A recent proposal by Malaysia’s prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, regarding an amendment that would increase the powers of Islamic courts has generated several criticisms.
The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), part of the ruling coalition, has raised concerns that even non-Muslims could be tried by shari’a courts, also known as the Syariah court system, using the Malaysian spelling.
Commentators say this is an attempt by the executive to move closer to the Perikatan Nasional (PN) opposition dominated by the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) party ahead of local elections scheduled for July.
The bill proposes to increase the maximum sentencing limits for criminal offenses tried by Syariah courts to 30 years in prison, a fine of some US$1,211 euros, and 100 strokes of the cane. The current limits are three years in prison, a fine of US$60, and six strokes.
The current Minister for Religious Affairs announced on May 25 that the amendment known in Malaysia as RUU355 would be submitted to Parliament once the government’s approval was obtained, but he did not specify the timeline for it.
PAS Vice President Idris Ahmad, Minister for Religious Affairs from August 2021 to November last year, said the previous cabinet had already given the go-ahead for the bill to be submitted to Parliament.
Although the amendment is expected to affect only Muslims, members of other religions remain wary. According to experts, the current Anwar Ibrahim-led government is trying to boost its credibility among the conservative Muslim electorate without losing the support of non-Malaysian ethnic groups.
“The national unity government should submit this proposal to bolster its religious credentials ahead of elections in the country’s various states, where another green wave looks set to sweep everyone away,” Oh Ei Sun, a member of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told Strait Times, referring to the green color of Islam.
Authorities recently conducted seizures at Swatch stores to withdraw watches with rainbow designs in support of the LGBTQ movement. At the same time, in recent weeks the government also decided to withdraw its appeal against a High Court verdict allowing non-Muslims to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, generating the ire of Islamist parties after decades of legal battles.
Mazlan Ali, a lecturer at the Razak Faculty of Technology and Informatics at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, explained, “The Anwar administration is under pressure from the opposition. It is accused of being pro-liberal and pro-LGBTQ.
The PN often uses religion and race to attack the government,” but, he continued, “the prime minister wants to show that the opposite is true and that the national unity government is serious about addressing issues related to Islam.”