Malaysian parliament deliberates controversial bill extending reach of sharia court as general election looms.

The opening of Malaysia’s parliament on Monday was overshadowed by a controversial bill to extend the power of Islamic courts.

Tabled in November by Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the opposition Islamic party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the bill expands the severity of punishment that can be handed down by Islamic courts for violating sharia law, also known as Syariah in Malaysia.

Under the bill the courts would be able to impose 30 years in jail, RM100,000 ($22,462) in fines or 100 strokes of the cane, up from three years in jail, RM5,000 ($1,123) in fines and six strokes of the cane, according to The Straits Times. 

The Islamic courts exist parallel to civil courts under Malaysian law and only have jurisdiction over Muslims – 61% of the population – in cases of family and religious law.

Many ethnic-Chinese Malaysians, Indians, and secular-leaning Muslims, however, are concerned that the PAS is creating a backdoor to introduce Hudud, Islamic criminal punishment, across the country, according to The Straits Times. 

Hudud is used in two provinces but its more controversial punishments like stoning and amputation are illegal under federal Malaysian law. 

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism has spoken out against the bill, according to The Star.

"We have consistently maintained that there is no necessity of implementing hudud in a multiracial and multi-religious society like Malaysia," a statement from the organisation said.

The PAS, however, has maintained that the bill is directed at Muslims only.

PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan went as far as telling non-Muslim groups to stay out of the debate. "We must play the fair game. Don't disturb the rights of Muslims, and Muslims will not trouble the non-Muslims," Takiyuddin was reported as saying. 

Renewed debate on the bill comes as maritime Southeast Asia finds itself once again grappling with religious extremism after a German hostage was beheaded by a separatist group in the Philippines with ties to the Islamic State. 

Elsewhere, religious influence was apparent as the governor of Jakarta stands trial for blasphemy after allegedly insulted the Quaran.

While Malaysia is considered recruiting ground for the Islamic State,  appeals to Islam are also seen as a tactic to gain popular support. Such tactics are once again at the forefront leading up to the 2018 elections. A PAS rally on February 17 attracted 100,000 supporters in favour of expanding the scope of sharia law, according to The Star.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has thrown his weight behind the bill, but critics see his support as a calculated distraction from a lingering corruption scandal.

Najib is accused of embezzling $700 million from a government-backed investment scheme, according to The Wall Street Journal, but his support for sharia law has given him a boost among his supporters.