This article was written from Kelantan, a few nights before the Himpunan 355 rally in support of PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang’s private member’s Bill for harsher punishments by Shariah courts.
If party propaganda is to be believed, the rally is a much-anticipated major event, with several billboards advertising it erected across Kota Baru, calling Kelantan citizens to head down to the capital.
In fact, Sunday (today) has even been declared a holiday by the PAS state government so Kelantan folks can attend the rally supporting the party. This is in an action that comes close to either gross abuse of power, or just sheer narcissism.
But talk to the Kelantan grassroots and you find that some are not even aware what RUU355 means; the Malay acronym used for the Bill, named after Act 355 which it aims to amend — the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965.
For some who claim to understand, know it by one point only: hudud, the controversial Islamic penal code that has become the elusive holy grail of the Islamist party.
There has been no proper survey done on the Bill, but it is easy to imagine that knowledge and insight about what the Bill and the Act do is insufficient among Malaysians, even the Malay-Muslims. And part of this has been a result of its proponents deliberately out to obfuscate the public, in order to justify and garner support for the Bill to be passed.
Supporters of the Bill had mainly relied on strawmen arguments that are purposely neither right nor wrong, so critics found themselves tangled while trying to dismantle their arguments, instead of targeting the real issue:
1. Only the ignorant opposes RUU355
This argument is actually a mere insult directed at critics, by claiming that they do not understand the Bill put forward by Hadi, rather than a statement of fact.
By comparison, ignorance is rife on both sides. But activists who staunchly oppose RUU355 are arguably more informed about the Bill. There have been lawyers, journalists and civil liberties activists who have pored over the Bill ever since it was first tabled until it was finally amended on Umno’s advice.
Staunch critics know exactly what they are talking about. They can even point out how Hadi’s Bill has been poorly written and how it could have been better drafted instead.
2. Non-Muslims should not oppose RUU355 as it does not affect them
This argument is used to present a narrative that only non-Muslims are opposing RUU355. Of course, this is not true.
In the lead-up to this week, we have seen many open letters and statements from those with Muslim backgrounds opposing the Bill, including G25 members Azimah Rahim and Mohd Sheriff Kassim. So are the activists who managed to temporarily block Hadi’s Bill from being tabled through the court.
It is true that by principle, Shariah laws, and RUU355 that bestows the power to Shariah courts, do not have jurisdiction over non-Muslims. But we all know in reality this sadly does not work this way.
In just the past year we have seen how Islamic laws have indirectly and directly impacted the lives of non-Muslims. Islamic regulations had affected non-religious businesses like the Ninja Joe pork burger and McDonald’s birthday cake fiascos.
Shariah laws also claim jurisdiction over a Muslim, even when he has renounced the religion, as he is viewed an apostate — a Shariah offence that can be punishable by death in some states. Thankfully, this cannot yet be implemented.
But the truth is, there is no way that Shariah laws will not affect non-Muslims. Because we live in the same society, not in silos. What affects one part of the society would inevitably affect the other.
The only way Shariah laws will not indirectly affect non-Muslims is when the two demographics are segregated. The way things are going, this might happen in some degree if we do not resist.
3. RUU355 is not about hudud
In part, this is true. After all, the Act is not about implementing hudud. The word “hudud” is not even mentioned anywhere near the Bill.
But this was not true prior to 2016. Even in 2014, PAS and a bipartisan technical committee discussing how hudud can be implemented in Malaysia consistently argued that Act 355 is one of its stumbling blocks.
After all, the Shariah courts can only sentence offenders with fines, prison and lashes. It cannot deliver brutal hudud punishments such as stoning, crucifixion, amputation, and death; or the eye for an eye punishments under qisas — until Act 355 is amended to allow them to do so.
It was only after Hadi was allowed to table the Bill, with endorsement from Umno ministers, that any mention of “hudud” magically disappeared. Suddenly, it was all about “upgrading the Shariah courts.”
Despite that, even Hadi’s Bill cannot allow all hudud punishments to be implemented. His previous Bill did not allow death sentences. The current Bill fixed by Umno still does not allow stoning and amputation.
But, it still allows some hudud punishments. Illicit sex among unmarried couples can be punished by 100 lashes if Hadi’s Bill goes through, up from for example the current maximum of three-year jail, RM5,000 fine or six strokes of the rotan under Section 11 of Kelantan’s Syariah Criminal Code 1985.
Drinking alcohol can be punished by 80 lashes, instead of the same set of maximum punishments, under Section 25.
But that is not the point: Hadi’s Bill, if passed, would increase the punishment cap to maximum 30 years’ imprisonment, RM100,000 fine and 100 lashes of the cane. And this can be applicable to a lot of Shariah offences that ultimately are victimless crimes, not to mention discriminatory.
Shariah offences in many states do not only penalise a person for being a transgender, eating during Ramadan, skipping Friday prayers, indecent acts, but also insulting Islam, teaching without credentials, and criticising and insulting the religious enforcers themselves.
Go through every offence in each state, and you will start questioning whether many are even fit for the 21st century.
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.
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.