Malaysian National Unity at Risk

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.

Domino effect

If the Federal Constitution is amended to legitimize hudud, it is expected to be rapidly adopted by other states like Perlis, Kedah and Terengganu, with large rural Muslim majority populations. That would then make it incumbent on other states of Peninsular Malaysia to align, as each Sultan is nominally in charge of religious matters and would be under considerable pressure to conform. The Sultans are equally anxious not to be caught on the wrong side of the religious froth. Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Johor can be expected to follow.

The Malay-Muslim composition of Malaysia’s population now stands at about 60 percent. Malaysia’s tenuous multi-ethnic and multi-religious equilibrium is under severe stress. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak seems to have lost so much clout that he is almost written out of the script on this matter. Najib is scrambling to fend off accusations of financial imprudence while dodging a lingering murder scandal and suffering opprobrium for the excesses of his wife, Rosmah Mansor.

Dr Mahathir discovers reform

Former Umno strongman and Prime Minister Mahathir has challenged the folly of hudud laws in his nationally followed blog Chedet and on public forums. He has also called for an accounting from Najib on the mysterious 2006 murder of a Mongolian model who acted as a translator in dubious defense ministry procurement deals while Najib was Defense Minister – and the apparent theft of billions from a sovereign fund Najib set-up.

That is causing consternation within Umno and emboldening those who want the corrupt administration driven from office. To stem the attacks from all sides, Najib has resorted to arrest and detention without trial of dissidents, using internal security legislation. This is rapidly building up to a major inflection point in the country’s political evolution. It is also facilitating a dangerous fundamentalist creep by default, into the Federal Constitution.

Concerned Citizens Call for Leadership

The vacuum of moral leadership from government is being filled by civilian initiatives. A “Group of 40” prominent ex-judges, ambassadors, senior civil servants and civic activists have published an open letter in the press and alternative media calling for restraint and rational examination of the Islamization debate in the interests of the nation.

This follows a similar open letter from an earlier “Group of 25” prominent figures last year. Noor Faridah Ariffin, who led the initial group of 25, called for urgent leadership from the prime minister to save the nation from destruction of its interracial and interreligious harmony. That has not happened given Najib’s own fight for survival within Umno.

Meanwhile, Najib himself is urgently using the mechanism that Mahathir himself put in place to control all Umno branch leaders through ample opportunities to enrich themselves through patronage, to buy loyalty and internal party support. That seems to be working for the moment even with Mahathir’s increasingly vitriolic public attacks.

Malaysia finds itself at the brink by default. Failure of leadership is allowing extremist racial and religious agendas to gain traction. The much-vaunted multi-ethnic and multi-religious showcase country may tragically lose its tenuous balance of harmony overnight.