Matters of opinion that enables me to understand or make some sense of my country- Malaysia

The train of modernisation is accelerating at breakneck speed, without an end point. Concomitants to modernisation such as urbanisation, individualisation, liberalisation and secularisation transform the world as we know it. A consequence to these “-isations” is a rupture to much cherished traditional social arrangements.

Every society is touched by modernisation. Resistance is a natural reaction. But what makes a society genuinely progressive is not modernisation per se. Its how they choose to deal with the side effects of modernisation is what makes the progress sustainable.

Of late, the clash between morality and liberty in Malaysia has intensified. Morality has always reigned supreme ever since the rapid Islamisation of Malaysia. However, the bastion of morality is facing a sustained assault by the forces of liberty.

Female Malay Muslims are forbidden to enter beauty pageants while their Muslim counterparts in Indonesia are allowed to do so. The Shiite sect is proscribed. The tentacles of moral policing are far reaching.

Khalwat raids are pervasive, victimising Malay Muslims. Malay Muslims are forbidden to consume alcohol. Malay Muslims are punished if they gamble. Fasting in the month of Ramadan is compulsory for Malay Muslims.

The religious authorities mete out punitive measures – with state backing – to victimless crimes. Hardly any third party is directly harmed as a result of these so called “immoral activities” – yet they are punished for their different standards of morality. These punishments would surprise anyone from any liberal democracy, infused with enlightenment values.

The screws of repression are being tightened by the self-appointed custodians of morality.

Why do these conflicts happen? Why do religious moralisers seek to impose their will upon another human being? Shouldn’t people deserve to do whatever they want as long as they don’t harm others?

The evolution of morality

The cultural and moral strains that Malay Muslims are facing do not happen without a cause. Structural forces determine how we behave. Our circumstances and social situations are major influences that condition our behaviour. We act and react in response to the surroundings and environment we are in. Cultures around the world are different because they encounter different social problems and solve them in numerous ways.

The rapid modernisation that Malaysia is facing is changing the moral and social landscape that we are in. As Karl Marx pointed out, the base (economy) determines the superstructure (laws, behaviour, religion etc). Economic development in Malaysia empowers the individual. Malay Muslims interact and are able to relate with ideas that celebrate liberty, egalitarianism, rationality, relativism, utilitarianism and the right to be left alone.

These ideas might originate from the West, but it doesn’t mean that they are exclusively applicable to the West. An idea’s origins will have universal application if it passes the litmus test of rationality. After all, aren’t the origins of Islamic values, which are deemed universal, from the deserts of the Middle East?

Most Malay Muslims go through a partial transvaluation of values. For most, Islam is still their religion. But they go through re-interpretations and process of rationalisations of Islam, accepting some beliefs but suspending beliefs in some. Call it cognitive dissonance, if you want.

We are all aware of that Malay Muslim friend who “drinks and parties but would never consume pork while prays 5 times a day.” Or the Malay Muslim who will commit all sins in the present but will repent after marriage or hajj, sometime in the future.

In short, the changing social milieu is changing the habits and behaviours of Malay Muslims – especially among the urban, Western educated, English speaking and bourgeois.

For every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction

Malay Muslims who are embedded in traditional beliefs react differently to the changing social landscape. They feel that the traditional social arrangements are collapsing in front of them. Public morality is being upended by liberty. Thus they appoint themselves as sanctimonious moral guardians – in charge of preserving the sanctity of morality.

In Pierre Bourdieu’s fascinating The Outline of Theory of Practice, he represents practice theory in a cycle of social reproduction. The structure (the world as it is) fosters habitus (durable dispositions, our unconscious embodied habits). Habitus determines practice (how we reproduce the structure). The practice recreates the existing structure we live in, the world as we know it. And the cycle continues.
By this logic, traditional social arrangements would exist in perpetuity. But external elements which intervene (in this case modernisation) restructure the structure.

Traditional Malay Muslims desire the ideal Malay Muslim society, a homogenous blob where everyone acts similarly. They dream of a Malaysia where every Malay Muslim conforms to the orthodoxy – denying the heterogeneity of individuals. Those who deviate from the right path are brandished “sesat”, “murtad”, “hina Islam”, “liberal tegar” and severely punished for their moral infractions.

Punishments are used to ensure Malay Muslims toe the line. The punishment acts as a mechanism to reproduce the structure – the world that these moralisers believe that we all should live in.
The sanction of the law conferred to the moralisers act as a conduit not only in trying to reproduce the structure. It is also a seal of moral superiority – it is no secret that religious officers pour scorn and ridicule to moral offenders.

