Summary of RUU355 Meeting

Many thanks to Dr Kerstin Steiner for agreeing to speak at our Malaysiaku meeting in Melbourne last Friday. Dr Steiner specialises in Islamic Law in Southeast Asia and has written extensively on the topic. You can check out her work here:

We would like to apologise for not having a live stream of Malaysiaku as per usual, on request from Dr Steiner. We’ve decided to write up a summary of the talk to make up for it, and we’ve included some of our and the audience’s thoughts.

Origins of the bill

First, we took a look at the history of RUU355 as a bill, which has been floating around in one form or another since around 2011, through PAS as well as religious authorities like JAKIM.

Dr Steiner suggested two possible triggers for the government taking a sudden interest in RUU355 in 2013/2014. The first was the passing of laws in Brunei that vastly expanded the jurisdiction of Syariah courts and hudud punishments there. The second was the “political tsunami” of the 2013 elections that threatened UMNO’s hold over the Malay vote.

In the context of these events, the UMNO-led government, which until then had been hesitant to pave the way for the implementation of the  PAS Hudud Codes in Kelantan and Terrenganu,  agreed to establish a technical committee on hudud.

The original proposals included complete expansion of the parallel system of Syariah courts from a three to a five tier system, as well as no limits on punishments. Introduction of such a change would require amending the constitution, and would also call into question whether Syariah was a matter under state or federal control.

The proposals were therefore trimmed to the form we know today, first presented to Parliament in 2015. It has been tabled and debated in Parliament 3 times since then, but not voted on. That last happened in early April, and it will likely happen again in July, where Parliament goes back to session.

Debating the right issues

RUU355 in its current form increases the severity of punishments Syariah courts can hand out, but not who they can rule on. It does very little else. Dr Steiner pointed out that the maximum punishment in the amendment is actually the same as the maximum punishment that the equivalent secular court (a Magistrate’s court) can hand out. Strictly speaking, this particular bill is not meant to implement hudud punishment on anybody, non-Muslims included.

Dr Steiner pointed out, and we are inclined to agree, that the debate around RUU355 does not address the core questions thrown up by the bill. We believe the opposition, civil societies and some BN component parties are rightly opposing the bill, but their arguments rely often on exaggerations about RUU355 and do not address the wider political game that is being played.

What most people end up hearing of the debate is, on one side, a government that puffs up its Islamic credentials and calls on Malays to defend their country from sinful foreign influence, and on the other, an opposition that sticks to familiar territory of bringing up RUU355’s negative impact on non-Muslims. The opposition is not using other arguments as much as it should.

Nationalism and race

Our member Aisha pointed out what the angle taken by civil opposition has meant for Muslims on the ground who feel that RUU355 misrepresents their interests. Malaysia is following a long tradition of governments that have used religious conservatism and nationalism to weld the majority race to its own agenda. Over the years it has become taboo for Malays to speak out against bills like this, even though there are many who feel this way.

The amendment does not answer the question of what happens for inter-religious crimes. Are we prepared to accept a situation in which the same crime can result in different punishments? One might argue it does not matter whether the Muslim receives the harsher punishment or not, because in either case it is unfair.

Moral panic and class

The amendment and the ideological push behind it are also classist in nature. The amendment emphasises what might be called “moral panic” crimes, crimes which have no victim but offend a particular moral standard (drinking alcohol, not closing shop to go to prayers, holding hands etc.). There is no word, of course, on corruption and embezzlement. The people who can least afford it are the ones most closely policed by this law.

Some older guests reminded us that historically, the interpretation of Article 3 of the Malaysian constitution is clear. “Islam is the religion of the Federation” and Syariah (Islamic law) is the law of the land, but until the turn of the century, it was clear that Malaysia was a secular state and thus the constitution and its enshrined rights would take precedence over Islamic law.

Actually solving crime

And of course, there has been no discussion about whether harsher punishments actually decrease petty crime. For this reason, ‘human rights’-type arguments against RUU355 made on the basis that it raises the limit of caning strokes seem incomplete, because the same criticism applies to caning under secular law. If people are struggling to get by, does it really matter how many times you threaten to cane them if they get caught?

Our audience echoed those sentiments. The government’s endorsement of conservative Islam has made it harder for the races to relate to one another. It is a conscious strategy of divide and rule that is not unique to Malaysia. As long as it succeeds in silencing Malays who have not been convinced of the need for RUU355, the division works.

Political Motivations

At least for Hadi and PAS, the purpose of the bill is clear. He has stated on multiple occasions that RUU355 is a stepping stone to hudud. UMNO has exploited PAS’ fixation on hudud to win months of free political loyalty from PAS, such that they essentially form a voting bloc today. With PAS’ falling out with PKR recently, PAS must change its direction or stick with its new big brother.

The government and their allies in PAS would turn us against each other, saying the country has lost its way. But what the conservatives claim is a simple crime prevention measure is in practice wedging Malays and non-Malays further and further apart, paying no attention to the true injustices going on in Malaysia.

We can and must resist conservative ideology without falling into the trap of assigning blame for RUU355 on Malays as a whole. Similarly we call upon Malays who question the purpose of RUU355 to speak up and debate these important questions. Only through interracial solidarity can we push back the government’s divisive strategy.

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