It is unreasonable for politicians and Islamic activists to suggest that only Muslims who are experts in religion have the right to discuss and comment on the shariah and hudud. They should know that it is normal in a democracy for citizens to take an interest in public affairs and to express their views freely.
As the recent tabling of the "hudud bill" is about amending an act of parliament and more importantly amending the constitution also, this makes it a matter of public interest.
In a democracy, any issue that has significant economic, social and personal implications on the life of the people is a matter of public interest. The constitutional issues arising from the surprise tabling of the bill are certainly a matter of grave concern to the public and civil society.
The constitution is the framework for governing the country and therefore constitutes the supreme law under which all legislations are made for running the government. Any legislation that contradicts the supreme law becomes a serious matter for the whole country, especially when the basic rights of the people are involved such as in the PAS bill, which has now been widely dubbed the Hadi hudud bill because the ultimate intention behind it is very clear to us all.
A fundamental principle in all constitutional democracies is the separation of religion from the state. Thus, in the Malaysian constitution, although Islam is the official religion of the country, it is not the basis of law and government.
The constitution, however recognises the important role that Islam plays in the life of the Muslim population and has therefore made provisions for the application of shariah laws for specific purposes at state government level under the authority of the respective sultans in their traditional role as head of religion.
It is important to note that in authorising Islamic laws for Muslims, the constitution, as the supreme law of the country, has also placed limits on the powers of the shariah courts in imposing sentences on offences applicable to Muslims, based on the fundamental principle that the country shall be governed by one legal system, thus implying that no shariah law shall be allowed to supersede or contradict Federal law. This was clearly the intention of our founding fathers who wanted the people of various races to be united under one rule of law, with the Federal courts being the primary source of justice for all citizens.
Any amendments to raise the status of shariah to the same level as civil law will affect the secular character of the constitution, with serious consequences on the power of Federal judges in the civil courts to strike down Islamic laws passed by state legislatures which conflict with the supreme law of the country, especially on the basic rights of the people to freedom of expression and assembly and the right to freedom of worship.
Even with assurances that non-Muslims will not be affected by the shariah laws, and that the proposed amendments in the hudud bill are limited in their scope, the public and civil society have a right to be concerned with the prospect of a dual system of law, with Muslims being treated differently on common crimes and punished cruelly on personal sins in the shariah legal system.
Any discrimination in dispensing of justice is clearly wrong not only to the silent majority in this country but also internationally. We are worried about the diplomatic and international repercussions for violating the standards of justice expected from a country that has always prided itself as a respectable member of the international community and which goes around the world calling itself a moderate Muslim country to attract investments and professionals from other countries for its development programme.
When investors and foreign tourists see that the reality is different from the rhetoric, they will have serious doubts about coming to Malaysia.
Politicians can serve the country better by providing support to civil society organisations which are promoting key reforms for dealing with the more urgent problems in the country. Problems like poor governance due to the erosion of institutional independence, money politics and unfair election practices, corruption and mismanagement of the country's natural resources and public finance and violations of human rights are dangerous for our national unity as they tend to be exploited by political opportunists to create tensions in the country.
They are also bad for the economy as investors and businesses are faced with uncertainties about the political and financial stability.
A clear example of bad governance is 1 MDB which has developed into a crisis, causing ripples all across the country and abroad on how the scandal is being handled. It is a major factor affecting business sentiments in the country.
The reforms to strengthen national governance must be given priority in parliament to ensure that such scandals do not arise in the future or if they do arise, they will be dealt with, in a proper manner with full transparency, so as to avoid unnecessarily creating economic and political tensions in the country.
One of the important reforms being promoted by civil society is on political financing. As money politics is often the root cause of high level corruption, a proper regulation on political financing is urgently required to ensure that funding for political parties and election campaigns is done in an ethical and transparent manner.
Another initiative being planned by civil society is to organise a public forum on empowering parliament to play its role in providing healthy checks on the functions of government and for it to be an effective watchdog for the public. There is also a reform proposal on creating an independent office of public prosecutor, separate from the Attorney-General, to inspire the people's confidence on the integrity of law enforcement, especially in combatting corruption and abuse of power.
Another group is looking at reforms in Muslim family law aimed at providing justice for wives and children affected by hostile divorce and safeguarding their human rights in line with modern trends.
These are the kinds of changes that members of parliament should focus their mind on. They are reforms which all Malaysians can relate to as we all want to see an end to the financial scandals and unethical politics plaguing the country. We also want to see more respect for human rights on freedom of expression and dissent against all forms of injustice and discrimination, including those against women and minorities.
Politicians who stand with civil society on reforms for clean and fair government and for upholding basic human rights will be respected by their constituents for their ability to understand that there are higher priorities facing the country than hudud.