Malaysian National Unity at Risk
Religious extremism may hijack Federal Constitution
Alarm and anxiety is growing across multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia as the state legislature of Kelantan has put a process in place to introduce hudud punishments – 7th century tribal Arabic practices – for religious infractions in March.
Caning, stoning and amputations are prescribed for failure to attend Friday prayers, promoting other religions, apostasy, theft, adultery, homosexuality, alcohol consumption and more. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the Islamic party that rules Kelantan, needs ratification in the national parliament before hudud can be enforced.
PAS leader Hadi Awang is gambling that the majority of United Malays National Organization MPs don’t have the guts to oppose the PAS private member bills being tabled in parliament. The sheer terror of losing their parliamentary seats may be enough to ensure UMNO acquiescence and a majority vote to amend the constitution for Kelantan’s hudud implementation.
Secular Federal Constitution
Malaysia’s constitution is secular. Legal experts contend that hudud laws conflict with the Federal Constitution, which mandates religious freedom for all citizens and holds all equal before the law. Selective enforcement of criminal punishments and the concept of apostasy for one religious group can be challenged as unconstitutional. Aligning hudud laws within the existing secular legal framework would require amending the Federal Constitution in the national parliament.
Alone among the world’s nations, Malaysia’s constitution defines the Malay race as Muslim without exception. Malays have no right to choose their own faith freely. This is a major denial of fundamental human rights that stands in stark contrast to its larger “brother” Indonesia, where an 87 percent Muslim majority country allows total religious freedom in conversions and marriages – which many Malaysian Malays find baffling.
That has led to comic religious police swoops during the fasting month on those who look ethnically Malay from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The religious enforcers get even more baffled when their victims produce ID cards as Christians. There have also been instances of body snatching by religious enforcers at funerals where the non-Muslim family of a convert grievingly arranges for burial in their custom.
Political Calculation, not Piety
This peculiar constitutional quirk was deliberate to keep the Malay vote bank intact in the context of an almost 50 percent non-Malay population at independence in 1957. The departing British colonial masters passed it for expediency as they extricated, like they did partition for India. Both unwise decisions now have become festering legacies on the ex-colonies.
UMNO, the ruling party since Malayan independence in 1957, has lost considerable ground among the urban electorate where an educated Malay professional class has seen through its kleptocratic cronyism. UMNO’s survival now lies in the rural Malay heartland where PAS is riding the global wave of Islamic fundamentalism and domestic loss of trust in Umno leadership.
While claiming to protect the interests of the Malays, in reality Umno has transferred public assets to enrich its own cabal of “Umnoputras” at the expense of the wider “Bumiputras” – sons of the soil – and all other citizens it is supposed to lead as government.
To survive politically as its urban support erodes, Umno tacticians have been pushing for an electoral alliance with PAS, appealing to “Malay unity” to achieve two objectives – to use the large rural catchment of Malay votes to counter its urban rejection and to neutralize PAS from demonizing Umno as the party of unholy sinners. Umno is terrified that it will be rejected by both vote banks and find itself unseated from power for the first time since independence in the next general election due 2016-18.