COMMENT Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak could not have reckoned with the objections of BN component parties in Sabah and Sarawak to Act 355 when he announced last November that Umno would “take over” PAS president Hadi Awang’s private member’s bill to further empower Syariah courts.
Earlier this week, in a meeting with leaders of these parties, he was taken aback by the near unanimity of their resistance to the Umno move.
The fate of Act 355 – the popular shorthand for the bill initiated by Hadi in May last year and left ever since in a kind of suspended animation until the PM threw the weight of his office behind it – continues to be uncertain.
The current sitting of Parliament, supposed to end on April 6, may be extended a few days to enable the tabling of the bill.
However, the prognosis is that Umno is going to find it very difficult to conjure away the objections of the Sarawakian parties, in particular, to it.
What would it take for the Sarawakian BN parties to drop their resistance to Act 355 was Najib’s plaintive request of his interlocutors at the meeting, after his surprise at their intensity had worn off?
Exemption for Sarawak and Sabah, and for their people resident on the peninsula to its provisions, the PM was apprised in no uncertain terms.
Ironically, such exceptionalism would undermine the very argument that the Borneoan objectors to the Bill had relied on in their fulminations against it.
This was Act 8 of the Federal Constitution, which posits as a fundamental tenet, the equality of all citizens under the law. Act 355, which differentiates between Muslims and non-Muslims, would founder on the equality before the law tenet embedded in the Federal Constitution.
In other words, an exemption from the very basis on which the Borneoan parties had erected their case against Act 355 would be grounds for their acquiescence to the bill.
Of course, this stance is a philosophical non sequitur; its absurdity is enough to give a sense of the contortions Act 355 would have to undergo to persuade the Borneoans to come round to supporting it.
A political hot potato
Hence, based on what transpired at the meeting of the BN Borneoan component party leaders and Najib, Act 355 remains a political hot potato.
Its potential to split the BN is a threat just when fissures among the slew of opposition parties ranged against the ruling coalition are considered serious enough to prevent them projecting a unified stance in the coming general election (GE14).
The Umno-dominated BN’s chances of winning GE14 are enhanced by splits in the opposition.
Conventional wisdom has it that the seasoned pragmatists of Umno would not have boxed themselves into the corner they now find themselves in with respect to Act 355.
To prevent PAS from making common cause with the rest of the opposition at GE14, Umno’s support – which has ascended to sponsorship – of Hadi’s bill is the price that has to be paid.
It has been an article of faith with PAS that they are the indisputable repositories of all that is Islamic in the country. In that vein, they have come to regard Act 355 as a prized emblem of their rectitude.
But increasingly it seems that Umno’s support can only be given to PAS by a willingness to risk a split in the BN.
Although insistent, the objections to Act 355 from the peninsula’s non-Muslim BN component parties – MCA, MIC and Gerakan – are seen as somewhat malleable which was why the meeting between the PM and federal BN’s Borneoan cohort was crucial in establishing the extent of the risks Umno would be taking by a decision to chaperone Act 355 through the Lower House.
Borneoan, particularly Sarawakian, resolve against Act 355 will bolster the objections to it of non-Muslim parties on the peninsula.
What’s more, it would stiffen the otherwise tepid objections that Muslim MPs in opposition parties like PKR and Parti Amanah Negara have against it, not to mention latent reservations about the Act by mavericks in Umno such as Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
In sum, Act 355 has all the makings of a political misadventure whose extent we would soon get to know. – Malaysiakini
TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for more than four decades. A sobering discovery has been that those who protest the loudest tend to replicate the faults they revile in others.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.