Why It Matters

Rising tension over PAS' Bill

The push by Malaysia's opposition Islamist party, the PAS, to inject harsher punishments into Islamic courts with help from ruling party Umno, has both drawn praise and raised hackles.

The issue is likely to be a big factor in the upcoming general election because the majority Malay-Muslim electorate largely backs anything labelled "Islamic". And it also cheers the Malay unity shown by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Umno over the issue.

The country's Parliament, controlled by the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition, has given the seventh spot in the House's ongoing business to the PAS' Bill, inordinately high for a non-government motion.

But the increasingly public role of Islam is also raising concern.

The PAS' argument that non-Muslims, who form a third of Malaysians, should not worry about Islamic laws as these do not affect them is met with great cynicism. Islam's enlarged role has figured in inter-faith court disputes such as over the use of the word Allah, child custody and Malay-language Bibles.

Umno's partners in the multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional government have suffered under this perceived unfairness. With the push to strengthen Islamic law, some parties now fear being wiped out.

But it is also a nightmare for the opposition, which has struggled to retain Malay voters. So much so that no consensus has been reached between or within parties aside from the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party.

Although ties were cut with the PAS, many Muslim lawmakers in the other opposition parties are counting the cost of voting "nay", and abstention and alternative Bills have been considered.

But with no formal decision made, a sudden call to vote on the PAS' Bill may lead to more tension within the opposition. Deepening the rifts among his enemies will mean a job well done for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'Rising tension over PAS' Bill'. Print Edition | Subscribe