HUNDREDS of thousands of protesters are expected to throng the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this afternoon in what could be the country’s largest call to strengthen the Syariah justice system, as the Muslim-majority nation reaches a major cross roads over its secular laws.
Amid a backdrop of rising Islamic sentiments and fractured race-relations, the country’s pious northeastern state of Kelantan is closer to realising its decades-long pursuit of enforcing strict Islamic Syariah laws for criminal offences, threatening to worsen religious ties in a polarized multiracial nation.
Next month, lawmakers will debate a controversial bill, known as “Hadi’s Bill”, to amend Act 355 of the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, proposing harsher punishments to replace current sentences that have long been implemented under the civil system.
Traditionally, Malaysia’s Syariah courts focused on family and marital affairs, and handed out minor fines amounting to several thousands of ringgit and relatively light prison sentences for moral offences, which are hardly enforced.
The religious courts are restricted to imposing punishments of up to three years’ jail; RM5,000 fine or whipping of no more than six strokes — also referred to in the country as the “3-5-6” penalties — for offences against Islam.
However, if passed, the bill is tipped to grant punitive powers to the Syariah courts and allow its judges to impose up to a hundred lashes, hundred thousand ringgit fines (US$21,000) and 30-year jail sentences on Muslims convicted of the same moral offences and other victimless crimes. Save for the death penalty, the amendments will be enshrined under state jurisdiction in the Federal Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.
Among others, examples of punishable crimes under the proposed amendments include pre-marital sex, alcohol consumption, failure to attend Friday prayers or fast during Ramadhan. If implemented, the new laws threatened to throw modern Malaysia back into a medieval plot-setting where punishments were carried out in public, in full view of an onlooking crowd, similar to what is done in the self-autonomous region of Aceh, Indonesia.
Spearheading the Islamic law reforms is the hard-line Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and its president Abdul Hadi Awang, an influential Islamist political movement headed by ulamas and religious clerics that fell out with the country’s opposition bloc over the disputed “Hudud” aspect of Islamic jurisprudence, which lies at the core of the issue.
The United Malays National Organisation or Umno, the ruling party led by Prime Minister Najib Razak who is faced with a massive corruption scandal and declining favour among voters, is seen to be banking in on the reforms.
In its bid to shore up political support, Umno, which has ruled the country for more than half a century via the rural Malay voter bank, has shown keenness in backing the demands of the hardline Islamists as Najib mulls calling for snap polls as early as the second half of the year.
Showing their solidarity for PAS’ flagship cause, Umno top brass and grassroots members are expected to join the much-talked-about rally in Padang Merbok, a landmark field in the capital that could fit up to 50,000 people.
Nasrudin Hassan, a senior PAS politician and director of the Himpunan RU355 (Act 355 Rally), said at least 200,000 people, from different political backgrounds will attend the protest.
He said the mass rally, which will be one of the biggest rallies to ever be held in the country, has received approval from police and will see 21 speakers talk between 2pm and 11pm on Saturday. The organisers will deploy at least 2,500 volunteers to ensure order and security while the authorities corderned off the area to traffic.
Even though Padang Merbok can only handle between 40,000 to 50,000 people, the police and city hall officials will cooperate by holding roadblocks in the surrounding area to allow us to accommodate the crowd,” he said, as quoted by Utusan Malaysia.
“We are also encouraging the rally-goers to bring their own prayer mats and mineral water bottles. We also remind bus drivers to come early to avoid congestion.”
Race-relations, biased implementation and economic impact
While the proposed laws apply only to Muslims, critics argue that they could extend to others while a sizable number of law experts have labeled the bill “unconstitutional” and open to abuse.
Malaysia’s 30 million populace is Muslim-majority, but nearly 40 percent profess other faiths such as Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.
Past debates on the bill have also triggered much controversy and created major fissures on both political fronts.
It has led to divisions in the multiracial ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) pact – with protests from Umno’s non-Muslim allies for its support of the bill – as well as in the opposition, whose parties split with PAS in 2015 over disagreements regarding hudud.
Malaysia’s Muslim conservatives, however, insist that such laws are mandatory, not just for religious adherents but for all of Malaysia.
Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), said the opposition party was concerned with the motion due to its ambiguity on the matter regarding the scope of punishments.
“Since the proposals involve criminal laws that conflict with Islamic laws, the proposed punishments have to be absolutely certain. Whatever amendments that deal with punishments must be precise in their meaning.
“Any proposed amendments need to be absolutely aligned with Islamic laws. We also need to consider whether the amendments fit into the framework of the Federal Constitution,” she said in the party’s official stance on the matter.
She added PKR’s position is predicated on the condition that any debate on the RUU355 motion and its amendments to existing laws is to acquire further explanation and guarantee from the Prime Minister, and to ensure that the amendments “must comply and fulfill Islamic principles of justice and fairness, and do not contradict the text and the spirit of the Federal Constitution.”
In a Facebook posting, lawyer and activist, Nik Elin Nik Rashid, said the country would be treading on dangerous ground where the courts can mete out harsh punishments for trivial issues that normally concern women.
“It can get more dangerous if fatwas issued are allowed to become laws. Because its an offence to not follow a fatwa,” she said.
Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim, a former Secretary-General of Malaysia’s Finance Ministry and adviser to the G25 group of prominent Malays, urged the prime minister not to support the bill, saying the proposed laws will carry deep ramifications for the economy.
“If you support the bill, investors in and outside the country will see this as a political game (used) by you to evade your responsibilities and what is urgent to restore the country’s economy,” he told the prime minister in a statement which was forwarded to the Asian Correspondent by a G25 member.
“RUU355 will divide people and raise concerns over the future of this multi-ethnic state. When people are not sure about the future of Malaysia, our economy will lose its strength and the people will become victims due to a leadership that infuses politics and religion.”