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Sunday December 4, 2011

Much ado about everything

MALAYSIA has braved slogans as milestones with chequered results.

Spanning two decades were the Mahathir-era “Vision 2020” and its “Bangsa Malaysia” component, and the Najib administration’s “1Malaysia” and “high-income nation”. As national goals, they have been positive, inclusive and aspirational.

In 1997 then deputy premier Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim proposed masyarakat madani, translated as but supposedly transcending “civil society”. Much of its potential was however obscured by interpretation issues even in the original Bahasa Malaysia.

Malaysians are generally wary of attempts to tinker with the existing secular (non-theocratic) system. So in the 1999 general election, much of the DAP’s support evaporated over its links with PAS in the Barisan Alternatif opposition pact.

In 2001, then prime minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia was an “Islamic state”. This infamous statement panicked some political circles, notably the DAP.

Typical of Dr Mahathir’s rhetorical flourishes, it was meant to counter and challenge, and needed to be read in context. It had come after a wearying tussle between PAS, which had sought to install an Islamic state and amend the Federal Constitution, and its adversaries.

Dr Mahathir later said since (as he had defined it) Malaysia was already an Islamic state, there was no need to amend the Constitution. He had sought to end the debate and preserve the secular status quo rather than to change it.

That was fine as long as Dr Mahathir still headed the Federal Government and dominated the terms of the national debate. Nine months later he went further and declared Malaysia a “fundamentalist Islamic state”, according to his (textually correct) definition of fundamentalism.

But after he retired in 2003, the terms of the debate changed and his past statements encouraged PAS in further Islamisation instead. His successor Datuk Seri (now Tun) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi could not direct or dominate the discourse that followed.

Aware of popular opposition to its theocratic aims, PAS this year unveiled the idea of a “welfare state”, a vague concept that did not impress many. Kelantan Mentri Besar and PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat then announced plans to implement hudud in his state.

Some legal quarters insisted that no state may implement hudud (punishments for “serious crimes”) without amending the Federal Constitution, but that view has been challenged. PAS then said hudud would not apply to non-Muslims, but that has also been questioned.

Hudud is part of syariah law along with qiya (punitive recompense), diyya (compensatory settlement) and tazir (corporal punishment). Hudud covers apostasy, alcohol consumption, theft (or robbery) and illicit sex, with punishments that include amputation and execution.

These offences can involve other people, including those serving or selling the alcohol or those accused of trying to convert Muslims. Thus saying that hudud would apply only to Muslims is unconvincing.

Further, hudud is considered divinely inspired so its punishments are not open to reform, substitution or reduction. PAS has also told non-Muslims that since hudud would not involve them, they have no right to object.

But in July 2002 after the PAS Terengganu government passed the Hudud and Qisas Bill, Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Hadi Awang said hudud would be “extended to all non-Muslims” when they were ready for it. Presumably the party would decide when non-Muslims are “ready”.

Parti Keadilan Nasional at the time had joined protests against the Bill’s impending passage. But this year, PKR adviser Anwar supported Kelantan’s plan to implement hudud.

Beyond DAP chairman Karpal Singh’s personal objections, the party does not oppose Kelantan’s plans for hudud. DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng said hudud was not mentioned in Pakatan Rakyat’s Common Policy Framework (Buku Jingga), placing any opposition to it only at Federal level.

But once Kelantan introduces hudud, Kedah as another Pakatan state may follow. Then, acquiescing at state level may be taken as tacit approval for compliance at Federal level.

These and related issues would be explored at today’s Insap (Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research) forum at Wisma MCA in Kuala Lumpur from 9.30am to 2.30pm. Admission is free.

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