Jeevan Vasagar in Singapore
June 2, 2016
Ethnic Chinese ministers have threatened to quit the Malaysian government if a bill giving Islamic courts powers to impose tougher penalties is passed into law.
Critics of Najib Razak, the prime minister, say the bill is an attempt to distract attention from the 1MDB state investment fund scandal ahead of by-elections this month and a general election that must be held by 2018.
The bill, proposed by the Islamist opposition but fast-tracked last week by a government minister, will be debated in parliament in October. It comes at a time of concern over rising intolerance in Southeast Asia, a region once regarded as a model of religious coexistence.
It would give sharia courts authority to impose longer prison sentences, heavier fines and harsher canings but stops short of penalties allowed under an extreme form of sharia law in two states.
Kelantan and Terengganu, in the north-east of Peninsular Malaysia, have enacted hudud, a form of sharia law that allows for stoning and amputation for crimes including theft and adultery. However, these laws have not been enforced as they are held to be against Malaysia’s federal constitution. Sharia courts are limited to the imposition of fines, jail terms and caning.
Outside these states, sharia courts have jurisdiction over civil matters relating to Muslims, such as divorce and inheritance, but not criminal matters.
Analysts say the bill may be a way of gauging the appetite for constitutional change needed to implement hudud. It has provoked consternation in a country with a Muslim majority but is ethnically and religiously diverse. About a quarter of Malaysia’s population is of Chinese descent and 7 per cent is Indian in origin.
Mustafa Izzuddin, a political scientist at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said: “The concern is that it’s a test case, to see how people react.”
Liow Tiong Lai, the transport minister, and Mah Siew Keong, a cabinet colleague, belong to the substantial Chinese minority and have threatened to quit if the bill is passed.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the ruling United Malays National Organisation was using sharia law as a “wedge issue” to split the opposition, which comprises Islamists and the Democratic Action party, dominated by Malaysian Chinese.
“This is about saving Najib’s political skin,” Mr Robertson said. “Democracy and human rights in Malaysia is being sacrificed in order to avoid answering questions about 1MDB.”
Mr Najib has denied claims of misappropriation at 1MDB, a fund set up at his behest. The affair has led to investigations by authorities in countries including Switzerland, Singapore, the US and Hong Kong. Swiss authorities say there are indications that about $4bn has been misappropriated from Malaysian state companies.
Voters outside big cities have proved largely indifferent to the scandal, returning Umno with an increased majority in a state election in Sarawak last month.
On Thursday a person close to Mr Najib’s office denied the sharia bill was a political ploy. “The PM’s political opponents have been claiming for more than a year that nearly everything is an attempted distraction from 1MDB,” the person said. “However, the draft bill is a religious matter, while 1MDB is a corporate matter. There is no connection.”
Analysts say the bill is likely to sow mistrust between ethnic groups and increase anxiety among religious minorities whose rights have been curtailed in recent years.
Malay-speaking Christians have been barred by a court from using the word Allah to refer to God, with the result that Malay-language Bibles have been confiscated. Last year a lawyer was charged with sedition for accusing a government agency of promoting religious extremism.
Mr Najib’s critics say that alongside a more hardline interpretation of Islam, his government is displaying an increasingly authoritarian streak that has included travel bans on opponents.