KUALA LUMPUR (SIN CHEW DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Two women in the state of Terengganu were convicted of attempted same-sex relations and were given six strokes of caning each in public.
It is the first instance of public caning in the country under the Syariah Law.
The caning has since sparked tremendous concerns on human rights violation, putting the country's liberal Islamic image at stake following widespread international media coverage, while dealing a further blow on the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government which has consistently stressed equality and fairness.
Terengganu's Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) government insists that the caning was carried out under the state's Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment 2001 to serve as a stern warning to the people in the state.
In Malaysia, Syariah Law is the prerogative of the state government although Muslims are simultaneously subjected to the federal Common Law.
Even though homosexuality is outlawed under both sets of laws, the caning of female violators in public is widely considered inhuman.
The confusion over the two sets of laws has been in existence for some time now, and the caning of lesbians in Terengganu further protrudes the reality that Malaysians will still not be treated fairly under the laws, in particular the Islamic law.
Female violators can be caned under the Islamic law in Terengganu although this is disallowed under the federal Penal Code.
Moreover, the Prison Act has specified that only convicted prisoners can be caned.
The inconsistency under the two separate sets of laws show that Malaysian women irrespective of race and religion are still subjected to discrimination despite Article 8 (2) of the Federal Constitution which provides that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of gender.
PAS' motive couldn't have been more straightforward: to trigger widespread panic in the country's LGBT community.
Unfortunately, the same has also entrenched the fears of the Malaysian public - be they sympathetic to the LGBT community - towards theocracy.
While the PH government has reiterated that it will treat all Malaysians fairly, recent developments show that there is indeed room for improvement.
Following the public caning of lesbians in Terengganu, the federal government must convince Malaysians that the weaker groups in our society, in particular women, are protected under the laws irrespective of their sexual orientation.
Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, minister in the prime minister's department in charge of religious affairs, said public caning of lesbians in Terengganu ought to be reviewed, although he also said he respected the law of Terengganu and that the state enforcement authorities were carrying out their duties as per the law.
Sure enough such an expression does not seem to go well with the country's relatively liberal international image.
Due to political reasons, there are signs of increasing Islamisation over the years, and this has not improved following the instalment of the new PH government.
The strict enforcement of Islamic law in Terengganu, as Muslim human rights activists put it, does not conform to the spirit of compassion of Islamic teachings.
The federal and state governments under PH must ensure that justice is fully manifested so that citizens are entitled to equal legal rights and that the underprivileged groups can get their deserved respect and protection.
Sin Chew Daily is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.