KUALA LUMPUR - 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 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."