AS the sun begins to set, the day is far from over for the 20,000 rally participants gathered at Padang Merbok in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in support of a controversial Bill to strengthen the Syariah Court’s powers in the country.
Speeches are expected to continue until 11pm at the Himpunan RU355 rally; one of two rallies happening in the city today, as a counter-rally opposing the Bill also took place at the same time in Taman Jaya.
The two opposing rallies are in reaction to Hadi’s Bill – so named after its proposer, Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) – which seeks to amend Act 355 of the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965.
If passed, the Bill would increase the Syariah punishment caps in Malaysia to a maximum 30 years’ imprisonment, RM100,000 (US$22,400) fine and 100 lashes of the cane; far harsher sentences than those currently implemented under the civil system.
Sporting purple as a theme colour, participants in the Himpunan RUU355 rally, started gathering as early as 11am at Padang Merbok, a landmark field, in support of the amendments.
Thousands more have since joined them, standing in solidarity to throw their support behind the amendments.
— Air Times (@TheAirTimes) February 18, 2017
N. Bala Subramaniam, PAS Supporters Club representative was the first to speak at the pro-amendment rally. In his speech, he explained that gambling den operators are among those who should be afraid of the proposed amendments.
“They are afraid they will lose profits, and lose their Muslim patrons,” he said, before going on to cite the Quran to say there is no compulsion in religion.
Subramaniam also reiterated that the amendments will not affect non-Muslims, an issue that has been of growing concern to many in the multi-faith nation.
“Syariah law has nothing to do with non-Muslims, as stated in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution. “Why, then, should non-Muslims be scared and protest against (amendments to) Act 355?” he said, adding that the freedom of religion was safeguarded by the Federal Constitution (reported by the New Straits Times).
In Malaysia, 60 percent of the population are Muslim, with a varied and diverse collection of other religions, including Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, making up the remaining 40 percent. The fear of how the law will affect non-Muslims has been a driving force behind protests to the Bill.
— cami (@syafisyahmie1) February 18, 2017
The pro-amendment rally kicked off at 3pm and was hoping to draw at least 200,000 people, according to the organiser, senior PAS politician, Nasarudin Hassan, however the number of participants as evening fell was only at the 20,000 mark.
The rally is expected to run to 11pm and will include a number of speakers, capping the day off with Hadi’s address at 10.30pm.
Meanwhile, significantly smaller numbers gathered at Tasik Taman Jaya in the counter-rally in opposition to the Bill, with a reported 200 participants showing up in protest.
Organised by a group of activists calling themselves BEBAS, which means “free” in Malay, the protest ran from 3pm to 5.30pm, and saw a number of prominent activists take to the stage to speak.
Activist Azrul Mohd Khalib kicked off the event, starting with a request for a round of applause for the pro-amendment rally at Padang Merbok, stating “Just as much as we are expressing our fundamental constitutionally-guaranteed rights, so are they.
“They have a right to do that, even though we don’t have the nasyid groups that they do,” he said.
Lawyer Siti Kasim delivered a thunderous speech, according to Malaysiakini, urging Malays to speak up against the proposed amendments.
“We need more Malays to come up and say ‘no, you are not going to talk on my behalf and not in my name’,” she said.
— Miss Boo (@boosulyn) February 18, 2017
Former minister Zaid Ibrahim also took to the stage making a controversial, but widely acknowledged, statement that the Bill “is about politics… it has nothing to do with religion.”
The ruling party of Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation or Umno, has often been accused of using the reform to shore up political support as it finds itself faced with a massive corruption scandal and declining favour among voters.
Other speakers at the event included prominent lawyer and activist, Nik Elin Nik Rashid; Gerakan Youth deputy chief, Andy Yong; and journalist Boo Su-Lyn, among others.
The event ended with all participants being given a rotan, which is used to administer strokes in the Syariah sentences and is seen as a sign of oppression, that was then snapped in half to the chants of “Reject Hadi’s Bill.”
— malaysiakini.com (@malaysiakini) February 18, 2017
The controversial Bill is due to be debated in Parliament next month.