When Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat, or parliament reconvenes on July 24, its most controversial order of business is a measure that could send the country down the road towards an Islamic dictatorship, a bill that would allow for the imposition of shariah law in the rural eastern state of Kelantan. But critics say it could spread to infect both other states and ethnic groups.
But it is not the pressure of the country’s 19.5 million Muslims that is causing the push for more powerful shariah courts and penalties. It is the politics of the country’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who is under fire for the country’s biggest-ever scandal and rising inflation and crime, and who believes he can preserve the United Malays National Organization’s national sway by appealing to Islamic sentiment.
Since independence, Malaysia has been regarded as one of the world’s most prosperous, moderate and democratic predominantly Muslim states. It has sizeable Chinese, Indian and other minority populations. Its Malay population is mostly urban and relatively laid back. But Najib, beset by the 1Malaysia Development Bhd mess, in which US$4 billion has disappeared – as much as US$2 billion into his own pockets – and which is US$11 billion in debt from mismanagement and theft, believes he needs every single Malay vote for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to prevail in elections that could come late this year.
That means going after the Malays in the kampungs, the rural villages, through their religion. The vehicle he intends to use is a bill sponsored not by his own coalition but by the opposition’s Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, the rural-based Islamic party that is seeking to implement sixth-century shariah law in Kelantan, the one state it controls. It was tabled suddenly in the middle of the last night of parliament before it recessed in April. It is the first time the coalition has ever allowed the introduction of a private member’s bill by the opposition.
Theoretically it would put Najib himself in danger, having been caught in a Port Dickson love motel with singer-actress Ziana Zane in the 1980s, enraging his wife, Rosmah Mansor, and by having been named as ‘Public Official 1” by the US Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Unit in the theft of US$1 billion from 1MDB. But like the victims of the Duterte drug war in the Philippines, and black residents of the United States, it is the poor who will take the brunt of being flogged or stoned or going to prison for up to 30 years for what would be misdemeanors for non-Muslims. The kleptocrats of UMNO will remain unscathed.
Whether the parliament would actually act on the proposed Sharia Act (355) when it returns is unclear. Najib is a canny politician who has been tantalizing PAS about passing it since December of 2014, when it was first proposed. There is some belief he is using it only as bait for PAS support and will find a way to delay a vote until after national elections, which could come as early as August or September. However, today it is shaping up as a wedge issue that will determine whether PAS abandons its long and tenuous relationship to the opposition coalition headed by the jailed Anwar Ibrahim.
“He is definitely riding a tiger on this issue,” said Tawfik Ismail, a former parliamentarian and leader of the opposition to the measure who is suing Parliamentary Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia, alleging that it is unconstitutional under Malaysia’s national charter, which guarantees freedom of religion and which requires the sultans’ permission. UMNO, he said, is seeking to boost itself as Malay chauvinist party, abandoning its longstanding mandate as the leader of the country’s multifarious religious status.
In the 2013 general election, the Barisan Nasional coalition lost Peninsular Malaysia to the opposition but in fact was saved by the votes of mostly Christian and animist ethic groups in East Malaysia. As Tawfik points out, today those states are in near rebellion against the shariah measure. On May 7, 20 East Malaysia community leaders wrote an open letter asking that the bill be rejected, with the hint that they could leave the government.
Najib faces a growing quandary and not just from the Sabah and Sarawak Christians – but from an attack from the other side. Last month, Nasrudin Hassan, the PAS information chief, introduced the cudgel of the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election, in which Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the most honest and capable governor the sprawling city has ever had, was defeated largely because he is Chinese and Christian. He has since been jailed for two years on blasphemy charges.
“When you insult Islam, don’t think Muslims will not act by rejecting you as a leader. The Jakarta election has proven it,” Nasrudin told local media, a broad hint that Najib had better keep his promise.
"What has been clear from the start of debate on shariah law is that Prime Minister Najib sees exploitation of religious tensions as a means to an end – that is, his continuation in power in the next election,” said Phil Robertson, Asia Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch. “He appears unconcerned that his cynical political ploy to woo PAS and its supporters will escalate tensions between the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities, and undermine the secular, multi-racial and multi-cultural vision of the founding fathers of Malaysia. That's because Najib's priority is self-preservation, which means maintaining his authority at all costs so that he can keep stamping out the smoldering embers of the 1MDB scandal that otherwise could re-ignite and consume him."
The problem with shariah law, according to Imran Imtiaz Shah Yakob, a Malay lawyer, is that it is unlikely to be confined to Kelantan, the PAS stronghold. Instead, Imran told Asia Sentinel, if parliament gives PAS the authorization to implement shariah law there, the overwhelming rural Malay populations of Terengganu and the northern tier of states such as Perlis, mired in poverty and with drug and crime problems, are likely to demand it as well. Even Selangor, the wealthy urban state surrounding Kuala Lumpur, Imran said, is conceivably susceptible.
"The alternative that Najib and PAS are toying with would mark the beginning of a descent into darkness, intolerance, rights abuses, and possibly religious-based communal strife that could tear Malaysia apart," Robertson said.
As an editorial in the Chinese newspaper Sin Chew said, the rise of extremism threatening religious harmony is a consequence of political problems. Now, the editorial said, “we are making economy, religion and even administration to serve the needs of politics, to an extent that even the civic society finds it difficult to reverse this trend because the country's biggest Malay opposition party is not on their side. The biggest risk in Malaysian politics lies with the fact that a handful of individuals are in firm control of their parties without an effective checks and balances mechanism in place."
Currently the shariah courts hear civil issues affecting only ethnic Malays, who by definition must be Muslims. They can impose maximum penalties up to three years of jail time, fines of RM5, 000 (US$1167) and up to six strokes of the cane.
But under the amendments, adulterers and drinkers of alcohol could be subject to up to 100 strokes of the cane, fined up to RM100,000 and subject to as much as 30 years in prison.