THE hot button issue before Parliament opened its end-of-year Budget meeting was an anticipated bill to empower the Shariah courts.
Sure, the state of a sovereign wealth fund had sizzled in the public arena all of 2016, but PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang’s Private Member’s Bill, slated for tabling in the course of Parliament’s Budget meeting, had threatened supercession, simply because it had to do with religion which is a subject that in multi-religious Malaysia is more volatile than alleged secret financial activity.
The Lower House has been in session for a month now but the pre-Budget meeting hullabaloo about hudud looks, in the perspective of the four weeks that have passed, it had been much ado about nothing.
Hadi’s Private Member’s Bill to lift the curbs, except proscription of the death penalty, on the scope of punishments (hudud) that can be imposed by Shariah courts was to have been tabled by now.
He had shaped over the past one-and-a-half years to move the motion but after one wavering attempt earlier this year, the effort is stillborn: essentially, it hasn’t taken off from first base which is mere notifice to Parliament that he intends to table it.
Judging from what MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said last Sunday at the Barisan Nasional component’s annual general assembly, Hadi’s bill will not even be tabled.
In the presence of Prime Minister and BN chairman Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Liow told MCA delegates that the party is flatly opposed to the bill which he correctly contended is against the constitution and other founding documents of the country.
The PM did not touch on the matter in his remarks he later made to the assembly.
This could be interpreted as a sign that Hadi’s bill will continue to languish in limbo because Umno’s agreement is necessary for its tabling — and that is not going to be available.
As things stand, it appears Umno’s acquiescence was obtainable only to the extent of enabling the Kelantan State Assembly to pass amendments in March last year to a 1993 Shariah bill — amendments, supported by Kelantan Umno, that have paved the way for Hadi to seek the federal warrants for hudud’s implementation in the PAS-controlled state.
Those amendments and Hadi’s subsequent notice to Parliament of intention to table a motion to further empower the Shariah courts have already served its subterranean purpose: the unceremonious unravelling of Pakatan Rakyat (PR), the opposition coalition that expired abruptly in June 2015, as a consequence of PAS’s determination, partly egged on by Umno, to implement hudud.
Umno-BN has gained its ulterior aim of PR’s disintegration and now Umno sees no reason to load the cart with more than the donkey can bear.
It appears Umno is unwilling to push the ruling coalition to divisiveness — the entire non-Muslim complement of BN, includng its Muslim cohorts from Sarawak and Sabah, are united in opposition to the bill — which is what a vote on hudud in Parliament would invite.
It appears PAS has been had and PR driven into oblivion.
The PM has been deft player of the game of balancing the forces over which has control and dealing with those he can’t but is able to distract and divide.
But before anyone can raise a toast to political manoeuvring of intriguing order, there arises a challlenge to deal with a question that has been looming on the horizon for some time and now seems set to intrude into national calculations with inescapable urgency.
This concerns the bipartisan movement in Sarawak, under the baton of Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem, to reclaim lost constitutional ground.
In April of 1976, Parliament passed a constitutional amendment that had the effect of reducing Sarawak and Sabah to the status of states within the Malaysian federation rather than territories that were equal partners, with Malaya and Singapore, in the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
Strictly speaking, this amendment was unconstitutional in much the same way that hudud in Kelantan would be but few federal legislators, save from the DAP, saw it that way in 1976 when the amendment was debated and passed.
Now all 82 members of the newly expanded Sarawak State Legislative Council are expected to approve a bill in this month’s meeting of the august body that will set in train a parliamentary motion revoking the 1976 amendment.
These moves, at state and federal levels, should they come to pass, will give new bite to Sarawak’s assertion of its autonomy in sectors the 1963 Malaysia Agreement cedes to the territories of Sarawak and Sabah.
This autonomy has been rendered nugatory by the 1976 constitutional amendment.
In recent months, Adenan has tried to re-assert Sarawak’s rights to autonomy in education, religion, employment in the civil service and government-linked companies (GLCs), besides, of course, immigration where Sarawak has long exercised its autonomy unhindered, sometimes in less than laudable ways.
All these demands come on top of that for higher royalty on the oil and gas found in Sarawak.
The current rate of 5 per cent is parsimonious but, with the slumping price of oil in international markets and shrivelling federal finances, there is no prospect of an imminent raise.
Hence the exercise of autonomy in education, religion, civil and GLC appointments, are demands that have become well-nigh irresistible.
Federal authorities, however, will be wary of being viewed as munificent in the matter of state autonomy, for the expansive effect this may have on other states, like Sabah or even Johor.
If the hudud issue has been headed off, Sarawak’s demands on autonomy present a challenge not as easily eluded.