The President of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), Abdul Hadi Awang (centre), proposed the bill.

On the last day of Malaysia’s latest session of Parliament, a member of the ruling coalition, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), had a bill amendment approved which has provoked an outcry in the country. That’s because it aims to tighten the implementation of Sharia; and critics claim it intends to bring in “hudud” punishments, such as lashes for adultery and hand amputation for theft. (The term hudud refers to punishments decreed by God.)

Non-Muslim Malaysians (including many Chinese and Indians) reacted strongly, saying the Prime Minister is under pressure from the Islamist party, which first proposed the bill, due to up-coming by-elections, and that while Sharia should only apply to Muslims, they are afraid the measure was snuck in at the last minute, with intent for it to eventually apply country-wide.

Now approved for debate in the Federal Parliament’s next session in October, the bill amendment caught many by surprise; it jumped the queue over other government bills. The sudden move was made possible because it was moved up the list by a Minister in the Prime Minister’s office, despite being proposed by an UMNO rival, the President of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), Abdul Hadi Awang.

Fears ‘hudud’ punishments will spread beyond Kelantan

PAS is a Malay-based political party that governs only the state of Kelantan, one of 14 states in Malaysia. Different from UMNO, PAS adheres to a more conservative streak of Islam. One of its main political agendas is for the implementation of Sharia, in which it looked to have succeeded when the Kelantan state legislative assembly unanimously approved it on 19 March, 2015.

But PAS is unable to enforce it in the state until the Federal Parliament amends the Sharia Courts Act to allow them to mete out hudud punishments.

While each state government has jurisdiction over its own laws and regulations, it is the Federal government that holds the key to the enforcement of hudud, thanks to its over-arching authority over the judiciary and court systems, including civil and Sharia courts. Therefore, should the bill be passed in Parliament in October, it would pave the way for hudud penalties to be implemented by Sharia courts in Kelantan.

PAS leaders defended the bill, saying that hudud primarily governs Muslims in Kelantan, but the Democratic Action Party (DAP) opposition leader, Lim Guan Eng, warned in the Malay Mail that “hudud is no ordinary law. The motion to empower the Sharia courts to mete out sentences short of the death penalty would not be limited to Kelantan, where PAS is hoping to introduce hudud, but would equip all Islamic courts [throughout the country] similarly”.

Proposed bill inconsistent with Malaysian Federal Constitution

UMNO, Malaysia’s main political party, leads a coalition (the National Front, or BN) with 12 other non-Malay-based parties, such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The BN coalition holds the majority of seats in the Federal Parliament to form the current central government. In multi-racial Malaysia, UMNO claims it exists to represent and defend the rights of the Malays, the predominant racial group, which makes up roughly half the country’s population.

PAS and DAP were part of the opposition group, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), but PAS’ uncompromising insistence on pushing its Sharia-led agenda has led to a clash with DAP, resulting in the PR falling apart. It also led to a split in PAS, with more moderate Islamists quitting the party to form another party.

The disarray gave rise to a new political constellation. PAS and BN, which used to be on the opposite ends of politics, are now thought to be working together to unite the Malays against the Chinese and Indians. A majority of them support the PR.

Because UMNO did not inform its other BN partners about this alliance with PAS on the hudud bill, it created a storm of opposition from within. These partners felt betrayed by UMNO, with some party leaders threatening to resign their Cabinet positions in the government, as reported by the Straits Times.

One such leader is the President of MIC, S. Subramaniam, who said in a statement that the proposed bill is inconsistent with the provisions of the Federal Constitution (Article 8), which protects the rights of all Malaysians for equal treatment before the law and against the duality of sentencing, referring to both Sharia and civil penal law.

Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, President of the MCA, said: “This issue will cause a constitutional crisis. It will ruin the inter-ethnic relationship in the country.”

Even moderate Muslims are lending their voice against the bill, such as the G25 group of retired Malay senior civil servants, as reported in the Malay Mail: “Although Article 3 of the Federal Constitution declares that Islam is the religion of the Federation, still, constitutionally, Malaysia is a secular state, as our forefathers and the framers of the Federal Constitution had intended. Further, our nation is multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-cultural,” they said.

In The Star Online, lawyer and human-rights activist Siti Zabedah Kassim wrote: “I demand that Malays like me should not be governed under hudud law. To us, it is not Islamic at all.”

In trying to calm the storm created by the bill, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that it was a misunderstanding, as the bill was not about hudud, but merely an attempt to amend the types of punishments that can be imposed by the Sharia courts.

Possible repercussions for Christians

In light of the political crossfire, a church leader warned: “The Islamist party, PAS, has been fighting to implement Sharia since its inception. Even if they may fail now, they may succeed in the future. The church must not be swayed in winning the battle, but losing the war.”

“Only in strengthening believers to face persecution can we ensure the survival of the Church in Malaysia,” the pastor added.

If enacted, Sharia will primarily govern Malaysian Muslims. But looking at other Southeast Asian countries, like Brunei and Indonesia, which have preceded Malaysia in enforcing Sharia – either nationwide or only in certain places – non-Muslims, including Christians, have also been affected. For instance, an elderly Christian woman in Sharia-governed Aceh, Indonesia, was recently subjected to 30 lashes for selling alcohol.

Malaysia ranks 30th on the 2016 World Watch List of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. Of the country’s 30 million population, Christians comprise nearly 10%, with one-third of them living in West or Peninsular Malaysia where the state of Kelantan is located.