By SEAN YOONG
2008-11-17 05:20 PM
Many political parties represent particular ethnic groups in the racially diverse country. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, has long been the ruling United Malays National Organization's chief rival for the support of the ethnic Malay Muslim majority.
PAS plans to change its constitution to allow non-Muslim members in an effort to become racially inclusive and prove that its ideology does not conflict with the rights of minorities, said Mujahid Yusof Rawa, chairman of the party's national unity bureau.
"There should not be race-based politics anymore," Mujahid said.
"We feel that the stigma that has haunted (non-Muslims) about PAS is fading," he said. "We want to open up to transform our party into a multiracial party."
Non-Muslim members are expected to be barred from holding key leadership posts, although some officials have said they will be allowed to run as party candidates in general elections.
Malaysia's largest minorities are ethnic Chinese and Indians, who are mostly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus. They have long been suspicious of PAS, whose goal is to govern through an Islamic state that prescribes strict religious and morality laws.
Nevertheless, many minority voters supported PAS candidates who joined a three-party opposition coalition in March general elections because of concern over how the government had handled recent racial and religious disputes.
The opposition made unprecedented electoral gains in the elections, depriving the ruling coalition of a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
PAS leaders say that while their goal still is to establish an Islamic state, it doesn't mean that they want to take away the constitutional rights of minorities to practice their religions freely.
The top three government parties are race based, but PAS is the only opposition party that is limited to members of one religion. The other two opposition parties _ opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice Party and the Democratic Action Party _ are multiracial.
The planned changes in PAS are expected to be approved at the party's annual congress next June, enabling nearly 20,000 non-Muslims who are now in the party's so-called "Supporters Club" to become members, Mujahid said.