“ACT 355 will Divide Malaysians Even More”, a Commentary by Norshahril Saat

2017/17, 11 April 2017

On 6 April, the Malaysian Speaker of Parliament, Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, allowed PAS President, Abdul Hadi Awang, to table the Private Member’s Bill to amend ACT 355 (Syariah Courts Criminal Jurisdiction). Mr Abdul Hadi then provided details of his proposal. However, Mr Pandikar postponed further debate on the issue until the next parliamentary sitting. The Speaker’s move angered several opposition lawmakers, who felt they have the right to speak up on the issue. Mr Abdul Hadi’s Bill proposed that the maximum punishments that Malaysian Islamic courts can mete out be raised from the current three years jail, RM 5000 fine, and six lashes of the cane to 30 years’ jail, RM 100, 000 fine, and 100 lashes.

Malaysians are split on the Bill. Over the last few months, both sides of the political divide have conducted programs and roadshows to garner support. Even members of the Malaysian Cabinet have different views on the Bill.

During last year’s UMNO General Assembly, Prime Minister Najib Razak promised that the government will take over Hadi’s proposal. Recently, Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, also indicated that the government will present the Bill in parliament, which means that it would be given priority. Mr Najib later contradicted his Deputy and said that the ACT 355 remains a private member’s Bill because BN—which is made up of UMNO and other non-Malay parties such as MCA-MIC, Gerakan and indigenous parties from Sarawak—could not reach a consensus on it. Najib’s decision means that the fate of the Bill rests on the Speaker’s call, which he exercised on 6 April.

To be sure, the dilemma facing UMNO is that the ACT 355 Bill can either split multiracial BN, or break the party’s ties with PAS which have been progressing well lately. At this moment, UMNO seems to be hedging. On the one hand, UMNO is showing its commitment to the 1Malaysia idea when facing its non-Malay partners in BN who are against the Bill. On the other hand, it wants to win over the already divided Malay-Muslim electorate by strengthening ties with its foe-turned-ally, PAS. Yet, as the 14th General Elections is fast approaching, Mr Najib has to decide if UMNO is ready to abandon its traditional coalition partners. This would be a risky political gamble because he cannot be sure whether the Malay electorate will support UMNO or vote for other parties such as PKR, Amanah, and PBBM if it decides to ally with PAS. The danger of UMNO moving too closely with PAS is that Malaysian politics will be divided into a Muslims versus non-Muslims divide. Mr Najib would have to do more to convince Malaysians that ACT 355 only affects Muslims and is in line with the spirit of the constitution.
Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.