The price of political deals

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By Pook Ah Lek

When Umno made a drastic U-turn on March 29 by deciding not to table the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (Act 355) amendment bill in the Dewan Rakyat, we sensed that things would not come to a halt just like that, and more follow-up developments would surface soon.

Many had wondered whether Umno’s sudden U-turn would deeply embarrass PAS, and whether PAS would launch an aggressive counter-attack, or how Prime Minister and Umno president Najib Razak was going to reassure his counterpart in PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang.

Equally surprising was the unbelievably toned down reactions from both Umno and PAS as if both parties had reached some sort of secret agreement and something more stunning was on the way.

Indeed, Umno had arranged to allow Hadi to table the bill to amend Act 355 in the Dewan Rakyat on Thursday, marking yet another major step in accomplishing the Islamist party’s mission.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had said on April 1 that the government would leave it to Dewan Rakyat Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia to decide whether to allow Hadi to table his private member’s bill. He later said the motion would not go into voting in the current parliamentary session.

We all knew what was happening here. Hadi would be given the opportunity to table his private member’s bill but as the motion requires some debating before it goes into voting, and as it happened to be the last sitting of the current parliamentary session, there wouldn’t be enough time for the motion to get adopted.

We can see from here that everything seems to have been planned. The Umno-PAS cooperation is still on-going and Umno has not yet abandoned PAS, and is still looking for ways to reassure its “new friend” after reversing its decision.

But, such an act of reassurance could be dangerous, and could very likely mortgage the rights of non-Muslims in this country as well as our secular system.

PKR feels that this whole thing with Hadi’s bill is a political gimmick by Umno in the hope of retaining the administrative power with a little help from PAS through the creation of three- or multi-cornered fights in the next general election.

In other words, PAS’ ultimate objective is the establishment of an Islamic state at the expense of its own administrative power.

Some say MCA and Gerakan were once again fooled by Umno, much to the delight of DAP. But, hold the laughter first, as everyone is watching whether DAP will eventually manage to talk PKR, Amanah and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) into voting against Hadi’s bill.

Meanwhile, the government has concurrently effectuated yet another major reversal on the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Act 2016 (Act 164) which was about to be tabled for a second reading in the Dewan Rakyat, by moving the prioritised item right behind Hadi’s private bill.

It has been said that this is also part of the political deal.

Many women have been victimised by the unilateral conversion of underage children after their fathers had embraced Islam. These women were forced to be separated from their children and would not get any further despite years of legal battle to win back their children.

After all these years of waiting, the non-Muslim community in the country had hoped to finally see the government’s consent to amend Act 164. Unfortunately, the high-profile opposition from the mufti of Perak had caused the government to pull the brakes on the bill.

The amendment to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Act 2016 has added Section 88A (1) which states that if a parent converts to Islam, the religion of their children shall remain the same unless both parents agree to the conversion of the children to Islam, and that the children can decide their own religious faiths upon reaching the age of 18.

The Perak mufti exerted pressure on the government to stall the bill. The news was given prominent coverage in Malay language newspapers. With the opposing voices getting stronger by the day, thanks also to the Kelantan and Pahang muftis, it appears to us that the prospect to get the conversion problem resolved in the near future has become increasingly bleak.

The question is, the government has the obligation to execute the cabinet decision of 2009 to allow children to keep the religion of their parents at the time of marriage until they reach the age of 18 when they can decide on their own, in the event either of the parents converts to Islam.

Pook Ah Lek is Sin Chew Daily editor-in-chief.

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