Religious Law Threatens Malaysian Opposition Coalition

Malaysia’s perpetually fragile opposition coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim is in danger of coming completely apart as a result of a threat by the rural Parti Islam se-Malaysia to enforce 7th-century criminal law calling for stoning adulterers and amputation for thieves in the eastern state of Kelantan.

Both Anwar and Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, said they had been caught off guard by the PAS proposal and that they hadn’t been consulted although Anwar later said he respected PAS’s right to implement the draconian law, known as hudud, in the rural, impoverished eastern state.

Lim warned that the plan to amend the shariah law would work against both PAS and the other components of the coalition and put both the leadership of the country and Kelantan itself out of reach in the next election.

Nonetheless, a PAS official said the hudud policy has always been enshrined in the party’s constitution and has always been a crucial goal, and insisted it would apply only to Muslims in Kelantan.

From the time Anwar put together the Pakatan Rakyat coalition prior to the 2008 election, it has been shaky, composed of groups going in different directions – a Chinese party that wants nothing to do with religious law and considers pork a staple, a fundamentalist Islamic party that considers eating pork a pathway to hell, and a third party, Anwar’s that appears to stand for very little except seeking national power.

Anwar is preoccupied by the looming threat of being sent to jail before the end of the year on what most observers consider to be trumped-up charges of unnatural sex with a male aide in 2008 and has so far given only a weak response to the PAS threat, calling the move “problematic” instead of knocking heads inside his coalition to get the parties back in line.

If PAS goes through with the threat, as Lim warns, it is almost certain to drive the DAP -- or PAS -- out of the coalition, and to alienate many of the moderate Malay Muslims who make up the bulk of Anwar’s own urban-oriented Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party. It is also certain to damage the country’s international standing as one of the most moderate of Muslim nations.

Despite those concerns, PAS leaders appear to be ignoring the potential political carnage. In Kelantan, which the rural Islamist party controls, party leaders said earlier this week that they would convene a special session of the state assembly to iron out final details of two members’ bills that PAS lawmakers would introduce in the Dewan Rakyat, or federal parliament, to allow the state to implement the draconian criminal code.

While PAS insists that only Muslims would be subject to the law, both middle-class Muslims and the 40 percent of the population who are non-Muslims fear that if hudud is introduced in Kelantan, it will indeed eventually be used against them, and that given rising fears of violent crime, the law would spread to other states as well, even Selangor, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur and is one of the country’s most liberal regions.

A relatively liberal member of the leading United Malays National Organization told Asia Sentinel he fears that implementation of the law would spread first to the eastern and northern tiers of the country, which like Kelantan are rural, poverty stricken and conservative, and that it might be impossible to corral the movement.

Under the provisions of hudud, the crimes considered to be "claims of God" include theft, fornication and adultery, drinking alcohol or other intoxicants, and apostasy. Given their 7th Century origin, the punishments do not include the corruption activity that has saddled the country for decades and has been growing. The range of mediaeval punishments to be meted out include stoning adulterers to death and lopping off the limbs of thieves.

The issue was diverted into a national parliamentary committee in July, but it reappeared this week in Kelantan when party members said they would convene a special sitting of its own state assembly to fine-tune the bills for introduction in the federal Parliament.

The announcement came the same day as the DAP resolved unanimously during its annual assembly to reject implementation, insisting it was never part of the pact cobbled together by Anwar to create the coalition in the first place. The DAP has repeatedly demanded the PAS drop the issue, warning that it could mean the end of the coalition.

If that were to happen, it would mean the severe crippling of a movement that shocked the Barisan Nasional in 2008 by winning five states and wiping out the Barisan’s two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in the country’s history. The opposition went on to win the popular vote outright in the 2013 general election but was kept from power by gerrymandering and the first-past-the-post electoral system.

The move to implement the law, considered barbaric by a major segment of the country, raises headaches for everybody. The fact PAS is seeking to introduce it as a private member’s bill is almost unheard of, since the ruling majority controls the process of bill introduction and in the past there was no chance an opposition bill would even be tabled.

The question of why it would be tabled now relates to UMNO’s concerns over its own weakness and the continuing erosion of Malay votes to the opposition. Party Vice President and deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin said during the party’s November general assembly that the loss of just two more percentage points of votes would put the coalition out of business for the first time since the country became independent. UMNO members of parliament reportedly were being intimidated into agreeing to vote for the measure or face being thought of as “bad Muslims” by the country’s rural population, sources said.

Prime Minister Najib, who most observers believe emerged from the general assembly weakened over a huge scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund, probably doesn’t dare weaken himself any more in the eyes of Malays by putting a stop to the antediluvian law before it reaches a critical stage.