IF Nazri Abdul Aziz had his way, Umno would had nothing to do with the PAS-initiated bill to enhance penalties for shariah offences, also known as “RUU355”.
The outspoken former law and parliamentary affairs minister said the bill would never have gotten the special treatment it did, where it was fast-tracked and read out in the Dewan Rakyat – a rarity for an opposition-sponsored bill.
Nazri, an Umno Supreme Council member, said he disagreed with his party colleagues and senior leaders, who had supported the bill on the basis that it was in the interest of upholding Islam.
Nazri believes that the friendly overtures to PAS by his president Najib Razak and others in Umno were merely “political statements”, which did not reflect the party’s intentions, and was pleased when Barisan Nasional abandoned the bill after its allies opposed it.
The 63-year-old was speaking to The Malaysian Insight on the sidelines of the Dewan Rakyat sitting yesterday to outline the reasons he was against adopting the bill as the government’s own.
The most important reason, said the tourism and culture minister, was that the bill had divided the ruling BN coalition.
For Nazri, the feelings of coalition parties, such as MCA, MIC and those from Sabah and Sarawak, were far more important than any cooperation with PAS, whose president Abdul Hadi Awang had once labelled Umno members as “kafir” (infidels).
RUU355 was first brought up in Parliament in April 2015 by Hadi, the Marang MP. The bill intended to give state shariah courts greater leeway to impose harsher penalties for Muslims caught for offences, such as alcohol consumption and fornication.
It immediately drew a storm of protest from non-Muslim and some Muslim MPs, who said PAS was trying to impose its version of the shariah penal code or hudud through a legal backdoor, by amending the the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, which restricted punishments for shariah offences to a three-year jail term, RM5,000 fine and six strokes of the rotan.
The second reason Nazri opposed Umno’s involvement in the bill was that it was pointless to appease PAS. This, since in the next general election, the Islamist party would be Umno’s biggest rival for the Muslim vote.
Below are excerpts of the interview:
Q: As a former law minister what is your view on RUU355?
A: I have always said this had more to do with PAS than us. But when they wanted to bring the bill to Parliament, they needed BN’s support because their allies didn’t agree with it. But the motion is PAS’s.
But when we sat down in the BN Supreme Council, we were concerned that shariah law was creeping into our legal system, slowly. That was the view of our component parties. So, we decided because our component parties did not agree with it and because we did not want to divide BN, the bill will not be adopted by the government and it would be given back to PAS. To me, that is the right move. Because the interest of BN must come first.
Hadi’s motion clearly showed that PAS has failed to Islamise Kelantan. If they succeeded, the Kelantanese would have accepted shariah law. Why would they need to increase sentences from six strokes, for instance, to 100? If you need to raise it, then it means you have failed.
The Kelantanese are not afraid (of shariah laws). For example, the Kelantanese are not afraid to consume alcohol because they will only get six strokes. Or, for example, they are not afraid to miss the weekly Friday prayers because they will only get canned six times. If PAS needs to raise punishments from six to 100 strokes, it means the Kelantanese are not afraid.
Because they have failed to get the Kelantanese not to miss Friday prayers or consume alcohol, they need to raise the punishment to 100 strokes (of the cane). So, because the Kelantanese are not scared, PAS needs to bring RUU355.
This is PAS’s problem, not ours.
Q: But some of your Umno colleagues wanted the government to take on this bill?
A: Some people in Umno don’t understand. They do not understand and they feel you need to do it (adopt it) in the name of upholding Islam, without really understanding (the issue).
For the past 40 years, (since the Syariah Act 1965 was implemented) we have sentenced people to six strokes of the rotan without thinking that we had abandoned Islam. So why now, when we reject PAS’s proposal to cane Muslims 100 times, we think we are going against Islam?
There are some in Umno who feel that it is wrong from an Islamic perspective, if we do not support PAS’s bill. I believe that it is not wrong (to oppose the bill).
For 52 years, we did not feel that it was wrong to cane six times, why do we feel it is wrong now? Islam is forever, not for specific times only.
Some say this is what the religion wants, so we have to support. To me, it is not what the religion wants. It is a political desire of PAS. This is the first point I am making.
Secondly, there are those among Umno who feel we have to work with PAS. I disagree. Because PAS is a political party, not an Islamic organisation.
I want to ask Umno members who want to work with PAS, what happens during elections? Are we going to sit down with PAS and discuss seats? Are we going to hand over Kelantan or Terengganu to PAS? These are the political questions.
What kind of cooperation are you talking about? Do you mean during the elections, they won’t contest against us? I don’t think so. The problem is, we are going to face PAS in the seats, as our targets are the same, Malay Muslims. If we want to cooperate, we have to distribute seats. I am sorry but I do not accept this.
And it is difficult to convince our grassroots members. For decades, they have been enemies of PAS. They don’t speak to each other, they are heckled by PAS. Suddenly, you want to shake hands and tell the people below to do the same? That is hard.
For years, PAS called us infidels. They said we cannot pray in the same mosques, with the same imams. Now you want to shake hands and be friends? No way. For me, there is no cooperating with PAS.
PAS itself has problems to the point there is a splinter party, Amanah. PAS is not an organisation that is led by the Prophet Muhammad.
Q: We see in the past two years that more Umno leaders want to cooperate with PAS, including the president and the deputy president. In the 2016 Umno general assembly, Najib even thanked “our friends in PAS” for supporting the government’s budget.
A: That’s a political statement. Can you take political statements seriously?
Q: Did you disagree then with the president and others in the party?
A: It’s a political statement. To me, it’s a political statement. But I don’t agree to cooperation with PAS. We shall remain separate. If our cooperation leads to BN’s break up, I’d say forget it.
I am more appreciative of the cooperation and contributions by our component partners. I have never thought of PAS as a party that fights for Islam. If we admit that they are, what about us? What about Umno? Are we going to admit that Umno does not (fight for Islam)?
Q: Is maintaining support from BN component parties the reason the government rejected taking on the bill?
A: We are grateful to the support and contributions of our partners, MCA, MIC, the Kadazan and Dayak parties. They have high hopes that Umno will protect the minorities. That is more important to me than PAS who have fought us for decades.
(Our) non-Muslims (partners) have never called us infidels. Who called us infidels, may I ask? Are we supposed to forget that? I, for one, cannot. The same person who is now the PAS president.
The fox cannot turn into a hen overnight. I am a practical politician.
I am not scared if they say I will be judged for not supporting RUU355. I say, since when did they become God? Are you taking over God’s role?
Q: Were there fears in BN, especially when the Sabah and Sarawak parties said if Umno adopts this bill, they would leave the coalition?
A: Of course. They are more important. The unity of the Malaysians (is) more important to me than pleasing PAS, who has always been our political enemy. You mean to say after years of support for us (from BN allies), you can just abandon them (for PAS)?
Remember in 1974, PAS was also in our coalition and it was failure. What makes you think it will be a success now? We should learn from history.
Q: You are one of a handful of Umno people who do not agree cooperating with PAS, but many other Umno members agree to do so.
A: Do you think I care? I don’t really care. Just like there are many Umno members who do not support me in this debate (with Dr Mahathir Mohamad), I don’t care. Since when do I care?
I am still here strong as ever. I am doing the right thing. Not for me, but for the lovely people of Malaysia.