By Nigel Cory
The revived proposal to introduce hudud, or Islamic penal code, in Malaysia’s northeastern state of Kelantan by opposition party, Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), has touched off another round of heated debate about the role of religion in the country’s politics. This is but the latest bout of political brinkmanship between the party of Prime Minister Najib Razak, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and PAS in an effort to win over Malay voters. However, Najib should be aware of the risks that hudud laws would pose for his efforts to advance economic reforms and manage the diverse ethnic and religious forces in Malaysian society .
Hudud refers to the class of punishments that are imposed for certain crimes under Sharia laws, including theft, extra- and pre-marital sex, consumption of alcohol and drugs, and apostasy. Malaysia has since its independence run a mostly successful dual Sharia and civil law system, but while Sharia laws only apply to Muslims, hudud could in some cases be applied to non-Muslims, who make up about a third of Malaysia’s population.
PAS passed state-based legislation introducing hudud punishments while in control of the governments of conservative states Kelantan and Terrengganu in 1993 and 2004, respectively. However, federal legislation, the Sharia Court Act, has prevented implementation of these laws. This legislation does not allow the Sharia Court to issue harsh sentences such as the death penalty and amputations, which PAS hopes to enforce under its strict hudud laws. The federal government has in the past opposed calls to amend the legislation to allow the court greater leeway in punishing what some Muslims consider as serious crimes.
Yet, senior members of UMNO, including Deputy Prime Minister and UMNO Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin, have this time voiced support for working with PAS on implementing hudud. Muhyiddin has proposed a national technical committee to examine the issue and its potential implementation. UMNO’s support has prompted PAS to shelve plans to introduce legislations in parliament that aim to seek approval for the Kelantan government’s hudud laws and amend the Sharia Court Act.
UMNO’s response to the PAS proposal represents an escalation in its efforts to brandish its religious credentials with rural Malay voters, many of whom form an increasingly vital constituency for the party, especially given its fickle relationships with non-Malay voters.
UMNO’s change in its approach toward hudud is likely part of a calculated risk to sow further division within the three-party opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Its six years of coalition has been characterized by bouts of internal fighting over religious issues between PAS and the Democratic Action Party, which is predominantly Chinese and Christian. However, by supporting PAS, UMNO risks opening up major schisms between it and other predominantly Christian and Hindu parties that make up the ruling Barisan National coalition.
The implementation of hudud may have international implications for Malaysia. Its neighbor Brunei’s plans to implement strict Sharia laws have attracted unprecedented media attention, and Brunei could be facing potential trade consequences from the United States. A number of U.S. lawmakers have urged President Barack Obama and the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to use the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations to press for human rights changes in Brunei or have it expelled from the talks. The U.S. Congress would likely seek to impose conditions on Malaysia’s participation in the trade agreement should the prospect for rolling out hudud gain more traction in the country.
If that happens, neither Prime Minister Najib’s push to advance the TPP in the domestic arena nor broader U.S.-Malaysia economic relations will stand to benefit. In the past, issues of mutual interest – whether security, trade, or people-to-people ties – have been overshadowed by sensitivities surrounding Malaysia’s rights record, as was the case during the sodomy trials of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
While UMNO may find it tactically convenient to support the Kelantan government, it should also realize that the introduction of such laws would undermine past and ongoing economic and legal reform efforts to maintain Malaysia’s image as an aspiring, modern, and moderate Muslim country.