Allow discussions on RU355 amendment

There is a new twist to the proposed amendment to Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act (Act 355) tale. It has been reported that the Government will now table the amendment to Act 355, taking over from PAS President and Marang Member of Parliament, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang. What was supposed to begin life as a Private Member’s Bill may now be a Government bill.

At this juncture, it is not known whether the bill that is to be introduced by the Government will be identical to that proposed by Hadi Awang. Even Hadi Awang’s proposed Private Member’s Bill had two versions. The original version, which was read to the Dewan Rakyat in May 2016, proposed to allow the Syariah courts to mete out any sentence for Syariah offences, except death.

However, the version that Hadi Awang put to the Dewan Rakyat in late last year was significantly different. It proposed to increase the current limit of the Syariah courts in sentencing from 3 years imprisonment, RM5,000 fine, 6 strokes of the rotan or any combination thereof, to 30 years imprisonment, RM100,000 fine or 100 strokes of the rotan.

Despite the many articles, ceramahs and the rally in February this year, Hadi Awang has yet to provide any explanation on his Private Member’s Bill in the Dewan Rakyat itself, for either version.

But debates, discussions and discourse on the proposed amendment have taken place over the past few months. Many have expressed views either for or against the proposed amendment, while others have reserved comments for now.

Unfortunately, there are those who attempt to shut out certain views. Some of those who support the bill say that the bill is ‘what Muslims want’ and that any opposition towards the bill is painted as opposition towards Islam and Muslims.  They say non-Muslims should not interfere in Islamic matters and Muslims should all support the amendment.

We live in a democratic country. Our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. To enact a law, a Bill must go through the legislative process. If it is a Federal law, then it must be passed by Parliament, by both the Dewan Rakyat and the Dewan Negara. After it is passed by Parliament, it will receive the royal assent, will be gazetted and become law. A date of coming into force will be determined and on that date, the law becomes binding.

Any bill, regardless of whether it relates to matters within the jurisdiction of the Syariah courts, must be validated through this secular fiat. It will be debated on and must be approved by representatives, both Muslims and non-Muslims. There is no exclusion of non-Muslim representatives from debate or voting when it comes to Islamic matters, and vice versa. Elected representatives represent their constituents, who may be Muslims or non-Muslims.

The amendment to Act 355 may relate to the Syariah Courts, which has no jurisdiction over non-Muslims, yet non-Muslims still have a say on the proposed law.

Similarly, the claim that Act 355 ‘is what Muslims want’ ignores the reality that the Malaysian Muslim community is not homogeneous and is in fact now more diverse than ever. No one can legitimately claim to speak on behalf of all Malaysian Muslims.

Personal attacks levelled at some Muslims for opposing the amendment have been distasteful and unwarranted. No citizen should ever be excluded or prevented from taking a stand about a piece of legislation, especially if it will directly affect him or her.

The bill is not a precept of the faith or fundamental theological issue that would define a Muslim person’s belief. It is at the end of the day a proposed piece of legislation for the jurisdiction of courts. 

The amendment to Act 355, in whatever form it will eventually take, will have wide reaching implications. Debates, discussions and discourse must be allowed to take place in line with the legislative framework of this country and the guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.

Any attempt to shut out or exclude comments or opinions on the amendment would go against the very essence of democracy.

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