The politics of Sharia law in Malaysia

OPINION: The recent attempt by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) to table a private member's bill aimed at introducing stricter adherence to Sharia law to the Southeast Asian country is mired in controversy and underscores the difficulties with politicising Islam.

While the bill, that would amend the Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 in the Federal Constitution, is intended to apply only to Muslims, it also highlights inter-ethnic tension in Malaysia with the non-Muslim communities strongly opposed to the proposed legislation.

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with Muslims currently making up 60 percent of the population.

Since independence, political mobilisation in Malaysia has tended to run along ethnic lines with a number of major political parties each focused on their ethnic constituency.

The incumbent moderate Malay-Muslim party, UMNO, and the opposition conservative Islamic party, PAS, are vying for influence among Malay-Muslims and this rivalry has defined the parameters of discourse on the role Islam in the public domain.

With rising Islamic consciousness evident in the last few decades, PAS has been trying to actively promote its strict Islamic agenda with the intention of implementing Sharia laws and eventually realising its goal of creating an Islamic state.

The 1980s and 1990s saw both UMNO and PAS competing against each other over which party best represents authentic Islamic leadership.

UMNO publicly espouses the ideals of a modernising, progressive and inclusive Islam and has accused PAS of being radical and fundamentalist.

In dealing with the PAS challenge, the former Mahathir administration attempted to dominate the public discourse on Islam and also put in place various policies that resulted in a state-led Islamisation of Malay society.

While these policies were intended to appeal to Malays exposed to the globalising tide of Islamic resurgence, it was also an attempt by UMNO to undercut PAS support.

These government-led initiatives had the effect of intensifying the trend towards conservatism among both urban and rural Malays. Additionally, this growing conservatism is also reflected in UMNO, which now has to maintain a balance between the moderate and conservative wings within the party.

Among the issues that dominated the contestation between UMNO and PAS is the vision of creating an Islamic state and the introduction of Sharia law.

In Malaysia, the Islamic or Sharia court is the prerogative of the state governments. Sharia law pertaining to personal matters such as marriage and inheritance was introduced during British colonial rule.

PAS has long called for the state Sharia courts to expand their powers so that they are empowered to implement the full range of Sharia law and, in particular, hudud punishments, such as the amputation of limbs, flogging and stoning to death for offences such as robbery, adultery and apostasy. In the past, UMNO has been strongly opposed to the introduction of hudud by the state governments.

The Kelantan state government is dominated by PAS and, as early as 1993, passed legislation that would allow punishments such as flogging and stoning. However, the amendments were not enforceable as they ran counter to the Federal constitution; a number of offences identified as hudud, such as theft, robbery and rape, are under federal jurisdiction and are not the prerogative of state Sharia courts.

Since then, PAS has politicised hudud in an attempt to win over Malay voters and in 2015 passed amendments to the 1993 hudud legislation in Kelantan.

The intransigence of PAS on the hudud issue increased tension with its political partners and undermined the opposition coalition that included parties representing the minority non-Muslim communities. In the last election held in 2013, UMNO and its coalition partners won the election but lost the popular vote to the opposition coalition.

In an attempt to shore up support among Malays, UMNO has been courting PAS and is considering some form of alliance before the next general election is held.

UMNO's support and fast-tracking of the private member's bill for debate in the Federal parliament is evidence of the tacit agreement between the two biggest Malay-Muslim parties in Malaysia to work together.

The private member's bill is significant because it removes an important impediment in the implementation of hudud punishments by the state Sharia courts. The bill proposes to upgrade the Sharia courts which currently impose punishments limited to jail terms not exceeding three years, flogging of not more than six strokes and fines of not more than NZ$1,600.

The private member's bill removes these limits, effectively allowing Sharia courts in all states to impose a number of hudud punishments, except for the death penalty, in line with the requirements of Sharia. Non-Muslims would not be affected by these changes because the Sharia courts have jurisdiction only over Muslims.

While the proposed amendments do not expressly mention hudud, it can be argued that the private member's bill aims to facilitate the introduction and enforcement of a number of hudud punishments.

Many countries, including New Zealand, have looked towards Malaysia as a model for moderate Islam that acknowledges tolerance and pluralism. The increase in religious piety and the desire for greater public prominence of Sharia law among Muslims in Malaysia may deepen ethnic cleavages and raise concerns regarding the political ascendancy of Islam.

UMNO's support for the PAS proposed bill to enhance the powers of the Sharia courts highlights the dilemma of playing the Islamic card. While it may be pragmatic for UMNO to align itself with PAS ahead of the elections in order to consolidate its appeal among Malay voters, it runs the risk of alienating its non-Muslim political partners.

Public support for a bill that facilitates the introduction of hudud punishments may undermine UMNO's efforts to portray itself to Malaysians and the world as a party that espouses moderate and progressive Islam.

The expansion of Sharia law in Malaysia does not immediately impact New Zealand; however, over the longer term, further implementation of hudud may raise human rights concerns and may lead to a divergence in shared values of democracy and pluralism.

Dr Talib visited Malaysia in November 2016 as part of a delegation led by the Asia New Zealand Foundation that participated in a Track II ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand dialogue. While in Kuala Lumpur, she met with prominent Malaysians to discuss, among other issues, rising Islamic conservatism and the debate on the role of Sharia law in Malaysian society. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.