Malaysia's government backs out of tabling syariah Bill in Parliament

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) announced on Wednesday (March 29) that it will not table in Parliament a controversial legal amendment to extend the powers of the Islamic courts, after it failed to reach a consensus among its leaders.

"With regards to Act 355, BN supreme council has decided that the government will not table (amendments to) Act 355 in alignment with our principle that BN makes decisions on consensus," said Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also Umno president and head of BN. Act 355 is the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act .

The decision is a clear set back for opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS),which first brought the amendments to Parliament via a private member's Bill last year and was relying on the government's support to get it passed. The government had plans to take over the Bill and table the amendments in Parliament. Component parties within multi-ethnic BN however have long opposed what they view as an indirect way of introducing hudud, or the Islamic penal code nationwide.

"Henceforth, this will be a private member's Bill. It's up to the (Parliament) Speaker to decide if he wants it to be tabled," Datuk Seri Najib said in a late night press conference.

The amendments, if passed, 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.

Now that the Bill has reverted to being a private member's Bill, its fate depends on whether the Speaker of the House allows it to be presented, debated and voted upon.

Mr Najib voiced his scepticism when asked if the amendments would be voted upon.

"It may or may not get to vote. It depends on the speaker to decide," he said.

Despite earlier opposition from the BN component parties, the proposed Bill has been on the Parliament's order paper several times but was never formally tabled.

Parties from Sarawak state in east Malaysia and the opposition have also voiced their objections to the Bill.

"We are having the same stand but this Bill is syariah and not hudud. But even it is syariah we expressed our concern because the penalty emitted from this Bill to me is discriminatory between Muslims and non-Muslims under Article 8 of the Federal Constitution, so that is my concern and I am expressing my concern on that," Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg said on Tuesday.