UMNO’s Hand in Malaysian Islamic Law

UMNO’s Hand in Malaysian Islamic Law
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PAS leaders are now even envisioning forming a supermajority Muslim bloc to 'strengthen political Islam' in the upcoming general election, which is to be called before August 2018.

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Attempts to amend Malaysia’s 1965 Criminal Jurisdiction Act, or RUU 355, have divided the nation for over two years now. The amendment was proposed as a private member’s bill by Abdul Hadi Awang, President of the opposition Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), to empower sharia courts to issue more severe punishments. The bill has most recently been postponed following Hadi’s explanation of the proposed amendment in parliament on April 6, 2017. This was Hadi’s fifth attempt at tabling the bill since March 2015.

What is most notable about this proposed bill is the support it has received from Prime Minister Najib Razak, President of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, who has now made room for Hadi to table his motion three times — a feat that no opposition-proposed private member bill has achieved in Malaysian history. That Hadi has been allowed to speak three times on the motion in parliament without this proceeding to a debate or vote suggests that the law-making process has been turned into a political game.

Most commentators understand the bill as largely an attempt by Hadi to push his party’s political agenda while portraying UMNO leaders as playing along opportunistically. But UMNO’s support was a shrewd strategy to engage with PAS to break up the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance). Najib’s move has been very successful, resulting in Pakatan Rakyat’s slow disintegration. It also appears to have prevented PAS president Hadi from being overly critical of the 1MDB corruption charges against Najib.

Nonetheless, most observers were initially dismissive, balking at the suggestion that Najib would really support the implementation of hudud (Islamic criminal law) in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, and hence support the amendment of RU 355 as intended by Hadi. This is a gross misreading of the crucial role played by the UMNO leadership in the situation and what transpired behind the scenes of this bill. In reality, UMNO has been working for the hand in glove with PAS to discuss how to navigate around constitutional obstacles to implement hudud in Kelantan.

In the first place, the Malaysia government has pursued RU 355’s amendment since at least November 2013. In May 2014, the federal government convened a Federal–Kelantan Technical Committee to work with the PAS-majority Kelantan state government to look into how hudud could be implemented in Kelantan. The committee reached an agreement by the end of 2014 for the federal government to table the amendment of RUU 355. This would have been no special favor to PAS as the federal government has intended to do so anyway but would enable PAS to implement some of their hudud law provisions.

Unexpectedly, it was Hadi who then submitted the bill at a parliamentary session in March 2015, while an amended version of the hudud state legislation was approved at the Kelantan state assembly at the same time. Hadi and PAS leaders presented the bill as enabling Kelantan to implement hudud laws and suggested that Muslims could not object to the bill as it is god’s law. At Hadi’s third attempt during a May 2016 parliamentary session, Minister Azalina Othman shocked everyone when she asked the speaker to expedite Hadi’s proposed bill for reading, without subjecting it to a vote or debate. She later explained that she did so at the instruction of Najib and his deputy.

Even the act of tabling the bill was prompted by an UMNO Minister, and PAS was reportedly told that Minister Jamil Khir would then oversee its final enactment. Najib explained that the bill merely sought to enlarge the jurisdiction of the sharia court and has nothing to do with hudud implementation. Yet Hadi’s move has inadvertently directed public attention to the deeper implications of the amendment which was initially perceived as a mere technical upgrade of Sharia judiciary power. In view of the growing opposition, proponents of the bill began to change their tune to argue that the bill has nothing to do with hudud laws. Najib also announced on 1 December 2016 that the federal government would take over the bill, only to decide otherwise in March 2017 upon strong opposition from his other coalition party leaders. Expressing his gratitude to “the government” for allowing him to table the motion, Hadi said that “we will not forget this cooperation”. There is ample evidence to conclude that UMNO has been playing an active role in abetting the more-than-willing PAS to pursue its own agenda.

PAS leaders are now even envisioning forming a supermajority Muslim bloc to "strengthen political Islam" in the upcoming general election, which is to be called before August 2018. Stopping short of openly building an electoral alliance with UMNO, Hadi recommended that Malay voters should vote for either PAS or UMNO in order to strengthen Malay political power. PAS’s decision to be a third force in Malaysian politics has cast a dark cloud over the electoral prospects for the opposition that has been trying hard to avoid three-cornered contests that benefit the incumbent governing coalition. At a time when UMNO is at its weakest due to the 1MDB scandal, this is indeed a masterstroke by Najib.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White