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Re-igniting the Islamisation debate in Malaysia

After months of trying, Malaysia’s Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) finally succeeded in tabling the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) (Amendment) Bill 2016, also referred to as the “Syariah Bill”, in Parliament.

Re-igniting the Islamisation debate in Malaysia

The Syariah Bill is yet another example of the conservative turn that Malaysia has taken for political expediencies. Photo: Reuters

After months of trying, Malaysia’s Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) finally succeeded in tabling the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) (Amendment) Bill 2016, also referred to as the “Syariah Bill”, in Parliament.

The move is seen as part of PAS’ long-term aim to introduce hudud, or Islamic criminal law, in the northern state of Kelantan, which is under its control. While attempts to implement hudud laws are not new, the perceived support by the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) for the Bill tabled by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang has caused an uproar both domestically and internationally. Notably, Ms Azalina Othman Said, the Umno minister-in-charge of Parliament who surprised many by fast-tracking Mr Hadi’s Bill from the last item on the queue to the first, explained over the weekend that she was merely acting under the instructions of the leader of the House and the Chief Whip. The leader of the House is Umno president and Prime Minister Najib Razak while the Chief Whip is Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also an Umno vice-president.

While it is unlikely that the Bill will be passed, the hudud issue reveals once again the extent Malaysian politicians would go to in securing political support from the Malay populace in the country. The long-term implication of the Bill will prove divisive and could break the inter-religious harmony long enjoyed in the country.

Umno’s support for the hudud Bill could be better understood as a Machiavellian tactic based on its dire need to secure a strong electoral basis and redress its political legitimacy. In light of the party’s decreasing legitimacy due to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption scandal and the unprecedented challenges posed by the Islamic State (IS) terror group and its local ilk, Umno seeks to reaffirm itself as the sole legitimate representative of Islam.

It is likely that Umno’s support for PAS’ Syariah Bill is a political machination for gaining electoral support ahead of the upcoming by-elections in Sungai Besar in Selangor and Kuala Kangsar in Perak, and also for the 2018 general elections. The support for PAS belies Umno’s anxiety vis-a-vis its capacity to successfully confront PAS and Amanah, a splinter of PAS, since the majority of the voters in both Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar are Malay-Muslims.

Umno’s political posturing should also be understood against the backdrop of a 2014 poll issued by Merdeka Center, which revealed that seven in 10 Malays favoured the implementation of hudud. Similarly, Umno is indirectly challenged by IS’ version of the “right Islam” which, according to Pew’s Spring 2015 Global Attitudes Survey, is perceived favourably by 11 per cent of the Malaysian populace.

In light of the numerous arrests of IS-linked militants by the government, accompanied by dozens of foiled plans to attack important economic and infrastructure targets in the country, Umno appears to see a need to once again define what is the “right Islam”. For many Umno leaders, the right Islam is Islam that the party defines as being suitable for Malaysian Muslims and, most importantly, being a tool the party could utilise for its political purposes.

The decision to support the hudud Bill will come at a cost for Umno. Potential fissures within the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition were quick to emerge.

Several non-Muslim members of the government in Mr Najib’s Cabinet, such as the president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, Mr Liow Tiong Lai, and the Malaysian Indian Congress, Mr S Subramaniam, have threatened to resign. Losing the support of these two parties might not be significant given that both were nearly wiped out in the last election. But the bigger worry for Mr Najib is the potential backlash he might face from East Malaysian politicians who have made their unequivocal opposition to the Bill clear. At least one-third of the seats held by the BN come from Sabah and Sarawak. As such, Umno will have to carefully calculate the costs of supporting the hudud Bill.




The biggest winner from the hudud imbroglio is PAS. In a recent interview with one of the two authors, Mr Hadi noted that regardless of whether hudud is implemented, the party has already gained political mileage. The party can claim credit if the Bill is passed and can blame Umno if the move is unsuccessful.

By pushing for the Syariah Bill, PAS has also exposed two other Malay-majority opposition parties — Parti Amanah Nasional, made up of ex-PAS members, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Both parties will come under increasing pressure to state their position on the issue and regardless of their stand, they risk offending their Malaysian Muslim electorate or their non-Muslim support.

The Syariah Bill represents yet another example of the conservative turn that Malaysia has taken for political expediencies, which will have a corrosive effect in the long term. Since the 1990s, there has been a progressive process of political Islamisation.

This has led to growing conservative attitudes of Muslims in the country, manifested in issues such as whether they can touch dogs. Another implication is the way Islam in Malaysia is defined by those in authority in a way that proves the most politically convenient.

For many non-Muslims, the Bill is yet another threat to their religious rights. In the last decade, they have seen their rights curtailed in issues such as the use of the word “Allah” in the Malay-language Bible. With the introduction of the Bill, many worry about how it will impact them.

As such, the Bill will likely create more mistrust and worsen relations between the different ethnic and religious groups in the country.

At the regional level, the Syariah Bill represents a trend of implementation of puritanical Shariah laws that began with Aceh and later, Brunei. In a region where there has been a long tradition of tolerance, the use of religion for political objectives can heighten inter-religious conflict and increase fears against Islam.



Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is Coordinator of Malaysia Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Aida Arosoaie is a Senior Analyst at RSIS.

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