NOVEMBER 27 — Islamist party PAS had rejoiced back in May when their president’s private member’s Bill to upgrade the Shariah court was fast-tracked for debate.
PAS Youth chief Nik Abduh Nik Abd Aziz had boldly claimed that by amending Act 355 that governs the limit of punishments Shariah courts can deliver, PAS will “break the chains” around Shariah law — a proof of its victory in rejecting secularism.
The mood was jubilant and optimistic; should Abdul Hadi Awang succeed in removing the limits, it would have opened the doors towards the implementation of PAS’ version of the Islamic penal law, as it has been passed in Kelantan.
Six months later, not much has changed. Instead, it has taken a turn for the worse for PAS.
Hadi has deferred the tabling of his Bill once. And yet again last week. But not before his Bill has been watered down, and whatever hudud ambition PAS had harboured is now just a bastardised shell of the stubborn plan that had caused federal opposition pact Pakatan Rakyat to crash and burn.
Shariah court can already deliver punishments up to just three years of jail, RM5,000 fine or six strokes of caning.
With Hadi’s initial Bill, Shariah courts would have been on track to deliver any punishment save the death penalty. So it could plan to implement savage punishments such as hand amputation for theft and robbery, jail until repentance for apostasy, and other punishments under the eye-for-an-eye law of qisas.
Already, Hadi’s Bill meant that Kelantan could no longer deliver punishments such as stoning to death, crucifixion, or killing an apostate.
A less fanatical supporter would have accused PAS of breaking its promises, but the move had also meant that Kelantan would not need to carry out those physical punishments that are severely out of its depth.
Hadi’s broken promises continue when his Bill was amended again to reinsert the limits on punishments that the Marang MP had tried to get rid of.
With Hadi’s new Bill, the Shariah court would increase its limit to sentence a convict to 30 years of jail, up to RM100,000 in fine, or up to 100 lashes. All this, after a discreet meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
You could argue that was the moment PAS truly lost its game to sneak hudud under the public’s nose. And they lost with Hadi’s pride and honour in tatters, after being seen as kowtowing to Zahid and Umno even when it comes to Islam.
And Hadi is again back at square one with the amendments, as minister Azalina Othman Said explained.
Compared to PAS, Umno came out of this gambit smelling like roses.
PAS can no longer accuse the nationalist party of obstructing hudud, not after minister Azalina herself fast-tracked the Bill, while minister Jamil Khir Baharom pledged that Putrajaya will continue to bring Hadi’s Bill forward — as it had promised right at the beginning.
As for Zahid, his halo now eclipses Hadi’s. After all, it was him that held the briefing for Muslim MPs on the Bill, not Hadi. And he was the one who brokered for Hadi to amend his Bill — instead of Hadi finding the idea himself.
Come Umno general assembly this coming week, Zahid has nowhere to go but up once his acting deputy president post is made official.
It might have been Schadenfreude to joke how Hadi is now famous for postponing things, if he even manages to make it to Parliament. Or how even all the solat hajat rituals and supporting rally — complete with busloads of kids ferried from a tahfiz school in Klang — still could not nudge Hadi’s Bill closer towards tabling, what more debate.
But secularists and human rights advocates have nothing to cheer with this delay.
It only means that PAS now has more time to convince the public that their watered-down offering is still the real deal. Already, Hadi has hinted of a mammoth rally in support of his Bill, despite himself badmouthing the Bersih 5 rally held for free and fair elections.
On the surface, this rally might sound innocuous, but we need to see this in continuation of hardline Islamists’ rally in Jakarta earlier this month that was fuelled by religious righteousness. As it is, Hadi himself has warned non-Muslims to stay off his Bill, and to not be like Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok — the target of the protest in Jakarta.
It means that hudud will continue to plague our political landscape, at least until the next sitting in March. It will continue to be a talking point, at times overshadowing other issues that ought to get public attention as well.
But the biggest loss for the public, and liberals, is that the Bill may even look more attractive now that it has set higher caps for the punishments — further reinforcing its supporters’ narrative that it is only meant to strengthen the Shariah courts.
As argued by Surendra Ananth, the deputy co-chairman of the Malaysian Bar Constitutional Law Committee, even with the amended Bill, three hudud punishments as proposed by PAS can still be implemented: 80 whippings for the crimes of qazaf, li’an (both involving false accusations of adultery) and the consumption of alcohol.
Furthermore, it would allow the current Shariah offences — already unconstitutional and disproportionate — to be punished with even a higher quantum.
Transgender rights group Justice for Sisters had lamented that many trans women are already being punished with the maximum sentences just for being themselves. What is there to stop states enacting an amendment to punish them with up to 30 years’ jail, RM100,000 fine and/or 100 lashes?
It is a myth that harsher Shariah punishments would lead to less crime. No data supports this, and as lawyer Syahredzan Johan pointed out, crimes would not be affected by Shariah law at all since they are covered by the Penal Code under civil law.
What will happen with harsher Shariah law is that more and more Muslims — who absolutely have no way to opt out — will be punished for “offences” that are not even crimes under civil law, and most of them victimless crimes.
There is no justice to be done here. Just a worse life for the marginalised, while those who can afford it escape. And who is to say non-Muslims will not be affected when they already are with the current much restricted laws?
There is nothing divine and sacred about Hadi’s Bill. That is why it needs to go through Parliament, just like any other man-made law. And it deserves undying scrutiny from all of us, Muslims or not.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.