception. Like now, they say the Chinese are already in control of Penang.
How to you plan to counter that kind of propaganda or talk?
That's why the Pakatan Rakyat parties plan to go on a massive roadshow. On July 1, DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng and I will be speaking at a gathering in Kuala Terengganu. The topic: "PAS ganti Umno". We are going to explain what we are and what we are going to do. We'll move from one state to another.
This thing 'PAS ganti Umno' is going to go to all states?
Yes, all states. Now the fear is not of the Chinese or Indians, but the Malays. This is because of the propaganda in some Malay language newspapers. We have to fight that propaganda. Since we don't have access to media, we have to do roadshows.
Do you really believe in democracy?
Yes, democracy and human rights. My observation is that the Malays are less concerned about human rights issues compared to the Chinese. For example, the Teoh Beng Hock issue – it has been two years but they still continue, but (assistant customs director) Ahmad Sarbani Mohamed, two months and it is almost forgotten.
You think the Malays care little about human rights – are you going to do something about it?
We will plan something. People must be made aware that certain ways of doing things are improper and we must speak up. Not the Malays – they do not speak up for those arrested under the ISA. When PAS people were detained under the ISA, some Umno people said padan muka (serves them right). When the Umno people are detained, the PAS people will say padan muka – that should not be the way. We must enlighten the Malays about human rights and its universality. MCA, Gerakan and DAP have condemned the recent action of the police in marking with a cross the foreheads of some women caught in a vice raid as a violations of human rights.
People say you are close to the Chinese and other races. Why are you seen as such?
I was from Penang from a young age; we cycled through Bukit Mertajam, we interacted with people of all races and talked to them. So from a young age, I have always been exposed to the Chinese and Indians.
Are you aware of the struggles of (former PAS president) Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy ?
My hero. I like him very much because for one thing, he was different from other PAS leaders, more accommodative of the other communities – like Hizbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. That's why I want to know more about his struggles … all races appreciate what Dr Burhanuddin was trying to do. I want to learn how he was supported by all communities.
During his time, there was less emphasis on race …
Yes, actually during that time if they had conducted a referendum on which leader the people wanted; Tunku Abdul Rahman or Dr Burhanuddin, I believe they would have picked Dr Burhanuddin, but the British detained him under the ISA. I learnt a bit from Dr Burhanuddin and the Lebanese leader Hassan Nasrallah; many people support the Hizbollah leader – artists, sportsmen, etc – because despite his turban, he can be in a coalition with non-Muslims.
That will be difficult here won't it?
It's not difficult really. Of course many of our ulama graduated from Al-Azhar University in Egypt and other universities in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries where democracy was little practised. They don't read much on Western civilisation and so have a very narrow world view compared to the ulama in Lebanon who are exposed so much to the various ideologies, trends. That is why they are different and more progressive. They can speak at any forum in America and Europe.
Do you think the 13th general election will be called next year?
Next year. Not this year?
What do you think?
I think next year.
Early next year?
Will PAS be ready by then?
Yes. We will be more ready than we were for the last general election.
A lot happened at the recent PAS muktamar. Has or is it going to cause schisms, some break-ups among the members?
For the time being, thank God, no. And we are hoping all members are with us and behind us. That's why we are out on the ground explaining what happened.
Who do you think would lead the Pakatan Rakyat should anything happen to Datuk Seri Anwar?
We cannot see into the future; anything can happen. But one thing I know is that the non-Muslims trust PAS now, much more than before. I have met so many who said "we believe in you". That means no problem if any of our leaders were to become prime minister. The Chinese are not worried and neither are the Indians.
But has there been any discussion among the Pakatan leadership on this issue?
Not yet, not yet, we have not discussed it.
How are you going to convince the more conservative, like the ulama? Because there has been talk that not all of them can accept this "new leadership".
The ulama in our party are very much influenced by Nik Aziz (Nik Mat) and Abdul Hadi Awang. So if these two favour me, there is no problem with the other ulama. Nik Aziz praised me at the muktamar to such an extent I felt uncomfortable ... too much praise for me.
But he did not quite like you some time ago?
I don't know about that, but he knew that when I gave speeches in Kelantan, I could attract larger crowds than he. He mentioned that in his speech at the muktamar.
Is PAS what it is now because of its association with the DAP and PKR? Or would the party be what it is even without their influence ?
Yes, because of association with them. For instance the last time when we matched seats with candidates, we were guided by certain criteria. If a majority Malay constituency, PAS would contest; majority Chinese, DAP; while a mixed seat was suitable for Keadilan. But it is not going to be like that in the coming general election. Now we can contest a mixed seat too – after Dr Siti Mariah won in Kota Raja, a non-Muslim majority parliamentary constituency. Muslims only 47%. And there are so many seats like that in Selangor, so it is very different now.
It's no longer based on the majority race in the constituency?
Yes. But BN cannot do that, we can – that is the big difference. Like me, I feel I can contest under the PAS banner in Bukit Bintang against MCA and win. The Chinese will vote for me, I believe now.
You're confident of that?
Yes, I'm confident. But not to contest against DAP.
PAS is now downplaying its Islamic state objective, saying it is more for a welfare state. Umno's response to that is that it has implemented the welfare state concept for a long time.
They can say anything they like. For instance, when we say we are fighting for an Islamic state, they say they have already made the country Islamic. When we say we are opting for a welfare state, they say they have already been implementing it.
They say that because they want people to know that your party has abandoned the Islamic state objective. And that your struggle now is only for a welfare state.
To me it's the same thing. Welfare state or Islamic state. No real difference. The state of Madinah that was headed by the Prophet Muhammad SAW was actually referred to as thoyibatun warabbun ghafur (welfare state) in the Quran. It was not referred to as an Islamic state. Only years later did some people refer to the state that the Prophet headed as the first Islamic state.
PAS ulama refer to it as the first Islamic state.
It's also referred to as baldatun thoyibatun, which means good government. That's it.
But PAS too has changed a lot. Those early days I remember, campaigners would sleep in the villages so that they could be with the people during the elections. It's no longer like that now, they stay in hotels.
True. We also have to correct that. But me, I am always with the people; that's why they like me. And I am maintaining that lifestyle –whenever I am back in my kampung, I would go out to Sungai Kulim to catch fish using a net. It is not acting. I like doing it.