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"Taking Over the ‘Hudud’ Issue: UMNO’s Stroke of Genius", a Commentary by Nicholas Chan

2016/78, 30 November 2016

Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) President Hadi Awang’s private member’s bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 to allegedly clear the way for Hudud has been lingering in parliament.

The bill recently took another twist when Hadi filed a motion to amend the maximum term of punishment in Syariah courts in his bill to 30 years in prison, RM100, 000 (S$32,582) fine and 100 strokes of the cane; a significant reduction to his previous version that gave no limit other than the death penalty. Hadi also asked for a deferral for the debate of his motion.

Following such changes, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Azalina Othman, claims that the bill is now back to “square one”.

Yet, what is not at ‘square one’ is the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO)’s growing role over the bill. To begin, it was Azalina Othman who fast-tracked Hadi’s private member’s bill. If not, like many other private member’s bills, it will never see light in parliament.

Not only that, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi arranged a briefing for all Muslim Members of Parliament (MPs) on the 22nd November about Hadi’s bill.

He subsequently claimed that a select committee, comprising of both Muslim and non-Muslim MPs, will be established to clarify and iron-out issues surrounding the bill.

This is two days before Hadi tabled his latest motions. In other words, while PAS is seen as dragging its foot over the party’s longstanding pet project, UMNO swept in and took over an initiative that is not theirs to begin with.

Historically, due to opposition by Barisan National’s (BN) component parties, Hadi’s efforts to bring ‘Hudud’ to parliament were always blocked.

But that is no longer the case now, as seen in the surprise decision to fast-track the bill. However, UMNO’s manoeuvrings show that it is not satisfied to be seen as an active ‘accomplice’ of PAS either.

What we see now is the largest party in Malaysia taking ownership and leadership over an issue that is close to the hearts of the Malay-Muslim electorate, and interests of the other communities in Malaysia.

The timing of the ‘hijacking’ must be viewed with two contexts in mind. The UMNO General Assembly, to be held from 29th of November to 3rd of December, potentially the last Assembly before the next General Elections; and the upcoming General Elections that is due latest mid-2018.

Religion is amongst the three categories of resolutions that will be raised in the General Assembly (the others being the economy and education). As the bill is not in a precarious position—the debate stage, where emotions will flare and rhetoric will fly—it works to UMNO’s advantage.

UMNO can now claim they are the ones pushing forward with the bill (while Hadi is stalling). Specifics that must be confronted, when it is in debate stage, can be sidestepped for the moment.

On the other hand, by taking leadership via the select committee, UMNO is now seen as the key arbiter of the shape and fate of the bill. This cements its role as a leader, even among the non-Muslim based BN parties, whose electoral fortunes are tied to how the ‘Hudud’ situation unfolds.

Such showcase of leadership is important as the party needs to subdue all centrifugal forces within the embattled coalition to portray a united front for the elections, which can be a major selling point vis-à-vis the current disarrayed opposition.

While the balancing act between Muslim and non-Muslim interests which saw the bill as a zero-sum affair will become progressively harder, if the matter eventually goes to a vote, the present scenario in which UMNO took both ownership and leadership is highly favourable to the party, and even to Zahid’s personal appeal as the Prime Minister-in-waiting.

As PAS looks to be outflanked by its until-recently perennial foe, the only comfort it can claim is perhaps ironic justice. For while UMNO seems to have taken away PAS’s trump card, it does so marching into a discursive and ideological terrain which has PAS’s trademarks stamped all over it.

Nicholas Chan is Research Officer at Nalanda Sri-Wijaya Centre 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.