Reconstructing the history of Pekida and its network’s is a hard task. No historical account of the organisation has been found, and every attempt to locate official records has been an arduous mission. This article relies primarily on oral history (rarely shared with outsiders). The historical accounts collected are a reflection of members’ perception of the organisation’s history, and thus differs from one individual to another. In this context, every individual story, every piece of published document either from archives, administrative papers, newspapers articles or a few lines in an academic publication brings new pieces to the construction of the overall puzzle. Interestingly, the more one looks at these pieces, the more one may feel as if they are staring at different parts of many different puzzles. The challenge is thus to create a coherent image, made up of pieces different in origin. Despite these efforts, the puzzle is still incomplete and missing pieces are each of them an ocean of possible interpretations. So the last step is about connecting the dots, filling the blanks, imagining the colours and shape of the missing pieces towards re-constructing the image of an untold story.
History of PEKIDA
The only official account of the creation of Pekida can be found in the archive of the Asian Almanac (a Singapore based journal focusing on Asian affairs since 1963). According to this source, Pekida emerged in 1978 when Tentera Sabillullah (the Holy Army), an alleged religious criminal organisation, was dissolved. The members reformed into two separate organisations: Persatuan Angkatan Sabilullah (P.A.S/Association of Holy Forces) and Pekida. Government authorities dissolved P.A.S a decade later when the group was conveniently accused of being a terrorist organisation linked to the well-known Islamist party – the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), collateral damage of the government’s attempt to discredit the Islamic political party.
Most members are not aware of this official date (1978) and instead carry with them the many versions of Pekida’s creation. For some, the origins of Pekida go back “to the time of the prophet” or are the heritage of the walisongo[i] in preparation for the return of Imam Mahdi[ii]. But the story shared by most members is the version in which Pekida was created in the aftermath of the violent events of May 1969 as a way to prevent a repeat and when all else fails, to protect the Malays in the event of another racial riot.
This narrative of Pekida’s history by its members bears four elements: the temporality, the secrecy, the exclusivity and the ultimate mission. Pekida would be an organisation entrenched in the history of the Malay world and a heritage of the Malay community that has transcended time; created by “warriors”, and “heroes” joining the group is like an act of bravery; the organisation has transcend generations and maintain its existence and activity in secrecy whatever its form or its name or umbrella; finally Pekida exists to defend Islam and the Malays, as a member would say “It is for Allah, and Allah’s will”.
While yet another popular narrative is that the evolution of the organisation has followed the political path of the country where the defence and safety of the Malays has become a necessity, reinforced by the events of May 1969. Despite the differences found in the narratives of the history of the organisation, they tend to have the same message: Pekida is, and was, needed.
The roots of legitimacy
The origins of Pekida are a set of stories members relate discreetly, lowering their voice as if they are revealing the secret of their organisation. The oral transmission of this history and shared stories are important for the group. It is a way to establish solidarity and group values. These stories are at the core of the group’s cohesion and give legitimacy to its action whether legal or illegal, violent or non-violent. The legitimacy of Pekida’s action lays in arguments that echo of “Ketuanan Melayu” – Malay supremacy – propaganda. The ethnonationalist rhetoric embedded in a subjective interpretation of the country’s political and demographic history could be summed up in three concepts: Origins: “Malays are the original inhabitants of the soil”; Resistance “Malays must resist the Chinese, the Indians and the non-Muslims” and Sovereignty: “Malays must remain the rulers of the country”. These political myths added to the narrative of the organisation’s history and its “sacred” and “heroic” dimensions, are demagogical tools serving many purposes: recruitment, group cohesion and violence legitimation. The coherence of Pekida’s gangs, despite their nebulous character, resides in the sacred and/or legitimate aspect of their existence. Both notions either the “realisation of Allah’s design”, or the “protection of the Malays”, are taken as justification for the use of violent means. In that vein, illegal activities become a way to sustain the movement for its greater achievement.
