News analysis

Malaysia's opposition in a fix over Islamic law again

It risks turning off Malay or Chinese voters by taking a stand on issue

The shock move to allow the so-called hudud Bill on Islamic criminal law to be tabled in Parliament on Thursday has put Malaysia's opposition parties in a bind again.

A year ago, the ruling Umno's willingness to cooperate with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) on the Bill that would introduce amputation and stoning to death as criminal punishments led to the break-up of the opposition alliance.

This time, the buzz surrounding the same issue comes just prior to two by-elections in Muslim-majority seats, handing the advantage to Umno and hampering both PAS and the three other main opposition parties grouped under Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Even though PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang deferred the debate on the Bill - which will empower Syariah courts to hear criminal matters involving Muslims - it has forced the re-emergence of hudud in the political landscape.

Reflecting the widespread view of non-Muslims - though given assurances that the Islamic criminal law will not be applicable to them - four parties from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition yesterday voiced their concern. BN consists of 13 parties led by Umno.

"We are of the opinion that this is an attempt to circumvent settled constitutional and legal principles by conferring unlimited sentencing powers on the Syariah criminal courts to facilitate the introduction of Islamic criminal law," said the statement by the main Chinese and Indian parties in BN - the Malaysian Chinese Association, Gerakan, Malaysian Indian Congress and the Sarawak United People's Party.

PM Najib (far left) and PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang at a public event last December. The Umno-led government allowed the hudud Bill, which is widely opposed by non-Muslim Malaysians, to be tabled in Parliament on Thursday.
PM Najib (left) and PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang at a public event last December. The Umno-led government allowed the hudud Bill, which is widely opposed by non-Muslim Malaysians, to be tabled in Parliament on Thursday. PHOTO: SIN CHEW DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

The opposition, on the other hand, has lost the initiative going into two winnable June 18 by-elections in Sungai Besar in Selangor and Kuala Kangsar in Perak.

Already it faces an uphill task as PAS isn't with PH and has insisted it will go it alone, threatening a three-cornered fight in both seats that will advantage Umno.

PAS knows that the hudud issue makes it unpopular with Chinese voters, who form a sizeable minority. But PAS leaders first need to persuade its members that working with Umno - as it did in being allowed to table the Bill - is good for its Islamic agenda.

"Winning the by-elections is irrelevant to PAS' internal affairs. It's more important to be able to justify the move away from the opposition and closer to the government, as it has borne fruit," S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times.

The PH parties - the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Amanah - are in a dilemma over the Bill.

Amanah, formed by breakaway PAS leaders, is hedging its stand on whether it supports the Bill. Rejecting an Islamic law Bill could reduce traction among religious Malays, but accepting it would turn off Chinese voters. Malay-led PKR has been conspicuously silent for the very same reason.

Even the Chinese-dominated DAP, in opposing the introduction of hudud, took pains to explain it is not anti-Islam, but merely holding fast to Malaysia's secular Constitution.

To some, the clear winner in the controversy is Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is under a cloud in handling the scandal surrounding state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

DAP chief Lim Kit Siang said the Islamic law issue is now "the single biggest issue in the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar by-elections next month, completely overshadowing Najib's premiership and the 1MDB global financial scandal".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'KL opposition in a fix over Islamic law again'. Print Edition | Subscribe