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Three things we learned from: The Himpunan 355 rally

PAs supporters are seen at Padang Merbok during the PAS-led Himpunan 355 rally in Kuala Lumpur February 18, 2017. — Picture by Saw Siow FengPAs supporters are seen at Padang Merbok during the PAS-led Himpunan 355 rally in Kuala Lumpur February 18, 2017. — Picture by Saw Siow FengKUALA LUMPUR, Feb 19 — Thousands attended the PAS-led Himpunan 355 rally yesterday in the nation’s capital in a bid to increase punishments for Shariah offences.

PAS and several Muslim NGOs have packaged the proposed change to the existing law as the seemingly innocuous “RUU355”, a reference to a Bill to amend Act 355 or the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 which currently limits the Shariah courts’ maximum sentencing powers to three years’ jail, RM5,000 fine and six lashes.

Now in its third edition, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang’s private member’s Bill is seeking an increase of the penalties that Shariah courts can mete out to a maximum of 30 years’ jail, RM100,000 fine and 100 lashes.

Here are the three takeaways from the Himpunan 355:

Flexing the Islamist muscle

Despite the negative publicity surrounding the Bill, PAS showed everyone it still had the numbers when it mobilised thousands of its loyal supporters for yesterday’s event.

According to Dang Wangi police chief Mohd Sukri Kaman, around 2,000 police personnel were deployed for the rally which was attended by an estimated 20,000 individuals. The event which started at around 2pm stretched on for about nine hours before ending peacefully at around 11.15pm.

In an unusual move that showed PAS was willing to pull out all the stops for a display of massive support for its cause, the Kelantan state government ruled by the Islamist party declared a state holiday to enable civil servants and residents there to join the rally. This would remove the need for PAS’s Kelantan supporters to take leave today, which is a work day there.

The crowd, where many showed up in buses, were mostly wearing purple shirts designed for the rally and carrying the words “Kami sokong pindaan RUU355” or “We support the Bill to amend Act 355”.

Equating the idea of amending Act 355 as being a fight to defend Islam, the predominantly Muslim crowd showed true dedication and devotion when they performed prayers and continued standing to hear speeches even in the heavy rain.

Preaching to the converted

Barely three weeks away from next month’s Parliament meeting where Hadi’s Bill could potentially resurface and finally be put to the vote, some of the rally speakers urged the crowd to dial up the pressure on both Muslim and non-Muslim MPs as their elected representatives to vote in favour of the Bill.

While PAS information chief Nasrudin Hassan had in a newspaper interview this week said the rally could see a turnout of up to 300,000 and predicted at least 500 to 1,000 non-Muslims, PAS appears to have overestimated support for its cause.

Apart from several non-Muslim speakers who took to the stage and which came largely from PAS’s non-Muslim wing called the Supporters’ Congress, the promised non-Muslim backing appeared negligible.

This suggests that RUU355 lobbyists’ efforts to convince non-Muslims that they would be unaffected by the amendments has yet to show any visible signs of progress.

The turnout also suggests that PAS only commands influence in limited areas and that its message is likely going to resonate only with rural folks, most of whom are already supporting Hadi’s Bill.

Umno rides the sentiments

In yet another rare show of overt cooperation by PAS and Umno that was last seen in their joint solidarity rally for the Rohingya last December, Umno’s Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom came yesterday to the rally to voice support for the amendment.

Despite being from the multiracial political platform of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition of which Umno is a member of, Jamil Khir sang the same tune as the other rally speakers and even questioned why non-Muslims were interfering in a matter that he said only affects Muslims.

Umno’s move to act as an apologist for the amendment is likely yet another attempt to maintain its religious credentials before the 14th general election — which must be held by August 2018.

While PAS appears to be the key driver of efforts to boost the Shariah courts’ powers, Umno is likely to emerge the true winner as the federal government has already said it would see through the amendment in the form of a government Bill.

It is unclear what the fate of the Bill would be as some of Umno’s BN partners have voiced resistance, but the contest between visions for an Islamic and secular Malaysia will likely heat up, with critics of Hadi’s Bill yesterday calling in a counter-rally for voters to press their MPs to vote it down in order to retain votes in the next general election.

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