A Political Divide Over Islamic Law Could Undo Malaysia’s Social Fabric

David Hutt
World Politics Review
Aug. 30, 2016

During my last visit to Malaysia in February, I met the famed film director Chiu Keng Guan to discuss his fourth and latest movie, “Ola Bola.” It had just come out in local cinemas and was already proving to be such a sensation that one newspaper asked if there was an “Ola Bola overload.” A little misty-eyed perhaps, the film is a fictionalized account of the Malaysian national football team’s qualification for the 1980 Olympic Games, arguably one of the country’s finest sporting milestones, made all the more memorable by the fact that it was achieved by a multiracial, multireligious team.

“Ola Bola is a story about Malaysia,” Chiu told me as we sat on the steps of the decaying Stadium Merdeka, where independence from Britain was announced in 1957. “I wanted to talk about team spirit, how a team of young players went through difficulties, trained together, sweated together, and how they worked as a team.”

Being in Malaysia at the time of the film’s release, it wasn’t difficult to notice that, aside from the nostalgia, people were speaking of it as a piece of social commentary in a country where racial and religious tensions are never far from the surface. One critic surmised, “Ola Bola [has] been able to do for Malaysia what many politicians cannot do—to remind us as a nation and as Malaysians, ‘kita menang sama-sama, kita kalah sama-sama’”: We win together; we lose together. One cannot help but feel the critic’s words were even more pertinent months later when politicians forced the country into yet another existential debate.

In May, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS), an opposition party, successfully tabled a bill to introduce strict Islamic criminal codes, known as “hudud,” in the northern state of Kelantan, which has been a PAS stronghold since 1990. Hudud are criminal punishments established by the Quran and Sunnah, the oral teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, which typically cover what are deemed criminal offenses, such as theft, fornication, intoxication, apostasy and slander. Punishments can include the amputation of limbs for theft, flogging for “improper” sexual acts and stoning to death for adultery, although the latter is not always imposed.

Although now commonly referred to as the “hudud bill” by the local press, the motion specifically attempts to amend the 1965 law regulating Shariah law, known in Malaysia as syariah, in order for the Malaysian state of Kelantan’s syariah courts to impose any punishment, except the death penalty, as they see fit. The PAS contends this isn’t strictly hudud, but that comes down to a debate over definitions. Since independence, Malaysia has had a divided legal system in which federal courts, more often than not, oversee and supersede the state-level syariah courts. But critics say the hudud bill would unconstitutionally undermine federal law and run the risk of sparking religious and racial tensions. The bill is expected to be debated in the Dewan Rakyat, the lower house of Malaysia’s parliament, in October.

Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister and long-time opponent of hudud, was quick to point out what many believe to be the obvious: that the bill would make sense if Malaysia were “100 percent Muslim,” but, because it isn’t, the law would naturally lead to inequality in the justice system. “If a Muslim was caught for stealing he would have his hand chopped off, but a non-Muslim would only be jailed for two months,” he said. “Hudud is supposed to be just to its people, but it can’t be carried out here because Muslims only make up 60 percent of the population.” In his typical waggish manner, he reduced the debate to the PAS simply wanting to “catch women who wear tight clothes.”

Managing Malaysia’s Diversity

According to the last national census, which was conducted in 2010, 67 percent of the population is of Malay heritage, 25 percent Chinese, 7 percent Indian, 0.7 percent other, and just over 8 percent are noncitizens. In terms of religion, 61 percent is Muslim, 20 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian, and 6 percent Hindu, with the remainder comprising smaller religious affiliations.

Malaysia’s history has shown that such diversity has been difficult to manage. In the 19th century, British colonial forces brought Chinese workers to Malaysia to become indentured laborers in tin mines and rubber plantations. By the time of independence, a sizeable, and typically urban, Chinese-Malaysian population controlled much of the country’s trade and business sectors, while most Malays remained in rural areas. Decades of debate over post-independence racial policies came to a head in 1969, when race riots between Malay-Malaysians and Chinese-Malaysians in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, led to the deaths of an estimated 200 people —some say as many as 600 — and a state of national emergency. It was followed by the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971, which attempted to foster racial equality but was seen by critics as introducing affirmative action policies for the Malay population, especially in government positions. Speak to many Chinese-origin Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur and they’ll soon descend onto the topic of “ketuanan Melayu,” or Malay supremacy. Indeed, Article 153 of the constitution denotes the “special position of the Malays.”

