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Syariah Bill: Umno treading a tightrope

After months of delay, Malaysian opposition party leader Abdul Hadi Awang, who is president of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), tabled a Private Member's Bill to amend the Syariah Courts Act 1965 (Act 355).

However, details of his proposal will be presented only in March next year, after Parliament reconvenes. He has said that, since there remains some confusion regarding the changes, he will need more time to explain them to the public.

Observers are concerned about whether the Bill is a step towards the implementation of hudud laws - punitive ancient Islamic regulations that include amputation, stoning and whipping for offences.

Since the 1980s, PAS clerics have been championing for hudud laws to be implemented in the states that the party governs. Others point to the latest move as another sign of ruling party Umno reconciling with PAS.

Malaysia adopts a dual legal system of justice by having both civil and syariah courts. Syariah rulings, nonetheless, apply only to Muslims, and the proposed amendments would not alter this provision.

The most significant change to Act 355 would be the degree of punishment. Currently, syariah courts can pass maximum sentences of three years in jail, a fine of RM5,000 (S$1,600) and six strokes of the cane. The proposed changes seek to increase the sentences to 30 years' imprisonment, a RM100,000 fine and 100 strokes of the cane.

The form of caning would also follow the Islamic way, according to Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, who notes that it is not meant to cause injury.

He uses the following analogy to describe the person conducting the caning: "It's like placing a book under his armpit. As he is swinging the cane, the book must not drop. Thus, 100 strokes of syariah caning does not equal one stroke of caning by civil court standards."

To quell criticisms that the amendments are a step towards hudud, Datuk Asyraf also pointed out that the Federal Constitution must be amended with two-thirds of the parliamentarians in support. This is unlikely to happen, he claimed, even if all Muslim members vote in support, because that would not meet the 148-vote threshold. There are currently 135 Muslim MPs in the government and opposition, out of the 222 members in Parliament.

Furthermore, hudud laws encompass the criminal offences of stealing and robbery, which are not covered by Act 355.

The Malaysian government's explanation that Act 355 does not equate to hudud is valid, but it has to do more to persuade non-Muslims that the two are not synonymous.

The more imperative need is to convince the masses of the timing of the revision. There are more pressing problems associated with syariah court administration that need to be resolved. These include the backlog of cases, even though there have been efforts to improve efficiency, such as introducing night courts.

The likely explanation for Umno leaders supporting the amendment is that the party wants to bring PAS into its fold and boost support from conservative Malay/Muslim voters.

Having set its sights on the upcoming general election, the party wants to regain support from those sympathising with other opposition Malay/Muslim parties, such as Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Parti Amanah Negara and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

Umno is also being careful not to lose its traditional coalition partners - the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress, Gerakan and other non-Malay parties in Sabah and Sarawak - as it seeks to woo PAS.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has painstakingly made efforts to convince all Muslim MPs to support the Bill, while at the same time assuring non-Muslims that the Bill will not affect them.

Yet, non-Muslims do not buy his argument. MCA president Liow Tiong Lai has reiterated that his party will not vote for the Bill, and remains hopeful that Umno will honour the Constitution, which safeguards minorities.

Cracks remain within the Malay/Muslim community as well.

In support of the Bill, at least 200 students and members of Muslim non-governmental organisations have gathered in front of Parliament.

On the other hand, there are Malays who reject the move. For example, former minister in the Prime Minister's Department Mohd Zaid Ibrahim has penned an open letter to MPs urging them not to support the Bill.

What is more worrying is the tone of the debate regarding Act 355, which plays up religious sentiments harking back to 1969, when Malaysia experienced bloody racial riots.

Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi has warned non-Muslims not to emulate Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, more widely known as Ahok, who is currently under investigation for allegedly insulting the Quran during a campaign speech. On Nov 4, more than 150,000 Muslims in Jakarta protested against the governor, urging him to step down.

In Malaysia, there is a possibility that political temperatures will rise as the next parliamentary sitting approaches, with conservative Muslim groups holding that those rejecting Act 355 are undermining Islam's rightful position in the country.

•Dr Norshahril Saat is fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches on Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'Syariah Bill: Umno treading a tightrope'. Print Edition | Subscribe