Monday, December 5, 2016

Sly Najib plays a winning trump card with 'hudud' move

Kee Thuan Chye     Published     Updated

Whad'ya know? The government is going to take up the bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 originally proposed by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, and table it as its own. Who would have thought a private member's bill - and one initiated by an opposition MP - would come this far?

We heard the news first from Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak himself when he chose to declare it at the annual Umno general assembly last Thursday. It was obviously the most apt occasion for him to make this sudden declaration, because apart from the usual racial and religious ra-ra-ra, the assembly this time focused much on getting the party ready for the next general election (GE14) and consolidating its growing alliance with PAS.

To be sure, Najib's announcement was astonishing, but not really surprising. We could see it coming, couldn't we? Especially when MCA president Liow Tiong Lai, who had strongly opposed the bill when it was first tabled last May, made a questionable turnaround nearly two weeks ago by saying that if the government tabled a similar bill, "I will vote for it".

Did he have foreknowledge of Najib's move?

MIC president S Subramaniam, who originally said his party opposed Hadi's bill because its passing would pave the way for hudud, now welcomes Najib's assurance that the current legal system would not be affected and says the MIC will set up a legal committee to study the bill and its implications.

This current amenable stance is such a change from the one the BN component party leaders took in May, when Subramaniam, Liow, Gerakan president Mah Siew Keong and MCA deputy president Wee Ka Siong even threatened to quit their cabinet posts if the bill should get passed.

One suspects that when the government actually takes over the tabling of the bill, these four will likely bow obediently to the whip and remain in the cabinet.

Sly timing

But what about BN component parties in Sabah and Sarawak?

In May, Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah president Joseph Kurup and Parti Bersatu Sabah president Joseph Pairin Kitingan expressed their opposition to the bill, but made no drastic threats.

Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu president and Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem instructed all the 25 MPs from Sarawak BN to vote against Hadi's bill, but after Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi pledged that a select committee comprising Muslim and non-Muslim MPs from all political parties would be set up to discuss the matter, Adenan seemed pacified. He said he was also reassured that the bill had nothing to do with hudud.

Najib must have been heartened by all this. It gives him the leeway to do PAS the big favour that will draw it closer to BN-Umno. A closer relationship between the two parties could be crucial in case BN doesn't do so well in GE14.

Furthermore, he now has the religion card to play to his advantage. The government will be seen to be championing the Muslim cause, which is key among the Muslim-majority electorate and something difficult for any party to challenge. It is a sly move he has made.

The timing of the reading of the bill for next March is also sly - it could be taking place just before GE14 if Najib calls early elections. This would create pressure on the opposition parties.

Originally, Nov 24 was the scheduled date for reading and debate, but Hadi made some amendments to the bill and then requested that the reading be postponed to the next Parliament sitting in March. The speaker of the House complied. Opposition MPs who had wanted a debate on the bill that day were frustrated.

Lose lose for opposition

Come March, they may be caught in a quandary that could hamper their prospects at the polls.

BN would have the moral high ground for tabling the bill, and Muslim MPs of the opposition would have to support it or risk getting rejected at GE14 by Muslim voters, especially those from the rural hinterland. The opposition would thus be playing into Najib's hands, which will not make them look good.

At the same time, supporting the bill would probably lose them support from non-Muslim voters who equate it with hudud, so it could work out to be a no-win situation for the opposition.

If that works out, Najib would have cleverly used religion to save himself. This issue might well overwhelm the issues of 1MDB, SRC International Sdn Bhd and RM2.6 billion that the opposition would surely invoke at the hustings to try and bring him down.

After all, religion appeals more easily to the man-in-the-street and the man-in-the-kampung than the complicated money flows of 1MDB and SRC.

Meanwhile, Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M) payments would have been rolling out to further assure the lower-income electorate that the ruling BN is looking after them. So, with heavenly and earthly matters being well taken care of, why should it bother the voters if Najib is said to be truly corrupt?

BN components complicit

It looks like Najib has pulled off a coup, with BN non-Muslim component parties seemingly compliant with his move by not raising a squeak of protest. What's more, if his courtship of PAS turns serious, their merged forces will be formidable.

Even if MCA, MIC and Gerakan fall by the wayside at GE14, it wouldn't matter much. BN will still nick the elections with PAS. And seeing this, Sarawak will want to remain with the winning side.
It's a bleak scenario for the opposition. They will need to find a trump card very soon to out-trump sly Najib. Otherwise, the game of GE14 might virtually be over.

KEE THUAN CHYE is the author of the bestsellers Unbelievably Stupid! and Unbelievably Stupid Too!

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