By Praveen Menon
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Prime Minister Najib Razak's government threw its support in parliament this week behind an Islamic penal code that includes amputations and stoning, shocking some of his allies and stoking fears of further strains in the multi-ethnic country.
Critics believe the scandal-tainted prime minister is using 'hudud', the Islamic law, to shore up the backing of Muslim Malay voters and fend off attacks on his leadership ahead of critical by-elections next month and a general election in 2018.
The government on Thursday unexpectedly submitted to parliament a hudud bill that had been proposed by the Islamist group Parti Islam se-Malaysia's (PAS).
Although debate on the law was deferred to October by PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang, its submission to parliament brought criticism from leaders across the political spectrum, including allies of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, who represent the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.
Najib sought to ease tensions with his allies on Friday, saying the bill was "misunderstood".
"It's not hudud, but what we refer to as enhanced punishment," he told a news conference after meeting leaders of his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party.
"It applies only to certain offences 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."
He added that the punishments would be limited and canings meted out under the law would not injure or draw blood.
Earlier in the day, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a key party in the BN coalition, called the submission of the hudud bill to parliament "unconstitutional".
"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," MCA President Liow Tiong Lai said.
Arguments for and against the introduction of hudud have divided Malaysia for years. Most of the Southeast Asian country's states implement sharia, the Islamic legal system, but its reach is restricted by federal law.
Still, the hudud bill appears doomed as the UMNO-led coalition lacks the two-thirds majority needed to pass it into law.
The Islamist party PAS is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would allow hudud to be implemented in Kelantan, a northern state where nightclubs are banned and there are separate public benches for men and women.
Many fear such a move would open doors for other states to bring in the Islamic penal code. Hudud stipulates ancient religious punishments for Muslims who violate the law.
Critics say that Najib, with an eye on by-elections for two parliamentary seats on June 18, is seeking to appease the majority Muslim votebank with his stand on hudud and to deflect attention from a multi-billion-dollar scandal at the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
They allege Najib was a beneficiary of 1MDB's funds, after about $680 million was deposited in his bank account before a 2013 election. Najib has denied any wrongdoing.
Some political heavyweights in Najib's party have questioned whether he can lead them to victory in the 2018 general election. However, he has consolidated power by sacking dissenters within UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia since 1957, and using a controversial and repressive colonial-era sedition law to silence other critics.
Najib seized on the resounding victory of a coalition partner in a Borneo state election earlier month as evidence that he and his government remain popular. The by-elections in peninsula Malaysia are likely to be a closer contest.
"Najib did not want the 1MDB global scandal to become the issue in both by-elections," said Lim Kit Siang, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Action Party, adding that Najib has ensured the focus will now be on hudud.
(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by John Chalmers & Shri Navaratnam)