KUALA LUMPUR - Tens of thousands of people gathered in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday (Feb 18) to to back a proposal by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to strengthen Malaysia’s Islamic courts, seen as a show of strength by the Islamist party as it seeks to reverse ebbing Malay support.
Many were clad in purple T-shirts, the event's designated colour, as they filled up an open field for over eight hours to witness speeches by their leaders including PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, and an Umno leader, Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom.
The presence of several leaders from Umno - the dominant party in the governing coalition - at the opposition party’s event underlines the joint efforts of the two biggest Malay-Muslim parties to press on issues concerning the ethnic and religious majority.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has been bombarded by allegations of graft and his administration is struggling to prop up the economy.
His party has instead supported PAS' push to strengthen Islamic law, despite loud protests from the rest of its coalition partners, and also warned that should Umno fall, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party would dismantle decades-old pro-Malay and Islamic institutions.
"Are Muslims denying the rights of others? Why are some feeling uneasy when we empower the Syariah Courts?" Datuk Seri Jamil told the crowd, which police said was at 20,000 strong, while others estimated nearly 50,000 before an evening downpour.
Datuk Seri Hadi last year tabled a Bill in Parliament to allow the Syariah courts to impose maximum penalties of 30 years' jail, RM100,000 (S$31,800) fine or 100 strokes of the cane for offences under Islamic law. The Islamic courts today can only mete out up to three years' jail, six strokes of the cane or a RM5,000 fine.
"We want the Syariah court to be a premier court, not a lowly one,” Mr Hadi told the crowd.
Critics of the amendments to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, or Act 355, see the move as allowing the backdoor entry of harsher Islamic penal code into Malaysia.
The push to amend Act 355 is opposed outright by the non-Muslim parties. But Malay-based opposition parties have been muted in criticising the Bill for fear of losing the Malay-Muslim vote, though the Malays are themselves quite divided over the issue.
In neighbouring Petaling Jaya, a counter-rally by those opposed to the legal amendments drew a multiracial crowd of a few hundred people, and ended after 5pm.
Social activist Azrul Khalib said non-Muslims will be affected if Malaysia turns more Islamist. He pointed out to the recent raid by Johor authorities who took away paintbrushes made from pig bristles from hardware shops owned by non-Muslims, and fast-food chain McDonald’s only allowing halal-certified birthday cakes into its premises.
The Bill to amend Act 355 has been read twice in the federal Parliament, with the government saying it will now be transferred to a select committee comprising Muslim and non-Muslim lawmakers for discussions and fine-tuning.