Today, Pekida – an NGO – is a Malay organisation with a religious agenda shaped by dakwah[iii]and Islamic education. It does not have a website anymore but mostly Facebook pages. The organisation’s former website[iv]used to show that the official branch of Pekida runs very few activities and apparently does not belong to any coalition to which Islamist or Muslims NGOs are usually linked;[v] and that is until Pekida became a component of the Himpunan movement, an anti-apostasy movement lead by Mohammed “Cikgu” Azmi [vi] in 2012. Nevertheless, Pekida as an NGO has several chapters spread nationally and its activities are actively promoted by members via the social media platform of Facebook. On these pages the NGO is often “confusingly” referred to as Pekida or “Tiga Line”, or “The Three Lines” without making any real distinction.
A real confusion exists regarding the nature of Pekida and its shadowy activities. As explained, the NGO is in fact an umbrella for a nationwide network. Pekida is a complex and loose network of discreet NGOs created by gangs for which political militancy is a business. Pekida is indeed a generic name used to describe this network, but in reality the name “Pekida” is the name of one of those numerous NGOs created by this network to offer political support, legalise parts of their activities.
Two colours, red and white, are used to differentiate the underground arms of Pekida from the official (the NGO arm of Pekida). The “white line” is indeed the legal face of an underground and illegal network called 36 (or 30-6) or the “red line”. The “white line” arm symbolises a focus towards religious activities while the “red” arm symbolises a focus towards “society, business and politics”. This particular arm is involved in politics. It is difficult to determine which was created first, the NGO or the gangs. The gangs may have existed prior to 1978, under another form or name, or alternatively members of the NGOs may have oriented their network towards entrepreneurial opportunities offered by the development of the NGO’s network and its activities.
The red line was founded by a silat [vii] master from Kedah. His name holds a sacred dimension for members and out of respect they refrain from stating his name in full – especially not in front of outsiders. For that reason most members call him only by his monogram: PLB. His full name is no secret since pictures and articles based on unverified sources are circulated and available on the Internet; and the belated PLB has his own Facebook page.
In 2006, PLB passed away before being able to designate his successor. The highest ranked “tiga line leaders” all claimed the right of inheriting PLB’s position. In the absence of consensus, the leadership was split and various branches were then created. Since the split of the organisation, many have claimed the exclusive leadership of the “36”, or have created their own chapters by renaming their branch; and each branch may include hundreds of groups.
This relabelling was accompanied by an expansion of groups and collaboration between them. According to a former leader of the 36s – now a founder of his own branch – the organisation counts 6 million members: an optimistic figure implying that nearly one-fifth of Malaysian citizens (and almost half of Malaysian Muslims) are Pekida members. It is not possible to get a clear estimation of the membership of an underground organisation, but it should be noted that in almost every city and town visited in Malaysia (except Borneo) I was able to locate, identify or was informed of the presence of local members. The existence of Tiga Line and its new chapters are an open secret.
Continued in Part 3, “Gangsta to the roots: Gangsta beyond stereotypes.” Part 1 can be read HERE.
Sophie Lemière is the Jean Monnet Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy. She holds a PhD and a Masters in Comparative Politics from Sciences-Po (France). She is the author of Misplaced Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People.[i] The Wali Songos are the first of nine missionaries who brought Islam to Java. They are today considered as Saints. [ii] Imam Mahdi the prophesied redeemer of Islam, who upon Christ’s return, aid him in cleansing the world of evil and uniting humanity. [iii] Religious propagation. [iv] Pekida.org. At the time of writing this piece, ehe website contained only one page but another website was accessed http://www.pekida.org/portal/index.php?module=ContentExpress&func=display&ceid=7 explaining the organisation’s activities more in detail. Since then the website has disappeared. [v] The anti-ISA movement, or the Islamist NGOs coalitions against apostasy in Islam like Pembela Islam or ACCIN. [vi] President and founder of TERAS [vii] A type of Malay martial art.