Thousands gather in KL to support harsher Islamic laws

Thousands in purple T-shirts gathering in Kuala Lumpur for more than eight hours yesterday to listen to speeches made by PAS leaders and Malaysia's Islamic Affairs Minister in support of stiffer Syariah Court penalties. Some Malay-Muslims are themsel
Thousands in purple T-shirts gathering in Kuala Lumpur for more than eight hours yesterday to listen to speeches made by PAS leaders and Malaysia's Islamic Affairs Minister in support of stiffer Syariah Court penalties. Some Malay-Muslims are themselves divided on the issue.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Umno agrees with PAS proposal for stiffer syariah penalties; critics say non-Muslims will be affected

Thousands gathered in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur yesterday to back a proposal by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to strengthen the country's Islamic courts - seen as a show of strength by the opposition Islamist party as it seeks to reverse ebbing Malay support.

Many were clad in purple T-shirts, the event's designated colour, as they filled an open field for more than eight hours to listen to speeches made by the party's leaders, including PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, and even a United Malays National Organisation (Umno) leader, Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom.

The presence of several leaders from Umno - the dominant party in the governing Barisan Nasional coalition - at the PAS event underlines the joint efforts of the two biggest Malay-Muslim parties to press on issues concerning the ethnic and religious majority.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has been bombarded by allegations of graft and his administration is struggling to prop up the economy.

His party is supporting PAS' push to strengthen Islamic law despite loud protests from the rest of its coalition partners. It has also warned that should Umno fall, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party would dismantle decades-old pro-Malay and Islamic institutions.

The presence of several leaders from Umno - the dominant party in the governing Barisan Nasional coalition - at the PAS event underlines the joint efforts of the two biggest Malay-Muslim parties to press on issues concerning the ethnic and religious majority.

"Are Muslims denying the rights of others? Why are some feeling uneasy when we empower the Syariah Courts?" Datuk Seri Jamil told the crowd, which police said comprised 20,000 people. Others estimated that nearly 50,000 had gathered before an evening downpour.

Datuk Seri Hadi last year tabled a Bill in Parliament to allow the Syariah Courts to impose maximum penalties of 30 years' jail, a RM100,000 (S$31,870) fine, or 100 strokes of the cane for crimes under Islamic law. The courts can currently only mete out up to three years' jail, six strokes of the cane, or a RM5,000 fine.

Critics of the proposed amendments to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, or Act 355, see the move as allowing the backdoor entry of harsher Islamic laws.

The push to amend Act 355 has been opposed outright by the non-Muslim parties. But Malay-based opposition parties have been muted in criticising the Bill for fear of losing the Malay-Muslim vote, even though some within the community are themselves quite divided on the issue.

In neighbouring Petaling Jaya, a counter-rally by those opposed to the proposed legal amendments drew a multiracial crowd of a few hundred, and ended after 5pm.

Social activist Azrul Khalib said non-Muslims will be affected if Malaysia turns more Islamist.

He pointed out to the recent raid by the Johor authorities, which took away paintbrushes made from pig bristles from hardware shops owned by non-Muslims; and fast-food chain McDonald's allowing only halal-certified birthday cakes to be brought on its premises.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Thousands gather in KL to support harsher Islamic laws'. Print Edition | Subscribe