News analysis

BN's syariah Bill 'U-turn' a bid to woo non-Muslim vote

Malaysia's ruling coalition's decision to not back a controversial syariah law amendment is a bid to woo non-Muslim voters, especially those from Sabah and Sarawak, analysts say.

"As long as this (Bill) is on the agenda, the non-Muslim bumiputeras would be very upset," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, a fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has a simple majority of 132 out of 222 seats in Parliament. However, its dominant component, Malay-Muslim party Umno, only has 87 seats - not enough to pass the amendments, even with the support of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which holds 14 seats and originated the passage of this amendment via a private member's Bill last year.

"They (Umno) simply don't have enough votes to push this (Bill) through in Parliament because East Malaysia doesn't support this," said Dr Oh. There are 33 non-Umno MPs from Sabah and Sarawak.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that BN will not table amendments to Act 355 - the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act - to extend the powers of the Islamic courts, after it failed to reach a consensus among its leaders. BN counts ethnic Chinese and Indian parties within its fold, such as the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, which had objected to the Bill.

A crowd at a rally to support the adoption of a strict Islamic penal code at Padang Merbok in Kuala Lumpur last month. Umno, the dominant component of the Barisan Nasional coalition, does not have enough votes to push the Bill through Parliament. But
A crowd at a rally to support the adoption of a strict Islamic penal code at Padang Merbok in Kuala Lumpur last month. Umno, the dominant component of the Barisan Nasional coalition, does not have enough votes to push the Bill through Parliament. But opposition PAS says it is ready to present and debate the Bill in Parliament. PHOTO: REUTERS

Observers also view the Prime Minister's move to appease non-Muslim voters as a sign that he is preparing for the next general election, which does not need to be held until August next year but is widely expected to be called this year.

Still, the Bill is not completely dead in the water. PAS has said it stands ready to present and debate the Bill in Parliament, even without the government's support. But whether the Bill gets priority over government Bills on the agenda would depend on the Speaker of the House.

"It'll be difficult for PAS now to table the Bill," said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

Analysts say BN's decision affects only PAS' struggle to advance its religious cause but has no impact on its support base, given that its supporters would laud the party's attempts to push its Islamic agenda against the odds. "Those efforts in themselves would be rewarded," said Dr Mustafa.

And despite accusations that the government had "U-turned" on its previous commitment to work with PAS and adopt the Bill as its own, analysts believe that Umno and PAS can still cooperate to make political gains during the next election. And this may involve potentially reviving the Bill at a "politically expedient time", said Dr Oh.

"PAS is mindful of breakaway parties and it may be more useful to have good relations with Umno, in the event they find it difficult to retain seats," said Dr Mustafa.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline 'BN's syariah Bill 'U-turn' a bid to woo non-Muslim vote'. Print Edition | Subscribe