KUALA LUMPUR • Prime Minister Najib Razak will decide soon on whether Umno will back a controversial Islamic Bill, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said yesterday, as a plan to push it through Parliament faces a fierce backlash from non-Muslims.
The so-called "hudud Bill" has raised tensions after several senior Islamic clerics said that all Muslim MPs, regardless of their party affiliation, must support the motion to turn the Bill into law, while non-Muslim groups and parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition are against it.
Asked about Umno's stand on the matter, Datuk Seri Zahid told reporters yesterday: "We will leave it to the president (Datuk Seri Najib) to determine (Umno's stand) based on the established situation."
The Bill by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is aimed at expanding the powers of the country's syariah, or Islamic, courts, by amending the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, also known as Act 355.
Non-Muslims and moderate Malaysian Muslims fear that the Bill, if passed in the federal Parliament, would lead to the enforcement of hudud, the strict Islamic penal code that has punishments such as amputation for thieves and public whipping for adulterers.
The proposed changes include allowing the courts to mete out punishments permissible under syariah law, except for the death penalty. If the amendments are passed, critics say it could pave the way for state governments like PAS-ruled Kelantan to introduce hudud.
Fears over expansion of Islamic courts' powers
Malaysia's syariah, or Islamic, courts can apply only the so-called "3-5-6" punishments on offenders under the current law. These are imposing a jail term of up to three years, a RM5,000 (S$1,700) fine, or six lashes of the cane.
The syariah courts run in parallel with the country's civil courts, in separate court complexes.
The Islamic courts deal with mundane matters such as marriages and divorces, and Muslim families' asset distribution. They also deal with issues that involve non-Muslims, such as cases of religious conversions and Muslims caught drinking alcohol in bars run by non-Muslims.
Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is now trying to push through a Bill in the federal Parliament to expand the powers of the syariah courts, which has caused deep concern among non-Muslims and moderate Muslims.
PAS wants to do this by amending the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, also known as Act 355.
The amended Act would become law once approved by Parliament, critics say, allowing the syariah courts to "impose punishments that are allowed by syariah law", other than the death penalty.
This, to them, means allowing the entry of harsher punishments, such as amputating the limbs of thieves and public caning for adulterers, thus casting aside Malaysia's secular Constitution.
Non-Muslims are worried that while assurances have been given that only Muslims would be affected, previous cases of zealous enforcement in Kelantan have shown that non-Muslims could be hit directly as well.
Non-Muslim communities are concerned about the legislation's potential impact on them, despite assurances by PAS that only Muslims would be punished in the syariah courts.
Opposition and non-Muslim politicians also say that the Bill goes against Malaysia's secular Constitution because it attempts to bring in the Islamic penal code under the guise of expanding the syariah courts' powers.
In what some see as a signal of the government's hesitation to help PAS raise the issue in Parliament, the motion was yesterday pushed down to the seventh spot on the Order Paper in Parliament, from the fourth place previously.
Both the muftis (state Islamic leaders) of Perak and the Federal Territories have called on all Muslim MPs to support the Bill.
On the other hand, three non-Muslim partners in the BN - the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Chinese-led Gerakan and the Malaysian Indian Congress - oppose the Bill.
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, and the Council of Churches of Malaysia have also asked Malaysians to reject the Bill.