Wednesday 23 May 2007

Lest Malaysians Forget Series : (November, 1979): UMNO YOUTH Intimidated Lord President Tun Suffian on Islamic Law

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Vol. 106, No. 47,
23 Nov 1979, 22

A judge's verdict on Islamic law: Controversy erupts after the Lord President of the Federal Court criticises Muslim extremism


K. Das

Kuala Lumpur: When a member of parliament takes on the highest legal authority in the land, it is fair to assume that the man has something to offer. But when the man, Suhaimi Kamaruddin, is also the leader of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), expectations tend to become tensions.

On November 7, he told reporters that his youth (UMNO Youth) executive council rejected the views of the Lord President of the Federal Court of Malaysia, Tun Mohamed Suffian, on two issues and claimed that what the Lord President had said would arouse the emotions of the Muslim population and Islamic religious authorities in a "negative" way.

He also said that the council wished to advise and remind Suffian that in his position, he should not interfere in any political controversy.

Suhaimi's need for controversy is a fact of Malaysian political life. But in the current world climate of Islamic unrest, his comments were doubly disturbing. Suffian himself was obviously preoccupied with the problem. He told lawyers at a lecture in Manila in March: "Recent events in Iran give encouragement to Muslim extremists in Malaysia who desire the enforcement of Muslim law, criminal and civil."

Most politicians were reluctant to discuss the subject and said it was best to let the youth leader's remarks pass.

Among the non-Muslims, there was concern that Suhaimi was looking for what Suffian described to the Philippines bar as the tendency to "exploit [religion] as a passport for getting into parliament, destort it and twist it, to appeal to ignorance, superstition, prejudice and racial fears to win votes."

What Suffian said in Kuala Lumpur to the bar conference which provoked Suhaimi was, however, sober enough. He said:

"In important Islamic fields, Islamic law already applies to Muslims, in particular in regard to family law and the law of inheritance and there is no general desire among the majority of Muslims for more, their feeling being that the civil law that applies in many areas is fair and just and meets the case; and that in any event, Malaysia's population, unlike that of Saudi Arabia, is not 100% Muslim; unlike that of Pakistan or Iran, it is not 98% Muslim; and that as stated by Tunku Abdul Rahman [the former prime minister], there might be bloodshed and chaos if non-Muslim Malaysians constituting about 50% of the population had Muslim law forced down their throats."
What "irked" Suhaimi, but not necessarily his entire executive council, were the remarks about "the majority of Muslims." He said he could not understand how Suffian could have said it, but he made no effort to demonstrate that Suffian could have been mistaken.

Suffian's own position was easy enough to support because while there have been several attempts by extremist missionary movements to create trouble recently, there is no sign that any of them have succeeded.

According to some political party sources, the police recently cracked down on extremists and arrested a number of them. At the same time, four members of dakwah (missionary) movements were arrested in Singapore. The crackdown in the peninsula is said to have been widespread though it is impossible to ascertain how many were actually questioned and detained.

Suhaimi's statement also included a declaration that the youth executive council accepted the principle of implementing Islamic laws in all aspects -- and not just the family law and the law of inheritance which already exists.

In his Manila lecture, Suffian had warned that the introduction of Islamic laws in their entirety would mean that
"all non-Muslim and all women judges who have rendered distinguished public service could be dismissed, the word of a Muslim would always be preferred to that of a non-Muslim, non-Muslim lawyers would be disqualified; and outside the legal system, Muslim women would be denied education and the opportunity to secure economic independence."
What surprised many observers was the silence observed by the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim), which is usually vociferous in its demands for Shariah (Islamic) laws to operate in the country.

The reason, say observers, is that Abim, which regards Islamisation of the laws as one of its major programmes, does not want to give Suhaimi credit for launching the attack by appearing to support him. Despite its non-partisan position, Abim has political ambitions and would not waste its talents to build up someone who would only destroy it. Abim, it is believed, is certain of Suhaimi's failure, and would move in when the youth leader's game is played out.

It is anticipated that on November 26, a debate will start in parliament with a question from an Umno back-bencher about what programme the government has to introduce the full use of the national language (Malay) in courts.

Suffian had told the law conference that it would be decades before English dropped out of sight in the courts, and that was the cause of Suhaimi's second criticism of the Lord President.

In any case, the debate is expected to shift quickly to the introduction of Islamic laws and it is possible that the Speaker -- himself the head of the official missionary movement -- could cut it short if matters got out of hand.

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