This is, of course, a truncated and simplified depiction of Malaysian history. Nevertheless, with this background, one can arrive at the question that many commentators are raising in Malaysia: Why is the hudud bill being debated now? Hudud has been a perennial issue for the PAS since the 1980s, and the party has called for its implementation on many occasions. However, rarely has there seemed to be the real possibility of actually introducing it. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a pro-Malay political party that has ruled the country since the formation of the modern federation in 1963 — and as part of the National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN) coalition since 1973 — has constantly opposed hudud. Indeed, in 2011, Prime Minister Najib Razak stated vehemently, “Hudud laws cannot be implemented.”

But on March 27, 2014, the minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Jamil Khir Baharom, announced during a parliamentary debate that UMNO would assist PAS representatives in Kelantan in tabling the hudud bill in parliament and, in fact, help to fast-track it.

“UMNO leaders have undeniably issued public statements which are enough to convince a neutral observer that UMNO is serious in wanting to see hudud practised in Kelantan and, perhaps, eventually Malaysia,” wrote Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a professor of political science at Universiti Sains Malaysia, in a 2015 essay.

But, as Ahmad Fauzi told me in an interview, however it appears to the lay observer, what really lies behind all of this is UMNO politicking. “They are in a very weak position,” he said, “and are trying to reclaim their place in politics.”

First, Najib has been under considerable pressure following the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, in which he was accused of siphoning off more than $700 million from the government-run development company into his private bank accounts. Since the initial reports in 2015, and despite a local court finding him innocent of any wrongdoing, investigations by the Wall Street Journal and U.S. Justice Department have allegedly uncovered far greater misappropriations, and for the past year, Najib has faced growing calls to resign. One of his most vocal opponents has been his former mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, who called in July for a referendum on whether the prime minister should be allowed to continue.

Second, and arguably more problematic for UMNO, is that it has been shedding electoral support for almost a decade. At the 2008 general elections, the BN coalition lost 58 seats, with the opposition coalition, People’s Alliance (PR), gaining 61 seats — the three main parties of the PR, at the time, were the PAS, the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (Parti Tindakan Demokratik, DAP). In terms of the popular vote, BN secured only roughly 300,000 votes more than the PR.

At the following general election in 2013, the results were even direr for UMNO and the BN coalition. The BN won 133 seats, compared to the PR’s 89. However it did so with fewer popular votes — 47.3 percent compared to 50.8 percent. Malaysia operates under a first-past-the-post system, which explains the contrast between seats and votes. It was the first time that the BN had fewer popular votes than an opposition coalition. What’s more, UMNO’s ruling coalition partners — the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) — suffered heavily.

That election, Ahmad Fauzi posited in his essay, “[propelled] Islam to the forefront of national politics. . . . Under pressure from its rank and file to recover loss of support from the Malay masses in two successive general elections, UMNO leaders played along with ethnocentric sentiments of its divisional and branch level figures which sought to portray the Malay nation as being under threat of being overwhelmed by non-Malay forces.”

Since the 1970s, Malaysian politics have been defined by what Farish A. Noor, a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, has described as “a hotly divisive contest” between the country’s two main Malay-Muslim parties. “The fact that UMNO and PAS presented themselves as defenders of both Malay ethno-nationalist and Muslim communitarian interests,” he wrote, “meant that Islam would invariably be brought into the political contestation between them.”

Because UMNO has ruled Malaysia since its formation, however, it has had the upper hand in dictating how this ethno-religious politics would be played. The introduction of the New Economic Policy and the National Cultural Policy in 1971 began the process of co-opting syariah officials and a good deal of the ulama — the body of Muslim scholars that specialize in Islamic law — into the federal bureaucracy, controlled by UMNO.

In the 1980s, UNMO’s primarily Muslim politicians expanded authority over syariah courts. Since the 1990s, however, the highest echelon of UMNO has also reached out to other constituencies, notably the Chinese-Malaysian population.

Indeed, electoral success for the BN coalition has depended a great deal on voters from non-Muslim communities, especially in urban areas. One of the implications is that UMNO has not pushed as stringently as it could have for a stricter enforcement of syariah, despite pleas from the UMNO rank and file. Nevertheless, Ahmad Fauzi told me that UMNO has been adroit in what he calls “doublespeak,” saying one thing in the rural, Malay heartlands, and the exact opposite when speaking to crowds of non-Muslims in Kuala Lumpur.

