Dispelling the RUU355 strawmen, Part 2

FEBRUARY 26 — Last Saturday, tens of thousands of Muslims gathered at Padang Merbok in support of allowing Shariah courts to deliver harsher punishments. Official police estimate said around 20,000 attended while PAS claimed 300,000 were there.

If anything, it showed that while there is fervent public support for PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang among the grassroots — who were ferried by bus from across the country — the acceptance is far from overwhelming from the Muslim majority, at least in the capital.

In comparison, only around 200 people attended a counter-protest in Petaling Jaya but it was nothing short of a miracle that they even showed up. Perhaps, this is an indication that opposing the Bill was not as big a taboo as it was made out to be.

So, in this second (and final for now) instalment, here are more strawmen arguments supporting RUU355, or the private member’s Bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 also known as Act 355, and how we should really see it:

4. RUU355 is constitutional

It is undeniable that state Shariah courts are given jurisdiction of Islamic law under List II of the Ninth Schedule in the Federal Constitution, the powers of which were then limited by Act 355.

But this by no means indicates that the laws specified by the state Shariah offences enactments are constitutional.

In fact, in recent years we have seen many cases where their constitutionality and legitimacy have been challenged by those who were unfairly impacted and prosecuted by the laws.

A cross-section of those at the PAS-led Himpunan 355 rally in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday February 18, 2017. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
A cross-section of those at the PAS-led Himpunan 355 rally in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday February 18, 2017. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

The most prominent case in recent times would be the landmark ruling by the Court of Appeal declaring a Negri Sembilan anti-transgender law discriminatory by failing to recognise those diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder. It has since been overturned by the Federal Court, but only because of a procedural point.

The drafting of Shariah enactments have failed to take into account rights enshrined by the Constitution, including equality, freedom of expression, speech and of course, freedom of religion.

Provided time and resources, we are bound to see more and more challenges against Shariah laws for blatantly breaching our personal freedoms.

But that is not all; in a recent presentation on RUU355, constitutional expert Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi had even suggested that Act 355 itself may be unlawful by being vague and granting a “blank cheque” to the Shariah courts to dole out punishments on any offence it deems under its jurisdiction.

How to solve this? Repeal and amend all Shariah provisions to be in line with the Constitution first, before taking any steps to even enhance the powers of Shariah courts, he said.

5. Nobody had opposed RUU355 before

This is not the first time Act 355 was amended. In fact, this proposal is the third; it has been amended twice before in 1984 and 1989.

In 1984, it had already been amended to increase the punishment cap to the current three-year jail/RM5,000 fine/six lashes up from the initial six-month jail and/or RM1,000 fine. In 1989, the Act was amended to cover Shariah courts in East Malaysian states.

And RUU355 proponents, especially from PAS, have claimed that nobody, especially non-Muslims, had made a fuss about the amendment back in 1984, even when DAP’s Lim Kit Siang was Opposition Leader. It is only now that people are making a big fuss, they said, which proves that non-Muslims are getting bolder in challenging Muslims’ rights.

There is a reason for that. The 6th Parliament after Barisan Nasional won in 1982 was overwhelmingly dominated by Umno with 70 out of 154 seats, followed by MCA with 24 seats. And at the head then was Dr Mahathir Mohamad, known for his staunch opposition for PAS’ Islamist ambitions and Islamisation of the government.

Back then, PAS only had five measly seats. Hadi Awang was defeated by Umno MPs in Marang, now his stronghold seat, twice in 1982 and 1986.

Compared to that, PAS now has a bigger influence with 21 seats after 2013, before six MPs broke away to form Parti Amanah Negara, and one joined PKR. This was in no part due to the Pakatan Rakyat pact that held back its hudud ambitions.

But PAS is no longer bound by any pact, and it has found a strategic ally in Umno to push through its Islamist goals.

In the decades since, there were cases after cases of religious enforcers abusing their power with violence and discrimination. The Islamist lobby has grown emboldened by tacit approval of the State. Islamisation is drastically taking over national policies and administration.

Is it any wonder that more and more people across religions are up in arms against RUU355, a Bill that will only serve to escalate this alarming situation?

6. Muslims must support RU355 as it is Allah’s law

In a bid to silence opposition, Muslims have been told to put their blind faith in RUU355, claiming it is a divine law that is “wajib”, or compulsory to be supported.
Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hadi’s Bill has no semblance at all with the Quranic view of Shariah laws that must apply to all citizens regardless of religion. Even in its original form, it was already a bastardisation of the hudud that he wishes to implement in Kelantan, but now it is just a desperate attempt to save face after a massive failure to hastily push for the controversial penal law.

Most importantly, as a Bill, the proposal is a secular document that must go through the secular democratic body of Parliament. And Islam, like it or not, just does not have a place in this decision making.

Some of the punishments may be Quranic, but the Bill is not. Hadi is an MP answerable to voters, not simply a scholar and religionist only answerable to his god.

To resist, oppose and question RU355 is no blasphemy, no insult to Islam. It is just exercising your rights as a citizen in a democracy.

* Part 1 of this article can be found here.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.