After being dormant for more than a year, the issue of hudud – harsh seventh-century Islamic law prescribing the amputation of limbs for theft and stoning of adulterers – has suddenly come alive in Malaysia again.
The government appears to be fully behind the move, although debate has now been postponed until October. The move has raised deep concern among civil societies and human rights organizations and, according to some critics, could threaten the country’s standing with the international business community.
Nonetheless, on May 26, the final day of the current parliamentary session, Azalina Othman Said, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, suddenly tabled a motion to fast-track amendments that would allow the nominally opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, to implement the criminal code in the east coast state of Kelantan, the only state PAS controls.
One source in Kuala Lumpur suggested the move was a strategy on the part of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose United Malays National Organization faces two imminent by-elections forced by the death of two high-ranking UMNO officials in a helicopter crash last month while campaigning in Sarawak state elections. The two by-elections are in the state of Selangor.
“Now that Najib has messed up the economy he is so desperate to win these coming two by-elections that he is using religion knowing very well Malays would be hard pressed to vote against hudud,” the source told Asia Sentinel. He called the bill “the ‘Talibanization’ of Malaysia.
The measure, a so-called private member’s bill by PAS President Hadi Awang, had been languishing for months before Azalina’s decision to move the measure, an extremely unusual action. It appears to be unheard of for the government to back an opposition party’s bill. It is even unsure whether the bill, if passed, would be legal under Malaysia’s federal Constitution.
The action runs directly counter to Najib’s characterization of his country as a moderate Muslim society in international forums and before the United Nations.
However, Najib and UMNO are caught in an enormous scandal that threatens the government’s legitimacy and stretches across at least seven international jurisdictions. Earlier this week, Singaporean authorities shut BSI Bank Ltd., the Singapore-based arm of the Swiss BSI SA in what Singapore Monetary Authority Managing Director Ravi Menon called “the worst case of control lapses and gross misconduct that we have seen in the Singapore financial center.”
BSI handled a major chunk of the business for 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the scandal-wracked state-backed development fund that appears to have lost billions of dollars to theft and mismanagement. It has been called one of the biggest money-laundering cases in history, with authorities in the US, Abu Dhabi, Luxembourg, Hong Kong and other jurisdictions in addition to Switzerland and Singapore pursuing cases against the fund. Authorities are also seeking to find out the origin and disposal of an estimated US$1 billion that flowed into and out of Najib’s own accounts in 2013.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s most persistent domestic foe, has accused Najib of signing off on the hudud law in an effort to split an already-weakened opposition by getting PAS’s support in exchange for the law in order to protect himself in the scandal.
In an interview with The Australian, Mahathir said Najib is so desperate to cling to power that he is willing to sign off on the harsh Islamic law in exchange for PAS’s support.
“He’s prepared to support these so-called Hudud laws where you decapitate people, chop off their hands, stone them to death,” Mahathir was quoted as saying. “He doesn’t care what he does or what his policy is as long as he gets support. And he wants the support of the opposition PAS. The leader of PAS is talking to him.”
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi insisted to reporters that the bill would only apply to Muslims in Kelantan. But critics are worried that implementation in Kelantan would let the evil genie out of the bottle. With a rising crime rate and concerns especially over violent street crime, the issue has caught fire with the wider public and threatened to bring it to a national level. The independent Merdeka Center, which samples public opinion, found last year that 73 percent of Malay Muslims supported the Islamic law in principle, up from only 47 percent in November of 2013.
One UMNO source told Asia Sentinel there is a danger that once implemented in Kelantan, the rural northern tier of states that abut the Thai border including Perlis, Kedah and Terengganu. There is even rising sympathy in the moderate urban state of Selangor, the source said.
However, it has horrified the 35 percent of other races that make up the country’s polyglot population of 30.7 million as well as moderate city-dwelling Malays. In particular the Chinese, who make up about 20 percent of the population and the bulk of the political opposition, view it as a powder keg.
PAS has been pushing for hudud in Kelantan for decades. But over the past couple of years, as the opposition headed by now-imprisoned leader Anwar Ibrahim gained popularity, sources in Kuala Lumpur have said, Najib saw a behind-the-scenes embrace of hudud as a way to split PAS off from the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Anwar’s own Parti Keadilan Rakyat. The Barisan’s own minority-dominated component parties including the Malaysian Chinese Association, Gerakan and the Malaysian Indian Congress have also opposed implementation.
Today, however, the reasoning in Najib’s camp seems to be that with ethnic Malays making up at least 60 percent of the population, they can ignore the minorities.
With Parliament closing, the bill requires further debate before it would become law. It remains unknown if Najib and his forces would actually inflict the law on the population.
Under its provisions, hudud would impose age-old punishments for certain classes of crimes under Shariah law including theft, sex out of wedlock, consumption of liquor and drugs and apostasy. There appear to be no punishments for corporate crime, which is rife in Malaysia.
But, as Mahathir said when the issue arose in 2014, “There are Muslims and non-Muslims in our country. If a Muslim steals, his hand will be chopped off but when a non-Muslim steals, he goes to jail. Is that justice or not?"
As Mahathir has said, although the law would apply only to Muslims, it sets up the specter of a dual class of punishments, with a Chinese, Indian or other minority facing perhaps two months in jail for theft, for instance, and a Malay facing the prospect of losing his hand. Adultery in Malaysia is rarely punished today for any of the races and although it is not talked about, it is rampant among the leaders of UMNO.