Malaysia’s new morality: The unspoken deceit in Act 355

Malaysia’s parliament is to vote on amendments which would increase the severity of sentences which the country’s Shariah courts can pass. Minority groups worry this is a slow march to an Islamic penal code.

By Francesca Ross

What kind of crime deserves 30 years of imprisonment? Malaysian politicians are asking themselves that question as the amendments to the controversial Sharia Court Act again come up for national and parliamentary debate in March. Does a moral mistake deserve the same level of punishment as a criminal act? If members decide the answer is yes, then religious issues in the country just reached a whole new level of relevance – all thanks to political desperation.

The amendments have been tabled by the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS)

The opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) has been pushing for stronger punishments in the Muslim Shariah courts for many years. Party leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, tabled the amendments which include new penalties of RM100,000 (US$22,400), and 100 lashes of the cane for crimes named in the State List of the Constitution.

These include adultery, accusing a person of committing adultery and consuming intoxicating drinks. Act 355 currently allows a Shariah court to pass prison sentences on Muslims of a maximum three years, a fine of RM5,000 ($US1,100) fine and corporal punishment of six cane strokes.

Traditionally there is a clear line between religious and federal issues but politics is at play

This move to more hardline Islamic influence in public life is a worrying development. The Shariah Court was designed to handle private matters, such as divorce or inheritance. The move to increase the punishments available to these institutions does not mean a person may be tried twice in parallel systems, but it blurs the lines between religious and federal responsibilities for the 60% Muslim population.

There is a third factor at play here; politics. Prime Minister Najib is dirtying his hands with support for the bill in a desperate bid to shore up support his United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) party lost in the last election. He has abandoned his long-standing secular approach and stood with PAS on this divisive issue in the hope of bringing religiously motivated voters back into the fold as the next general election looms.

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia for Human Rights Watch, told The Diplomat, “It now appears there is no price too high for [Najib] in terms of human rights and community harmony if it means saving his own skin.”

PAS politicians are using Najib’s current weakness to further their cause

PAS can smell blood and are making the most of their opportunity. Political analyst Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar told the Malay Mail Online, “By playing solo, PAS is able to have greater leverage on both [ruling coalition] Barisan Nasional (BN) and [opposition] Pakatan Harapan simultaneously. So for the time being, if, say, it is able to garner support from UNMO members as well [as] for the rally, that is going to be a victory for the party.”

PAS’ recent mass “Gathering 355” in Kuala Lumpur at the end of February brought out thousands of pro-Islamic reformers into the streets in peaceful support of the proposed amendments. Political and community leaders used the event to underline this was a Muslim matter, and of no wider concern. Shariah did not apply to members of other religious communities.

Relations with minority communities are at risk

The fear of many activists and minority groups is that this is a slow path to the demands of Islamic hardliners which will fracture the delicate community relations built over many years. The presidents of three parties representing the Chinese and Indian ethnic groups in the BN coalition have already threatened to resign if the bill passes.

These leaders are correct and to call this a matter “only for Muslims” is a deception. As Abdul Hamid Mohamad, former chief justice of Malaysia, points out, Act 355 is a federal law and any changes made to it affect everyone. If the amendments pass then the State Legislative Assemblies (SLA) across the country can take steps to apply hudud (Islamic penal code) punishments for cases in Shariah court.

PAS will be able to implement a form of hudud if the amendments pass

I have purposefully left the word hudud late in this discussion. It has barely been heard at all from PAS and Najib in relation to the Act 355 amendments, but this is certainly the door to hudud by another name. PAS has been pushing the controversial platform for many years and with Najib on his knees they have taken their moment to strike.

If they win the vote they will almost certainly ask the Assembly in their stronghold of Kelantan to implement hudud punishments for prescribed offences. Abdul Hamid Mohamad goes further, suggesting Parliament could, “amend the Penal Code to provide for punishments similar to hudud, without even mentioning the word,” something he calls “a Malaysian ingenuity.” Then in a whisper, under the guise of a matter only for Muslims, perhaps only in one corner of the country, Malaysia’s web of religious and political tolerances begins to shatter.

From small cracks grow great rifts. From the implementation of hardline policies comes misunderstandings and tensions. Should a man face judgement from his court or from his creed? The final verdict on Prime Minister Najib could make him the man that put his country on the line for the sake of an election. Hadi could be the man who achieved his goals without saying a word.