””

News analysis

Backlash on Bills shackles political chiefs in Malaysia

With differing interests, politicians cannot unify country

The deferment of two controversial Bills, despite Parliament sitting for an entire month, has laid bare how Malaysia's tense inter-religious ties have forced politicians to stand still rather than move towards uniting the multi-ethnic nation.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang was allowed at short notice on Thursday to propose a controversial Bill to strengthen Islamic courts, to the surprise of many.

This was after Barisan Nasional, the 13-party ruling coalition led by Umno, decided last week not to sponsor Datuk Seri Hadi's amendments to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act.

This was due to non-Muslim concern that it would lead to further Islamisation at the cost of their civil liberties, despite assurances by PAS that only Muslims would be affected.

The widespread view is that the Speaker of the House, an Umno leader, could have easily blocked Mr Hadi's Bill from being raised at all.

But that wasn't the only surprise on Thursday involving the issue of religious rights.

Amendments to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act that would stop Muslim parents gaining custody of unilaterally converted children without their non-Muslim spouse's consent was also dropped, causing outrage from civil society. The Straits Times understands that the draft was ready more than a month ago.


Parti Islam SeMalaysia president Abdul Hadi Awang is against amendments to the Law Reform Act, which would put an end to a slew of unilateral conversion cases that have raised communal tensions in recent years.

Analysts believe that the second Bill was pulled as Umno, after deciding not to take over Mr Hadi's Islamic Bill, cannot afford to be seen by conservative Malay Muslims to be supporting amendments clamoured by non-Muslims.

Said S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' senior fellow Yang Razali Kassim: "Umno has shown that when push comes to shove, it cannot be depended (upon) to uphold Islam. If the marriage reform Bill goes through (as well), this cannot be good for Umno. Especially not before a general election."

Analysts believe that the second Bill was pulled as Umno, after deciding not to take over Mr Hadi's Islamic Bill, cannot afford to be seen by conservative Malay Muslims to be supporting amendments clamoured by non-Muslims.

A source involved in the drafting of amendments to the Law Reform Act told The Straits Times that when the Bill was ready, the minister-in-charge of national unity Joseph Kurup promised that the fix was not part of a package deal with the Syariah Bill.

"According to the minister, it was a done deal," the source said.

The changes in the second Bill would have put an end to a slew of unilateral conversion cases that have raised communal tensions in recent years.

One example is that of Ms Indira Gandhi, who is in an eight-year battle with her former husband who converted to Islam. He unilaterally converted their children to Islam, and then snatched their youngest daughter, before winning custodial rights in the Syariah Court - a parallel legal system that runs alongside the civil courts.

Mr Hadi and Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria have been among those protesting against changes to the Law Reform Act, saying the proposed amendments would be unconstitutional and run counter to a 2009 religious edict declaring that children of converts automatically become Muslims.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi admitted on Thursday that the changes were pulled as "we want to ensure that the amendments are not against Islamic fatwa or the Federal Constitution".

With the different Islamic forces at play, where does Malaysia go from here?

Malay cultural expert Eddin Khoo said political leaders are being shackled by the Islamic authorities seeking to protect and expand their influence. "Those who want social progress have to make clear that history shows Malaysians came together and agreed on the rules that govern our independent country. The government is being checked, but not checkmated yet."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2017, with the headline 'Backlash on Bills shackles political chiefs in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe