The leader of a moderate Muslim organisation says the the introduction of sharia law in Brunei could mean there will be more capital punishment.
The Sultan of Brunei plans to enforce the tough Islamic penal code in phases over the next six months.
Punishments under the Hudud code, which applies only to Muslims, can include stoning to death for adultery, severing of limbs for theft and flogging for violations ranging from abortion to alcohol consumption.
The director of the Islamic Renaissance Front, Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, told Radio Australia’s Asia Pacific program he believes the new laws will lead to the erosion of personal freedoms and women’s rights.
“This what is going to happen to Brunei, and we have heard about the Saudi sharia law, about Hudud, about how this one lady, a maid, who was being beheaded because she thwarted an attempt by her employer to rape her and inadvertently killed her employer,” he said.
The decision to change the law will make Brunei the only east Asian country to do so at a national level.
Brunei currently practices a brand of Islam that is relatively conservative compared to its Muslim neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, banning the sale and public consumption of alcohol and closely restricting other religions.
But sharia has been a rare point of contention in a land where the Sultan’s word is unquestioned, with disquiet among many Bruneians that the concept is out of step with the affluent country’s laid-back ethnic Malay society.
Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkaih, who is one of the world’s wealthiest men, recently gave a speech about the new law saying “by the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of his legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled”.
Dr Musa say that the Sultan’s reasons for implementing the change is political.
“I guess it would cement his authority over his citizens and it will give him the power, like, my decree is basically a decree by God and I’m actually voice of God on earth or something like that,” he said.
He says that the current climate in the Islamic world, referring to the actions taken during the Arab Spring and ongoing political tensions in Egypt and Syria, have motivated the change.
Dr Musa is not the only critic of the introduction of sharia law in Brunei.
The deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Phil Roberts, called the legal change “rights-abusing, abhorrent, and absolutely unjustifiable”.
There are concerns that the laws will not fit in with the country’s largely Malay culture.
Tuah Ibrahim, the driver of a boat taxi in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, says he thinks the two are incompatible but sharia can be acceptable if proportionate to the crime.
“I can’t imagine our country turning into somewhere like Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Neither of east Asia’s two other Muslim-majority countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, impose sharia criminal punishments.
The Indonesian special region of Aceh does.
Nearly 70 per cent of Brunei’s people are Muslim Malays, while about 15 per cent are non-Muslim ethnic Chinese.
Brunei already has a dual system combining civil courts based on British law as the sultanate was a British protectorate until 1984, with sharia compliant courts handling marital, inheritance and other low-key issues.