Hudud vis a vis minority interests

I wonder if I am one of only a small number of people who are greatly disturbed by the prospect of hudud in Malaysia. Malaysia’s Islamic party, PAS, plans to introduce two Private Member’s Bills in Parliament to implement hudud (Islamic penal laws) in the northern conservative state of Kelantan which the party rules. While some people — including Muslims — are expressing their opposition to it, I wish there were more voices of dissent. Well, I am adding my voice to the chorus of protests against hudud and hoping it will swell into a resounding “No” to PAS’ plan.

For the moment PAS has put the plan on hold but may introduce the bills in the next Parliament. I have nothing against hudud. If Muslims want it for themselves, that’s fine with me. What is scary is that the perpetrators of hudud are willing to overlook the constitutional rights of minority groups in wanting to enforce hudud.

If PAS succeeds in introducing hudud, it can be logically assumed that everyone in Kelantan — Muslim and non-Muslim — will come under the Islamic law. Kelantan is predominantly Malay-Muslim but there are significant minority groups there like the Chinese, Indians, the Orang Asli and other religious communities. Has PAS talked to them and will provisions be made if these minority groups are NOT in favour of hudud?

PAS has always openly declared that its intention is to set up an Islamic state in Malaysia. As the ruling state government in Kelantan it has introduced some Islamic laws. But the Private Member’s Bills the party wants to table in Parliament seeks powers under the Federal constitution to enforce hudud.

If PAS succeeds, a precedent would have been set, to use Federal laws — that protect all Malaysians — to accommodate political parties with their own agendas that may erode the rights of some minority groups. If that happens in Kelantan, it can happen in any state or all the states. That would be a sad day in Malaysia because it would herald the end of a pluralistic, multi-religious and multi-racial society where minority interests are honoured.

In every previous general elections, the spectre of hudud under PAS has been raised as a red flag to voters. But the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, of which PAS is a partner, succeeded in downplaying it. (Keadilaan, another Malay-Muslim party, and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party are the other main partners of Pakatan Rakyat.), As a Pakatan partner, PAS is fully aware of sentiments against hudud, but it is going ahead with its plan regardless. Pakatan’s other partners can’t do anything about it because the understanding is that each party runs its state without interference from the others.

Many minority groups are aligned with the Keadilaan and the DAP rather than PAS and have supported the coalition despite its reservations for PAS. PAS’ hudud attempts have so far not succeeded but the current political scene may give it the opportunity it wants.

PAS’ political base is conservative. Its main rival has been Umno, the leading Malay-Muslim based party in the Barisan Nasional-run Federal government. Umno is now courting the conservative ground because it has lost its urban Malay — and Chinese — support in the last general elections to Keadilaan.  It lost the popular vote, but won enough seats mostly from the conservative rural areas where there were more but smaller parliamentary constituencies.

Umno is amenable to PAS for two reasons: Firstly, it does not want to be seen as being less Islamic than PAS and lose more Malay support than it already has. Secondly, to increase its voter base and stay in power, it is turning to the conservatives. The Federal government has also set up a national-level hudud technical committee to study the bills. In addition, some elements in Umno have declared their support for PAS’s hudud. So, it is not surprising that Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom, has said that he will table PAS’ two bills.

What all this means is that the conservative-based PAS and the conservative-seeking Umno see in hudud a possibility to expand their voter base and stay in power. That is the political reality. What makes it most scary is that in their quest for political power and survival, the most expendable interests for the sake of their “larger good” — their own political agendas — will be that of minority groups.

That is the risk minority groups without a power base take when they make pacts with parties aligned to their interests or which can protect them. They should expect to be played out or sold out in a conflict of interests because their interests are always secondary. Minority groups need to be very shrewd in knowing when to back whom and when to pull out. Individually, their influence is negligible but, collectively, they can make a difference if they withdraw support to any party or alliance that is detrimental to their existence.

I can only see one possible way to stop hudud in Malaysia — if we prosper and modernize. Prosperity will attract more and more conservatives to modernize. In a modern society, plurality and differences in lifestyle will be accommodated. Nowhere can this be best exemplified than in Pakatan-ruled Selangor where the majority of urban Malays reside and is a Keadilaan stronghold. If Keadilaan can prove in Selangor that it can prosper and modernize the state — provide better municipal services, public transport, pothole-free roads, housing for all and salaries and more jobs resulting in a higher per capita income — it will send a clear message that a better future for this country is with it. Keadilaan may become the dominant modern face of Malaysian Muslims and minority groups may have a better future in alliances with it.

If Keadilaan does not step up,  it may be better for minority groups to find other alternatives to survive and thrive.

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