Skip to main content



Umno’s active role in empowering PAS

Attempts to amend Malaysia’s 1965 Criminal Jurisdiction Act, or RUU 355, have divided the nation for more than two years now. The amendment was proposed as a private member’s Bill by Mr Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), to empower Syariah courts to issue more severe punishments.

Umno’s active role in empowering PAS

PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad labels Mr Hadi a traitor and an infidel over PAS' decision to contest 130 parliamentary seats in the upcoming general election. Photo: Malay Mail Online

Attempts to amend Malaysia’s 1965 Criminal Jurisdiction Act, or RUU 355, have divided the nation for more than two years now. The amendment was proposed as a private member’s Bill by Mr Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), to empower Syariah courts to issue more severe punishments.

The Bill has most recently been postponed following Mr Hadi’s explanation of the proposed amendment in Parliament on April 6. This was Mr Hadi’s fifth attempt at tabling the Bill since March 2015.

What is most notable about this proposed Bill is the support it has received from Prime Minister Najib Razak, president of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), who has now made room for Mr Hadi to table his motion three times — a feat that no opposition-proposed private member’s Bill has achieved in Malaysia’s history.

That Mr Hadi has been allowed to speak three times on the motion in Parliament without this proceeding to a debate or vote suggests that the law-making process has been turned into a political game.

Most commentators understand the Bill as largely an attempt by Mr Hadi to push his party’s political agenda, while portraying Umno leaders as playing along opportunistically. But Umno’s support was a shrewd strategy to engage with PAS in order to break up the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance).

Mr Najib’s move has been very successful, resulting in Pakatan Rakyat’s slow disintegration. It also appears to have prevented Mr Hadi from being overly critical of the 1MDB corruption charges against Mr Najib.

Nonetheless, most observers were initially dismissive, baulking at the suggestion that Mr Najib would really support the implementation of hudud (Islamic criminal law) in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, and hence support the amendment of RUU 355.

This is a gross misreading of the crucial role played by the Umno leadership in the situation and what transpired behind the scenes of this Bill.

In reality, Umno has been working hand in glove with PAS to discuss how to navigate around constitutional obstacles to implement hudud in Kelantan.

In the first place, the Malaysian government has pursued RUU 355’s amendment since at least November 2013.

In May 2014, the Federal Government convened a Federal–Kelantan Technical Committee to work with the PAS-majority Kelantan state government to look into how hudud could be implemented in Kelantan.

The committee reached an agreement by the end of 2014 for the Federal Government to table the amendment of RUU 355.

This would have been no special favour to PAS, as the Federal Government had intended to do so anyway, but it would enable PAS to implement some of their hudud law provisions.

Unexpectedly, it was Mr Hadi who then submitted the Bill at a parliamentary session in March 2015, while an amended version of the hudud state legislation was approved at the Kelantan state assembly at the same time.

Mr Hadi and PAS leaders presented the Bill as enabling Kelantan to implement hudud laws and suggested that Muslims could not object to the Bill as it is “God’s law”.

At Mr Hadi’s third attempt during a May 2016 parliamentary session, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Azalina Othman shocked everyone when she asked the Speaker to expedite Mr Hadi’s proposed Bill for reading, without subjecting it to a vote or debate. She later explained that she did so on the instructions of Mr Najib and his deputy.

Even the act of tabling the Bill was prompted by an Umno Minister, and PAS was reportedly told that another Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Jamil Khir, would then oversee its final enactment.

Mr Najib explained that the Bill merely sought to enlarge the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court and has nothing to do with implementing hudud.

Yet Mr Hadi’s move has inadvertently directed public attention to the deeper implications of the amendment, which was initially perceived as a mere technical upgrade of Syariah judiciary power.

In view of the growing opposition, proponents of the Bill began to change their tune to argue that it has nothing to do with hudud laws.

Mr Najib also announced in December that the Federal Government would take over the Bill, only to decide otherwise in March after strong opposition from his other coalition party leaders.

Expressing his gratitude to the government for allowing him to table the motion, Mr Hadi said that “we will not forget this cooperation”. There is ample evidence to conclude that Umno has been playing an active role in abetting the more-than-willing PAS to pursue its own agenda.

PAS leaders are now even envisioning forming a super-majority Muslim bloc to “strengthen political Islam” in the upcoming general election, which is to be called before August 2018.

Stopping short of openly building an electoral alliance with Umno, Mr Hadi recommended that Malay voters should vote for either PAS or Umno in order to strengthen Malay political power.

PAS’s decision to be a third force in Malaysian politics has cast a dark cloud over the electoral prospects for the opposition, which has been trying hard to avoid three-cornered contests, which benefit the incumbent governing coalition.

At a time when Umno is at its weakest due to the 1MDB scandal, this is indeed a masterstroke by Mr Najib. EAST ASIA FORUM


Helen Ting is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, National University of Malaysia.

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.