Commentary: Split over Hudud bill, UMNO decides to hedge its bets for now

Commentary: Split over Hudud bill, UMNO decides to hedge its bets for now

The recent backpedal away from backing a bill that strengthens Syariah courts in Malaysia may seem puzzling but one expert explains UMNO's calculations.

SINGAPORE: Malaysian Speaker of Parliament Pandikar Amin Mulia allowed the opposition Islamic party PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang to table a bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act and provide details of its proposals on Thursday (Apr 6).

The Hudud bill proposed amendments that will strengthen the powers of the Syariah or Islamic Courts in Malaysia. It proposed to raise the maximum punishment that Malaysian Islamic courts can mete out from the current three years jail term, RM5,000 fine and six lashes of the cane to a 30-year jail term, RM100,000 fine and 100 lashes.

However, Pandikar postponed further debate on the issue until the next parliamentary sitting. The Speaker’s move angered several opposition lawmakers, who wanted to and felt they had the right to speak up on the issue.

Indeed, Malaysians are split on the bill. Over the last few months, both sides of the political divide have conducted programmes and roadshows to garner support.

Even members of the Malaysian Cabinet have differing 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 and help fast track the bill. Until very recently, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi also indicated that the government will present the bill in parliament. This would have given its reading priority.

However, Najib later contradicted his deputy and said that the bill will remain a private member’s bill. The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition - which is made up of UMNO and other non-Malay parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress, Gerakan and indigenous parties from Sarawak - could not reach a consensus on it.

Najib’s decision meant that the fate of the bill rested on the Speaker of Parliament, a call which Pandikar answered on Apr 6.

To be sure, the dilemma facing UMNO is that the bill can either split multi-racial 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.

As the 14th General Elections is fast approaching, 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 if it decides to ally with PAS or vote for other parties such as the People's Justice Party (PKR), Amanah, and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PBBM).

The danger of UMNO moving too closely to PAS is that Malaysian politics will be polarised, with a Muslims versus non-Muslims divide. Najib would have to do more to convince Malaysians that the bill only affects Muslims and is in line with the spirit of the constitution.

Dr Norshahril Saat is a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary was originally published on the ISEAS website on Apr 11.

Source: CNA/sl