Recent trends in Malaysia show that religiously conservative ideas are no longer restricted to the Malay heartlands. There should be more space carved out for freedom of conscience, with less interference from state or civil society actors.
Recent developments concerning a requirement for liquor licences for coffee shops across Malaysia indicate that religiously conservative ideas are no longer restricted to the Malay heartlands or PAS-controlled states.
The trend has been observed in recent months. In October 2021 Malaysian alcoholic beverage manufacturer Winepak received flak for the name of its award-winning whiskey, Timah. The Penang mufti and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang said that naming the whiskey Timah was disrespectful to Muslims and would trigger their sensitivities, as most Muslims would think ‘Timah’ refers to Fatimah, the name of Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.
Those who were unhappy advocated for a name change even after the Malaysian Cabinet decided that it would be unnecessary. Some even demanded banning the beverage, as non-Muslims can legally sell liquor to Muslims. Criticisms continued despite the manufacturer’s explanation that timah is simply the Malay word for tin, and that the beverage is an ode to tin mining in colonial Malaya.
Arguably, Winepak could have communicated their reasons behind the naming from the outset. However, the allegation that such products can ‘confuse’ Muslims and give them the impression that it is religiously permissible for consumption due to its perceived association with Islam, is not new.
This sentiment is reflective of a growing siege mentality among some Muslims in Malaysia who believe that Islam is under threat. It also leads to a fixation with form over substance, which sacrifices rationality and the essence of religious teachings. This is a consequence of Islamic revivalism since the 1970s, which aims to Islamise the public sphere through government policies, instead of leaving religion to personal choice.
Just a few weeks after the Timah controversy, this mentality reappeared in the issue concerning the selling of alcohol by Muslims, and broader calls to enforce a liquor licence in the country.
In November, the Kedah state government, run by a coalition of PAS and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, ordered all local councils to ban 4D gaming outlets. The issue was debated when PAS was in power in 2008. A similar policy was implemented in PAS-controlled Kelantan and Terengganu in the 1990s. The Kedah development came after a ban on the sale of liquor in various stores and Chinese medicine shops in Kuala Lumpur was enforced. The Labuan branch of PAS also called for the extension of the ban to the federal territory. In Perlis, coffee shop and restaurant operators would have to apply for a liquor licence.
Both Muslims and non-Muslims have criticised these developments, arguing that the legislations reflect attempts by increasingly conservative politicians to control non-Muslim lives. These moves do not take into account costs that businesses would have to bear. The Malaysia-Singapore Coffeeshop Proprietors Association said many proprietors could not afford the liquor licence, and that the sale of liquor is a source of income for them.
However, there are Muslims who are supportive of such legislation, to the extent of demeaning alcohol consumers. For example, the President of the Bangi branch of a well-known conservative Islamic NGO, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA), Ustaz Bilal Jailani, opined that anyone who drinks alcohol is inhumane and that alcohol is the ‘enemy of humanity’.
He said this a few days after posting on Facebook that he had ‘successfully prevented an evil deed’ when he stopped a Muslim minimart cashier from selling beer. Citing sharia law in Selangor, he said that he would have to report her to the police if she made the transaction. On a talk show a few days later, he said that Muslims are discriminated against as they are forced to sell alcohol.
Many netizens questioned his actions and the consequences it would have on working-class Muslims simply trying to earn a living. This fixation with form over substance is worrying as it threatens social cohesion, and endangers the livelihoods of small business owners and the working class.
Alcohol has become a supercharged symbol politicised by conservative state and civil society actors when it comes to matters of religious obligations and identity, and the socio-political domain of the role of Islam in multi-religious Malaysia. Furthermore, the fixation with moral policing surrounding alcohol diverts attention from graver issues such as corruption, inequality, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This issue raises important questions about the spaces that are available for diverse religious interpretations on what is (im)permissible for Muslims according to state laws — in this case, the selling of alcohol — and the reasoning behind such laws.
Such a measured approach has practical outworkings. In the case of Ustaz Bilal and the Muslim cashier, the former should have left the decision to the latter. In the case of legislation for alcohol licenses and the outright banning of alcohol, there should be greater consideration for a multi-religious society’s needs and socio-economic complexities when trying to impose such measures on an already fraught market.
To expand the space for diverse interpretations, more progressive voices from activists, students, scholars, and even netizens need to be amplified in order to ensure that Malaysia does not become even more intolerant.
Thus, more freedom of conscience should be accorded to individuals and proprietors, with less heavy-handed interference from state or civil society actors.
A rational orientation of religion that draws on the religion’s essence would emphasise that in any given issue, one should critically think about whether or not something overtly harms oneself and others. Also, in such an orientation, matters of piety and religious duties and obligations should be left to personal choice, and not imposed by external actors such as state agencies, political elites, religious elites and civil society organisations.
To expand the space for diverse interpretations, more rational and progressive voices from activists, students, scholars and netizens need to be amplified in order to ensure that Malaysia does not become even more intolerant. Such voices tend to be drowned out by conservative voices who have mass support.
These progressive voices will provide more inclusive rather than exclusivist perspectives, not only in terms of ethno-religious but also socio-economic considerations. Doing so will allow for the inculcation of the ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ or ‘Malaysia Family’ vision and its values of inclusivity, togetherness and contentment.
Afra Alatas is Research Officer in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Faris Ridzuan was Research Officer in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.