U-turn on Syariah Courts Act hurts Umno

Many Malaysians expected that by last month, their Members of Parliament would have begun debating amendments to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, or Act 355.

Yet, April is here and there is no sign that the debate will take place any time soon. The proposal was initiated by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang, who wanted to table a private member's Bill. He promised last November to provide details of his proposal when Parliament reconvened four months later.

Prime Minister Najib Razak and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had indicated their support for Mr Abdul Hadi's plans. During the Umno General Assembly last December, Datuk Seri Najib suggested that the government would take over the proposal and present it as a government Bill, giving it more priority than a Bill presented by a backbencher.

But things have changed since.

Mr Najib said this week that the government would not table the Bill, citing a lack of consensus within the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, of which Malay-based party Umno is the lead member.

Mr Najib Razak and his deputy Zahid Hamidi (left) at the 210th Police Day celebrations in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday. Netizens have pointed out a possible tension between the two leaders, given their conflicting statements over suggested amendments to Syariah laws. The disagreement indicates the Malaysian Cabinet is divided on the proposed changes, says the writer. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

This means that PAS would have to return to its plan of having it presented as a private member's Bill. Netizens have been quick to point out a possible tension between Mr Najib and his deputy, Mr Zahid, given their conflicting statements within just days.

The latest disagreement is a strong indication that the Malaysian Cabinet is divided on Act 355 amendments.

On the surface, Mr Najib's reversal on Act 355 is a victory for the BN's non-Malay parties. The coalition's partners - the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and other indigenous parties in Sarawak - disapproved of Umno's plan to support Mr Abdul Hadi's proposed Bill.

Under the suggested Bill, maximum penalties would be increased to 30 years' jail, a RM100,000 (S$31,590) fine and 100 strokes of the cane, up from the existing maximum punishment of three years' jail, a RM5,000 fine and six strokes of the cane.

To be sure, there was a political motive underlying Umno's initial support for the proposed Syariah Bill: It wanted to bring PAS closer to it. For decades, the two parties did not see eye to eye - because the federal government rejected PAS' call for the implementation of hudud laws, which include punishments such as amputation of hands, stoning and whipping, in the states which the party governs. However, after the 2008 general election, Umno realised that Chinese and Indian citizens had shifted their votes to the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

BN's poor showing in the 2013 general election was yet another reason why Umno felt it should break away from its non-Malay BN partners and move ahead with PAS.

Umno-PAS reconciliation has seemingly progressed well in the last few months. Last December, Mr Abdul Hadi shared the same stage with Mr Najib at a protest calling the Myanmar government to review its policies towards the Rohingyas.

On Feb 18, more than 100,000 people marched in Kuala Lumpur to show their support for Act 355 amendments. Mr Jamil Khir Baharom, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, joined the rally, which was led by Mr Abdul Hadi. Returning Umno's favour, PAS has rejected joining the new opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, which comprises the DAP, PKR, Parti Amanah Negara and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party.

Mr Najib's latest announcement will dent the progress made by Umno and PAS. Given the hype of possible reconciliation, it would be unsurprising if some PAS members feel betrayed by Umno yet again.

There are already tensions within PAS as to whether the party should remain in opposition or join Umno. PAS leaders had been clear that they could not work with the DAP and wanted the party to remain outside the opposition coalition. But some PAS members may consider Mr Najib as having snubbed PAS.

Depending on how PAS grassroots supporters react to Mr Najib's latest move, there is a possibility that PAS could end up going solo in the next elections, to be held before August 2018.

Yet, Mr Najib's U-turn could hurt Umno more than PAS. Umno supporters will question where the party is heading, after all the talk at its last general assembly to empower Islam in the country.

Is Mr Najib prioritising Umno-PAS unity, or multiracial unity among Umno's traditional BN partners?

At the moment, Umno seems to be at the crossroads on where it stands on Islamic issues and political alignments. This could be a signal that the party is unsure of its direction. Alternatively, the party could simply be hedging on the different segments of Malaysia's divided electorate and buying time until the next elections.

Nevertheless, both strategies play into the hands of the opposition, which is slowly but increasingly showing greater unity under the leadership of Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

•The writer is a fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches Malaysian, Indonesian and Singapore politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'U-turn on Syariah Courts Act hurts Umno'. Print Edition | Subscribe