ucanews.com reporters, Kuala Lumpur
Updated: July 17, 2017 08:06 AM GMT
A file image of a Malaysian religious student holding the Koran at school in Hulu Langat, near Kuala Lumpur. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)
One of the most watched attempts to nudge multi-cultural and secular Malaysia toward Islamic rule will resume later this month in parliament.
The lower house will sit from July 24 to Aug. 10 and the controversial Hudud bill, known as Act 355, that critics say will result in whippings and even the amputations of limbs for crimes such as theft, is on the agenda. Hudud is the system of punishment set up by the Quran.
As a precursor, the northern state of Kelantan, governed by a conservative Islamist party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party — commonly known as PAS — on July 12 announced it had approved public whipping.
The new law, which was approved in the state assembly, also empowers religious enforcement officers to handcuff suspects and allow video clips to be used as evidence in trials, national news agency Bernama reported.
While Shariah is practiced in all Malaysian states, it is currently restricted to family issues such as divorce and inheritance, as well as Islamic offences such as alcohol consumption and adultery. Criminal cases come under federal laws.
The Kelantan assembly's decision to approve the law is an unpromising sign for those railing against Act 355, which will allow cruel punishments specified under Shariah, in a society that is both the multi-ethnic and multi-religious.
Act 355, an amendment to Malaysia's Islamic law statutes, was introduced by PAS leader and parliamentarian Abdul Hadi Awang last year and it initially had the support of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his party, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO).
The prime minister however backed away from a plan to table the bill after a revolt in his Barisan Nasional coalition government.
However, UMNO, the dominant member of the long-ruling coalition government, could still help pass the bill in an attempt to shore up support among conservative Malays ahead of elections that must be called by mid-2018.
But supporting the bill bears the risk of alienating voters in the states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo. Najib's coalition government only managed to hang on to power with support from the two states, which have significant Christian populations.
Former Sabah state secretary Simon Sipaun, who signed a memorandum with 19 other prominent personalities from the two states against the Hudud bill, says he and his fellow signatories are worried Malaysia is going down a divisive path.
He said the people of Sarawak and Sabah did not sign up for a federation where the rules of conduct could be changed at a whim and unilaterally.
"These people are doing it for electoral gains. It is morally wrong and disastrous for Malaysia," he said.
Speaking to ucanews.com, Sipaun said Malaysia is now suffering from an overdose of politics based on race and religion.
"This is the problem. It's high time we leave out playing the racial and religious cards and concentrate on developing the nation for all," Sipaun said.
"Just look at what we had before Malaysia and now. These racial and religious things [we are experiencing] … we had no problem in North Borneo [before it joined Sarawak, Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia on Sept. 16, 1963]," he said. "It's only after Malaysia formed that I experienced racial and religious issues."
Sipaun fears that the now Malay-dominated federal government is blind to the views and feelings of the people in Sabah and Sarawak.
Malays make up more than 60 percent of Malaysia's 32 million people and "basically call the shots," he said, pointing to the steady drift toward more conservative forms of Islam in recent years that have raised concerns among non-Muslims.
Sipaun, who was once also a member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia — better known locally as SUHAKAM — said Malaysians will be watching how the government addresses Act 355 in the coming parliamentary sitting.