At the same time as it continued to court non-Muslim voters after 2013, UMNO’s turn toward more conservative Islam at the time was easily discernible. For example, in December 2013, the government outlawed the Shiite Association of Malaysia, despite assurances two years earlier that the Muslim minority group was free to practice its beliefs. The majority of Muslims in Malaysia follow the Shafii school of Sunni Islam, and conservative ulama have long opposed minority branches.

Another example was the opening of the 57th national-level Quran Recital Assembly in 2015, where Najib took to the stage to deplore what he called “human rightism.”

“It’s deviationist in that it glorifies the desires of man alone and rejects any value system that encompasses religious norms and etiquettes,” he told the audience. “They do this on the premise of championing human rights. We will not tolerate any demands or right to apostasy by Muslims, or deny Muslims their right to be governed by Shariah Courts and neither will we allow Muslims to engage in LGBT activities.”

In response to such statements, Ahmad Fauzi has argued that “[because of] the recent upsurge of an Islamist conservative lobby intent on imposing its arbitrary worldview upon Malay-Muslim society in Malaysia, Najib’s diatribe against modern humanistic values was not altogether surprising.”

While appealing to its core Malay voters, UMNO also set about splitting the opposition, and hudud was its instrument to court PAS purists. The strategy succeeded. In June 2015, the PR collapsed when the PAS severed ties with the coalition after the DAP voiced opposition to the hudud bill. In the aftermath, a number of politicians and activists split from the PAS to form the National Trust Party (Parti Amanah Negara, PAN), which rejoined the DAP and the PKR to form a new coalition, the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan, PH).

A year later, in June 2016, UMNO’s Janus-faced initiatives bore fruit when it won two parliamentary by-elections by sizeable margins.

“Support for hudud laws, especially among West Malaysian Muslims, has been high. . . . Some surveys estimate more than 70 per cent,” said Ibrahim Suffian, head of Merdeka Centre, an independent polling firm. He described the UMNO’s apparent backing of the hudud bill as a “clever move,” allowing it to secure the by-election victories.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the PR’s split was obvious in the by-election results. In one district, the PAS came in second and the PAN third, while in the other, though the positions were reversed, the margin was small. Such was the disappointment with the future electoral chances of the PH that, in July, seven small opposition parties announced their intention to form another coalition, Gabungan Rakyat Saksama. However, few observers believe this third force would ever be able to challenge the hegemony of UMNO and the BN coalition at the 2018 election; in fact, they contend it will probably only work to split opposition forces further.

Some have suggested that, with the opposition divided and weakened, as is the BN, UMNO might attempt to form an alliance with the PAS, raising the possibility of a pro-Malay coalition between the pair; a similar claim was rumored in 2008, however. If statistics are anything to go by, then with Malay-Muslims comprising more than 60 percent of the population, a UMNO-PAS partnership would certainly offer strong odds on a majority in 2018’s general elections. PAS’s president, Abdul Hadi Awang, recently told his party that Islam teaches people to treat political rivals with respect, hinting at a reconciliation between the two parties.

Still, most political commentators dismiss the possibility of such an alliance, believing instead that UMNO is playing a game of brinkmanship with the opposition. Ibrahim Suffian told me that “most observers don’t think that hudud would really be introduced,” and that UMNO politicians will simply reject it when it’s debated in October. A simple mathematical calculation also shows that the bill is unlikely to pass, even with unanimous UMNO backing. In the Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s parliament, a majority of votes is needed to accept a bill, and of the body’s 222 legislators, only 100 are from UMNO and PAS. Most other sizeable parties have stated they would not support the bill.

Nevertheless, if this is just UMNO chicanery, are the ends necessarily worth the means? There are concerns that permanent damage might be done even before the bill is debated in October.

Abdul Rahman Osman, the mufti of Malaysia’s third-largest state, Pahang, sparked controversy in late June when he called DAP politicians “kafir harbi” — non-Muslim infidel — over the party’s opposition to the bill. Some interpret the kafir harbi label as justifying the killing of those so designated. Few commentators missed the significance of the fact that such an escalation in sectarian rhetoric came a week before the first successful attack by the so-called Islamic State in Malaysia. On June 28, a grenade was thrown near a nightclub in Kuala Lumpur injuring eight people, but with no fatalities. Fifteen people were arrested for the attack, including two policemen, all with links to the Islamic State. The Malaysian police say they have foiled nine Islamic State attacks in the country since 2014.

