Malaysia’s opposition is at risk of collapse as the rift over the introduction of a strict new Islamic penal code continues to divide the coalition.
Earlier last month the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), one of three component parties in the opposition coalition, announced plans to accelerate its bid to enforce strict Islamic law in Kelantan, where it has control.
The proposed Hudud Law includes punishments such as amputations for theft and stoning for adultery. It would only be applied to the Muslim population of the state. Kelantan has had Islamic law in place since 1993, but enforcement has been blocked by the national government.
The mainly ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) has strongly opposed the move, with acting chairperson Tan Kok Wai suggesting PAS leave the Pakatan Rakyat coalition if it wants to push ahead with the law.
Taking the middle road, the People’s Justice Party (PKR) headed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has urged PAS to delay the bill, suggesting that a lack of independence in the judiciary meant the timing wasn’t right for the move.
Despite a lack of support among its fellow opposition members, PAS may gain support from within the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak last week said, “We want to hear from PAS. If they are willing to propose it to us, we are ready to listen.”
Meanwhile, Jamil Khir Baharom, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Islamic Affairs, has reportedly told PAS that UMNO will help it pass the bill as it is a matter of Islamic faith.
However, PAS insiders including vice-president Husam Musa, have accused UMNO of using the bill to try and split the opposition. “They are determined to get us to fight with DAP. A break-up will naturally benefit Umno as both of us are Muslim parties,” Husam told local media last week.
At last year’s general elections the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, which was formed in 2008, presented the ruling party with the biggest threat it has faced in its 57-year rule. Despite many election irregularities and mainstream media censorship, Pakatan still managed to garner 52 per cent of the popular vote, although it fell 45 seats short of the government (in a 222 seat parliament) mostly because of highly gerrymandered electorates.
If UMNO is trying to use the Islamic law to encourage differences within the opposition, it has precedent. The previous opposition coalition collapsed in 2001 after disputes between PAS and DAP on a raft of issues, particularly the Islamist party’s insistence on the goal of making Malaysia an Islamic state.
DAP has warned PAS that it runs the risk of repeating history by introducing the law. In 2001, PAS implemented Hudud law in the state of Terengganu, but then subsequently lost control of the state at the 2004 election.
The debate over Hudud isn’t limited to the political arena; various medical bodies have also weighed in on the role of doctors if the law is introduced. The Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia has backed amputation under Hudud without the administration of anesthetic.
“The moral of Hudud is to inflict pain, fear, remorse and repentance as a lesson not to repeat the crime,” said association president Dr Abdul Rahim Mohamad, also suggesting that to give anaesthesia during the operation would “defeat the purpose.”
The Minister for Health Dr S Subramaniam, who is from an Indian-based party within the government, has voiced objections to the proposed law. The Malaysian Medical Association has warned doctors that they face deregistration, as performing amputations as punishment would violate their medical oaths.
While the debate rages and opposition divisions widen the government seems content to sit back and add fuel to the fire when it can. The Hudud debate has become a convenient distraction for a government still reeling from its poor handling of the MH370 disappearance and facing a large public backlash over its plans to implement a Goods and Services Tax (GST) in the upcoming budget.
Whether or not Hudud is introduced to Kelantan, the bigger question is can an opposition with vastly different ideologies and objectives stay united only by a common enemy in the government?