Pas president Abdul Hadi Awang’s impending endeavour to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (also known as Act 355 or RUU355) during the current parliamentary session has clearly raised much concern and even triggered outrage among many Malaysian politicians, social groups and ordinary citizens.
As a civil society organisation concerned with justice, freedom and solidarity, Aliran is deeply disturbed by this development.
In the midst of this controversy, the proponents of the proposed amendment have assured Malaysians, particularly the non-Muslim communities, that they will not be adversely affected by the implementation of the amended RUU 355.
But many Malaysians feel that Sharia law has already had an impact on the lives of non-Muslims, directly or otherwise. We only have to look at conversion and custody issues to understand the misery of the non-converting parent and the affected child.
Aliran’s concerns do not only lie with what could affect non-Muslims. On the contrary, given our shared humanity, the wellbeing of our Malaysian Muslim sisters and brothers is equally our concern as far as this initiative goes.
In this regard, we fear whether there is the ability of just implementation of this piece of legislation given previous examples of those who have borne the brunt of the laws under Sharia jurisdiction in Malaysia ie, the poor and the marginalised, especially women in divorce proceedings, khalwat (whoever heard of the rich who conduct their dalliance in five-star hotels getting arrested for khalwat?) and transgender cases.
Promoters of this amendment bill have made efforts to allay fears among non-Muslims and certain segments of the Muslim community that this amendment would eventually pave the way for future implementation of hudud.
But the climate of increasing religious extremism and prevailing authoritarian rule, however, do not provide much optimism for the detractors that this amendment bill will not evolve into full-blown implementation of hudud in the future. We only need to look to Brunei, which fully implements hudud laws, where recently Christians were not allowed to celebrate Christmas publicly.
It is also of concern to us if and when justice is not seen to be served by our two-pronged justice system of civil and Sharia courts. A criminal case that involves two individuals of different faiths is likely to witness two different and unjust (unequal?) judicial outcomes: the Muslim person may get a harsher sentence (such as long-term imprisonment and lashing) under the amended Sharia law than his/her non-Muslim counterparts.
These two different court systems could have a polarising effect on our multi-ethnic and multi-religious population if injustice is perceived to be heavily inflicted upon members of one particular faith community, ie the Muslims.
Furthermore, increasing the degree of punishment – as this amendment intends to do – on those convicted would only unfairly depict an Islam that is severely punitive as opposed to one that is caring, compassionate and just.
Besides, severe punishments such as those proposed in RUU 355 would only inflict pain and prolong suffering – and consequently sideline the importance of rehabilitation of those convicted. Studies have shown that increasing the severity of punishment does not lead to a reduction in crime rates.
Such injustices do not augur well for a country that proclaims Islam as its official religion especially when the religion itself ironically puts a high premium on justice. And this brings us to the larger issue of social justice.
We argue that the values of compassion, love, mercy and justice, which incidentally are enshrined in Islamic teachings as well as other revealed traditions, should guide us all so that the poor, the disenfranchised and the powerless be given due attention by state and non-state actors in our inherent desire to build a better, just, united and democratic society.
Additionally, the human rights and, more importantly, the human dignity of these groups would be better served in this manner.
Viewed from this perspective, the larger objective of building a just, democratic, prosperous and caring society makes the obsession with harsher punishment pale in comparison. This noble objective, which ought to be given its rightful place in society, should be the foundation of a future Malaysia that is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural. There should obviously be no hadd (Arabic singular for hudud, meaning limit) to this good endeavour.
That said, Aliran is also troubled that our politicians, the media and civil society organisations have given so much attention to this matter at a time when confidence and trust in our leaders is fast eroding, corruption is reportedly at an all-time high, the Malaysian economy needs quick fixing if we are not to fall into recession, ethno-religious tensions are worsening due to manipulation by politicians, and GE14 is around the corner.
Conceivably, those in power wish us to focus on RUU355 and to look away from these urgent socio-economic and political problems.
We therefore call upon Malaysians from all walks of life, especially politicians from both sides of the political divide, to commit ourselves to efforts that go beyond the intent behind RUU355. Let us commit ourselves instead to live a life that is imbued with noble values like compassion, love, mercy and justice, and to shape our nation with the same.
Aliran executive committee
22 March 2017