The hudud bill has also raised concerns, once again, over the place of non-Muslims in Malaysia. While the tabled bill only applies to the state of Kelantan, trepidation remains that, once accepted, it could generate a slippery slope toward its application everywhere in Malaysia. Critics say this would undermine the legitimacy of the federal justice system, making it separate and unequal, or that it would infringe on the rights of non-Muslims. PAS leaders contend that non-Muslims in Kelantan should not worry since the bill would not apply to them. But in neighboring Indonesia, the recent flogging of an elderly Christian resident accused of selling alcohol in the special autonomous region of Aceh —w here hudud was introduced in 2001 — has raised doubts that punishments can be kept to just one religious community.

One commentator has suggested that, if passed, the bill could even eventually lead to the “breaking up the [Malaysian] federation.” For example, Sim Kui Hian, president of the Sarawak United People’s Party (Parti Rakyat Bersatu Sarawak), has said that since Islam is not as prominent in the east Malaysian island of Borneo where the party is based, as it is in mainland Western Malaysia, the “passing of the bill could motivate Sarawakians to part ways with Malaysia.”

Politically speaking, the bill also raises concerns about the future stability of the BN coalition. “It’s a very serious threat,” Ibrahim Suffian said. “If you look at political stability in Malaysia, it basically rests on BN as a coalition being united and being able to manage the competing interests of the group.” But cracks are appearing. Six ministers from the ruling coalition have threatened to resign if the bill is passed.

UMNO, however, holds the majority of BN’s seats in the Dewan Rakyat — 86 of the coalition’s 130. The second largest party in the coalition is the pro-Malay United Bumiputera Heritage Party (Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu), which has 14 seats. The MCA and MIC, by comparison, have a paltry seven and three seats, respectively. The insinuation is that UMNO might not be too threatened should the MCA and MIC leave the coalition over the hudud bill, or alternatively that, in their weakened conditions, the two parties cannot risk leaving the coalition even if they wanted to.

At the end of the day, if UMNO is using the hudud bill to divide and conquer the opposition, as it is generally assumed, then the electoral benefits of doing so would most likely outweigh the risks of weakening its own coalition — although this says nothing of the possible social implications, which are discussed almost daily by the local press. The PAS is today losing its own members and supporters to the splinter party PAN, which almost equaled the PAS in terms of votes in June. One might assume that the PAS-PAN split will allow UMNO to reclaim voters from the rural, Malay heartlands. What’s more, UMNO might still oppose the hudud bill in parliament in October, after which it can say to its non-Muslim voters that it has been opposed to the rise of Islamism all along. For a country where the politicization of Islam has been used, often successfully, by UMNO for decades, the hudud controversy might smack of desperation from the embattled party and its menaced prime minister, but it certainly is a case of business as usual.

David Hutt is a journalist and features writer. Since 2014, he has been based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, reporting on politics and current affairs in the Asia-Pacific region.

  1. #1 by good coolie on Sunday, 4 September 2016 - 12:15 am

    The PAS Bill is unconstitutional in some of its terms. It is better to stop it before it is passed than to come out, later, with separate laws, to counter the bill’s unconstitutional terms. A good example of this is the Baby-snatching cases. We now have proposals to give back all the rights of parties to a civil marriage vis-a-vis custody rights and conversion. Would it not have been better if Article 121(1A) on the jurisdiction of civil and religious courts been correctly interpreted in the first place? Was it not clear that “ibu-bapa” (as consenters to a child’s conversion) meant both parents? Even “ibu atau bapa” could have been a logical change to cover the situation where one of the parents has died or has lost legal competency, but never to be interpreted so as to take away anyone’s constitutional rights? Why have not the judges involved in undermining the Federal Constitution been taken to task for violating the constitution?

  2. #2 by good coolie on Sunday, 4 September 2016 - 12:19 am

    And stopping the Bill early is definitely better than taking placards to the PM protesting ugly results of constitutional amendments. The case in point is the ineffectual protest by our beloved MIC, MCA, and leaders of other Barisan component parties, after Art.121(1A)’s effects came to be felt.

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