Grabbing a beer along Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Ampang last week, it would be difficult to imagine that sharia law applied to 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 27 million people. Tourists and local revelers bar-hopped along a strip that pounds to the usual dance, trance and RnB. All lubricated by beer flowing like water, with poured-into-the-dress waitresses peddling shots of vodka and tequila by the tray-full.So you might be forgiven for thinking that I, an Irishman, am in my element. The food is great, the beaches are fantastic, and Kuala Lumpur features two of the world’s most spectacular vertigo-inducing urban landmarks — the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower — both among the world’s tallest buildings.
Still, all’s not what it seems in this slickly-marketed, ‘moderate Islamic’ tourist magnet.
Western media is fond of latching on to lurid examples of sharia-mandated punishment, not least when these apply to women. On cue, last week saw headlines about a 32-year-old woman named Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, who was sentenced to be caned for drinking beer in public.
However, the courts seemed to waver as the sentence was due to be carried out. Thirty minutes after picking Kartika up, officials turned back and she was brought home. At first they said the punishment was suspended until after Ramadan, but this was later changed to an indefinite suspension pending sharia court review.
Next came an announcement by the Ministry for Information, Communication and Culture that Muslims could not attend a concert by the Black Eyed Peas, scheduled for KL on 25 September. The gig is part of Guinness’ 250th Anniversary celebrations, but because the Irish brewery giant sponsored the Peas’ appearance, the authorities deemed it in contravention of the sharia legal system and its alcohol prohibitions.
Malaysia follows a dual-track justice system. Sharia laws apply to Muslim in all personal matters. Non-Muslims — mainly Christian Chinese, Hindu Tamil/Indian, Sikh and others — are subject to the civil code.
For ethnic Malays — who are also defined as Muslims — the sharia system often clashes with the civil courts, and often the former takes precedence. However, the sharia issue has affected other faiths.
The Catholic Herald newspaper has squabbled with the authorities over the right to use the word ‘Allah’ in its Malay-language editions. It claims that this is the word for ‘God’ that Christians of the region use.
In 2007, the sharia courts deemed illegitimate the conversion of a Christian convert from Islam named Lina Joy. They took precedence over their civil counterpart in this case.
As Malaysia’s independence day approached on 30 August, the authorities wanted to maintain law and order, with a veneer of piety to fit with Ramadan, which started on 21 August.
But there may also be political factors. Malaysian politics has been in turmoil for at least two years. The long- ascendant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has seen its quasi-absolute rule dissipate. UMNO is the dominant force in the multi-ethnic National Front coalition that has governed uninterrupted since independence,
In the 2008 elections the Front lost its two thirds majority in parliament for the first time. Since the the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim has chipped away at the Front’s majority, winning by-elections here and there, and seeking to persuade government MPs to defect to his side.
Anwar tries to spearhead what Malaysians call ‘New Politics’, reflecting an aversion to the cronyism and media-suffocation that has been the UMNO/Front hallmark for decades.
Non-Malay and non-Muslim minorities — Chinese and Indian Malays — have been at the forefront of this, along with Malays who have tired of the old system. Chinese and Indians want an end to the pro-Malay discriminatory policies in business and education, which are aimed to boost the socio-economic standing of Malays.
On 1 August, 10,000 Malaysians protested, ostensibly against a a colonial era law that allows detention without trial for up to two years, but also against the slow pace of reform in general. The demonstration was broken up by riot police, in contravention of Malaysia’s freedom of speech and assembly laws.
The UMNO-led government does not know how to react to these demands, and is in a similar bind with other opposition requirements, which relate directly to the caning and Black Eyed Peas cases.
The cuckoo in the opposition nest is Malaysia’s only Islamic party, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). PAS is allied with Anwar’s party and the Chinese secular Democratic Action Party. After UMNO, PAS has the second largest membership of any party in the country, and its rise has sparked some clumsy, and inflammatory UMNO responses, with $dagger-wielding speakers at party conventions pledging to defend Malay (i.e. Muslim) rights.
Dr Dkulkefly Ahmad, a PAS lawmaker for the Kuala Selangor constituency, spoke in Singapore recently. He implied that PAS is divided between those who want to take the party in a more pluralistic direction — it has over 50,000 non-Muslim Chinese members — and those who want to take a more hardline approach.
How this plays out will directly affect politics and society. At a time when the UMNO is struggling to meet minority and reform demands, it does not know whether to confront PAS or to adopt its rhetoric. Talibanisation seems far-fetched, but many Malaysians are concerned about the direction the country is taking.
* for the non-Irish readers, ‘on the lash’ is slang for having a few beers.Show