In an unexpected move, the Malaysian government has backed an Islamic penal code that includes punishments such as amputations and stoning.
It was suggested proposed by the local Islamist group Parti Islam se-Malaysia's, aka PAS.
Although the bill, known as “hudud,” is not likely to pass, PM Najib Razak’s support for it has raised new questions on his credibility, coming at a time when he is already under scrutiny over corruption allegations.
The leader’s critics believe he is using hudud to gather support of Muslim Malay voters ahead of by-elections in June and a general election in 2018.
"As we repeatedly pointed out, the implementation of hudud law is against the spirit of the Federal Constitution, and would ruin the inter-ethnic relationship in the country," said Liow Tiong Lai , president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a key party in the ruling coalition.
Meanwhile, Najib refuted all criticism, saying the bill has nothing to with Muslims.
"It's not hudud, but what we refer to as enhanced punishment," he told a news conference. "It applies only to certain offenses and this comes under the jurisdiction of the Syariah court and is only applicable to the Muslims. It has nothing to do with non-Muslims."
Malaysia is country known for its multi-ethnic, multi-religious make-up in Southeast Asia, although its official religion is Islam. Just last year, the president of a new non-governmental organization Christians for Peace and Harmony Malaysia, Reverend Wong Kim Kong, claimed Malaysia has more religious freedom than the United States or Singapore.
But rising religious extremism has become a huge problem over the past couple of years.
Last January, for instance, Malaysian police started monitoring religious schools, in the wake of reports they may have become “breeding grounds” for Islamist extremists.
In addition, Najib’s corruption has made things only more complicated. The controversy erupted last year when the embattled PM was accused of transferring almost $700 million from the heavily indebted state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) to his personal bank account.
Later, Najib’s hand-picked Attorney-General Apandi Ali cleared him of corruption charges in January, saying the money, $681 million, came as a "gift" from the Saudi royal family.
Oddly, Saudi Arabia officially confirmed the transfer of money nearly three months later, saying the $681 million was a “genuine donation.” No details were offered, whatsoever, except for the fact that the money was “donated in support of Najib’s fight against extremism.”