Why It Matters

Hudud Bill fears are real

In Malaysia today, tensions often surface in the courts in cases involving a spouse who became Muslim and converted the couple's young children to Islam when the marriage broke down. It is seen as a deceitful way to keep the children in divorce cases, and the non-Muslims are told that it has become an Islamic issue that has to go to the syariah courts.

Entertainment events like concerts are kept under watch and sometimes disallowed in the name of Islamic public morality even though those going might be mostly non-Muslim. And public alcohol sales are prohibited in states like Kelantan, and even some Muslim-majority suburbs of Selangor, regardless of the faith of a potential buyer.

So when Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) proposed in Parliament last week tougher punishments for offences under the existing syariah court system, non-Muslims stood up to say a resounding "No".

To be sure, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, an MP from Terengganu, has said that there won't be any amputations or stonings in his so-called "hudud" Bill, which merely strengthens Malaysia's syariah court that runs parallel to the civil judiciary.

To non-Muslims - and some Muslims - who want to keep the Malaysian Constitution secular, the worry is about creeping Islamisation, and whether overlaps, as with religious conversions and lifestyle options, will happen with hudud as well.

The Malaysian syariah court currently imposes the so-called 3-6-5 maximum penalties - three years' jail, six strokes of the rotan, or a RM5,000 (S$1,650) fine.

The debate now is whether PAS, with help from its sometime-ally Umno in Parliament, should be allowed to raise these punishments in steps, beginning with this Bill. It needs only a simple majority in the House to become law.

The willingness of PAS and Umno to work together on Islamic issues - which they see as a vote-getter as the Malay majority becomes more pious - has spooked those committed to a secular nation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2016, with the headline 'Hudud Bill fears are real'. Print Edition | Subscribe