The good and the bad of the Hadi-BN Syariah Bill
Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy allows for laws to be initiated or changed by MPs who are not Ministers. They can introduce (“table”) Private Members Bills.
Before a bill can be tabled in Parliament, it must be listed on the agenda, the “Order Paper.” By convention, government business has priority. Therefore, Private Members Bills are last on the Order Paper.
A Private Members Bill can only be tabled if the government “gives way” to it.
At last week’s sitting of Parliament two rare, but desirable events occurred. First, the Speaker, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Panglima Pandikar Amin, had allowed a Private Members Bill on the agenda. Second, the bill was tabled during the sitting.
It could be tabled because Dato’ Sri Azalina Othman Said, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, told Parliament the government (BN) would give way to it.
Proposed by Dato’ Seri Hadi Awang, the President of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), the Bill proposes changes to the Syariah Court (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 which is also known as Act 355. This Bill had not been on the Order Papers of prior sittings.
The Bill concerns Syariah courts and laws. It’s in 3 pages. The English version is poorly edited.
The Bill was allowed to jump 14 places in a packed agenda on the last day of the current session of parliament. If the government hadn’t given way, it wouldn’t have been tabled.
Clearly the government considered the Bill a matter of the utmost urgency.
Yet Hadi was surprised. He instantly asked for debate to be deferred to October.
Political and civil society analysts think the government saw that “giving way” to Hadi’s bill was like “giving way” to two raging bulls knowing they would fall off a cliff.
The two bulls are PAS and its discontents who formed Harapan. Both parties are eager for Malaysia to adopt their (common) understanding of what they consider “Islamic.”
By giving way to Hadi’s bill against the background of the upcoming by elections in the opposition-friendly states of Selangor and Perak, the government sought to shift the conversation from the national issues of corruption, rising cost of living, stifling of dissent and failed institutions to contestations over Islamic laws and courts.
The “giving way” had been carefully orchestrated, because the government managed to get Hadi’s bill into a form which it can support.
Since the government supports Hadi’s bill, I will refer to it as the Hadi-BN Bill.
The government claims the Hadi-BN Bill merely transfers the setting of limits on the punishments for Syariah offences from the federal parliament to state assemblies – except for the Federal Territories.
Currently Act 355 limits the sentencing power of Syariah courts to 3 years in jail, RM 5,000 in fines and 6 strokes of the whip (versus a limit of 5 years, RM 10,000 and 12 strokes in magistrate’s courts).
The Hadi-BN Bill deletes those limits and gives Syariah courts the power to impose any punishments other than death.