Hudud law in Malaysia: Religious awakening or political stunt?

Photo: Firdaus Latif/Wikimedia Commons

By Loke Hoe Yeong

On 26 May, the Malaysian government of Najib Razak shocked its allies and foes alike when it put forward a bill through the federal parliament to enact Islamic hudud law the country through a constitutional amendment. The ethnic Chinese and Indian parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition government have threatened to pull out of the government.

The bill in question was a set of proposed amendments to the Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965. It was a private member’s bill put forward by Hadi Awang, the leader of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). There was thus surprise in parliament as to why the government would push for a private member’s bill raised by an opposition lawmaker.

“I can only say that I was also taken by a surprise that a private member’s bill was going to be introduced,” said Joseph Kurup, a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department who leads the United Sabah People’s Party. “We should be allowed to study it first and I thank parliament for postponing this to allow us to study it.”

Heng Seai Kie, the chairperson of Malaysian Chinese Association’s (MCA) women wing, said she was “shocked” by the bill’s reading.

“Yesterday during our presidential council meeting, during our discussions, we have unanimously agreed that we can’t – MCA rejects the tabling of this private bill by Hadi Awang today,” she said outside parliament.

Why would Najib risk the support of the other parties in his ruling coalition, when he would have needed them most in the midst of the 1MDB scandal?

Some observers believe the embattled Najib is using the issue of hudud law, to shore up the support from Muslim Malay voters, and to fend off any challenges to his leadership of UMNO and, ultimately, of the country

What is in Najib’s calculations? Or is this really a sign of growing religiosity throughout Malaysia?

What is in the bill?

Hudud is a form of sharia law that allows for stoning and amputation for crimes such as theft and adultery. It is not new in Malaysia.

The Malaysian states of Kelantan, which borders Thailand, and Terengganu, in the north-east of peninsular Malaysia, have enacted hudud law – in 1993 and 2003 respectively. Hudud law has, however, not been enforced, because they are held to be against Malaysia’s federal constitution. Hence, Sharia courts are limited to the imposing fines, jail terms and caning.

Unlike most other states, Kelantan has been ruled by the PAS for decades. PAS had joined the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition for a short period of time in the 1970s, although that was before the party shifted towards a more radical brand of Islamism in the course of the 1980s.

The long standing agenda of PAS is to advance Islam in Malaysia. It revived this as a focus at its latest party general assembly.

The party’s leaders have often looked to neighbouring Brunei for inspiration. It was in 2014 that Brunei announced it would be implementing hudud law.

The amendments in Hadi’s bill would empower Islamic courts on criminal matters throughout Malaysia. For now, Sharia courts only have jurisdiction over Muslims pertaining to areas like family affairs and property disputes. All other matters are covered by the Penal Code that applies to all Malaysian citizens.

Just a short-term political stunt?

Realistically, the hudud bill does not appear to have a chance of passing. PAS and UMNO, the latter being the only constituent party of the governing coalition which will vote for the bill, lack a two-thirds majority – two-thirds, because this involves a constitutional amendment.

There are currently 86 UMNO and 14 PAS MPs in the federal parliament. At 100 MPs, this falls short of the minimum quorum needed in a parliament of 222 members.

More interestingly, Hadi requested for the debate on the bill to be deferred for to the next parliamentary sitting later this year in October.

This is perhaps telling in that the goal of the bill’s introduction in the federal parliament is not seriously intended to be passed – not at least at this point of time.

Two by-elections on 18 June

The move was of course also intended and timed to split the opposition coalition, ahead of two by-elections on 18 June in Muslim-majority seats – Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar. Those seats were vacated when their sitting MPs were killed in a helicopter crash while campaigning in the recent Sarawak state election.

This introduction of the hudud bill give the edge to UMNO, over both PAS and the three other main opposition parties grouped under the opposition alliance, Pakatan Harapan (PH).

If so, this would show once again that religious issues are being used to advance purely political agendas.