Oscillating and vacillating

The political class, be it the opposition or the government appears to be facing a moral dilemma. On one hand, they need to pander to the rural, more conservative segment of Islam. On the other hand they need to appear progressive and not too medieval in their thinking to urban Malay Muslims. A lot of vacillating is done but it’s not so much walking a tightrope as it seems.

The favourite ploy of the political elite is to brandish themselves as moderates. In the international community, Malaysia is self-portrayed as a moderate Muslim country. But nothing could be further from the truth.

An interesting event that I would like to highlight is the Kartika Dewi Shukarno saga, where a Muslim woman was caught in flagrante delicto consuming alcohol. She was sentenced to whipping, though some claimed that Sharia whipping is less harsh than conventional whipping. This was accepted with enthusiastic support from conservative Malay Muslims. However, conscientious members of society voiced their staunch opposition to this. Two forms of discourse clashed. The international community paid attention.

Reputation is everything in communal Malaysia. The muka (face) is of utmost importance. Kartika’s sentence was commuted to community service. Malaysia’s moderate reputation was saved. This case serves to show the strains between the two main discourses in Malaysia. But what if another fiasco erupts again?  A precedent is already set when Kartika’s sentence was pardoned. Would it be a policy of consistent pardons?

The political elite tend to favour the conservative segments of Malaysia. They are after all the majority. The international community would never be there to condemn Malaysia’s harsh treatment of moral offenders. They were never there during the numerous Ops Valentine and khalwat raids which destroyed the lives of many a “moral offender”.

No politician is willing to voice out their concerns against moral policing. The feeble attempts materialises in requesting for “proper procedures” and to treat offenders better. For reptilian politicians, what is popular is more important than doing what is right.

Quo vadis, Negaraku?

Resistance to modernisation is inherent in any society. Ask any Samurai (if any still exists). The Tokugawa Shogunate imposed the sakoku – a policy of isolating Japan from the rest of the world to resist modernisation. Public morality laws existed in the Western world, once upon a time. In fact, alternative sexual groups are still being stigmatised in certain parts of the West.

Uncertainty is the root of fear. It is easier to feel secure with the social arrangements that we know of. But resistance of the inevitable is futile. People will change, unless we revert to atavism (like Pol Pot’s Cambodia or North Korea). Modernisation will continue, untrammelled.

Have we considered the costs of persecuting moral offenders?

The costs are insurmountable. How many lives are shattered because of jail sentences due to khalwat convictions? How many will continue to live in fear when committing acts which are laughed off in any liberal democracy but given the severest of punishment in Malaysia?

It’s high time we resolve these internal contradictions to pave a way for a compassionate, tolerant and progressive society. – July 30, 2013.



Some well argued selected comments on this post,with different views.


Interesting thoughts. But I can’t agree with all the points stated though.
For an instance, the author assumed that hardly anyone is affected by the action of a Muslim committing a sinful ‘Islamic’ offense, let’s say, drinking alcohol, for example. Try telling that alcohol is not harmful to the morgue workers who had to ferry in countless mangled bodies of beer-smelling youths who died in late-night accidents every weekend and pick up the phone to contact the deceased’s next-of-kin. Let’s try another example, this time gambling. Would anyone care to tell a housewife bearing the ever-increasing debts of a gambling addict husband that gambling is a fun wholesome entertainment for the family?
Islamic Law is just like any other Law in the world, including even the Common Law, in that it wants to uphold justice and preserve order in the society, according to what its Constitution (Quran) has entailed. It can sound scary, especially to those whose culture revolve around the offenses in the Law, or those exposed to the graphic images of the Taliban rule, but in reality it is just a set of law that can still be debated, discussed and improved. It is not set in stone, but the situation in Malaysia has made it so, unfortunately. The current way it was done in Malaysia is still too authoritarian and too confusing for the multicultural society of the country, since the Islamic Law in Malaysia is largely the untouchable domain of the ulama largesse, which has caused it to become too bloated by esoteric dogma and impracticality.
However, saying that the offenses detailed in Islamic Law as a ‘laughable’ act from a liberal point of view is just plain rude. Someone else bedding your husband/wife is definitely not a laughable joke, in both Common Law and in Islamic Law. If a certain act is not covered in some of the Law, it is just because the act is still not deemed a harm in that Law; for instance, alcohol imbibing was mentioned only fleetingly in the Common Law because alcohol drinking is by far and wide a normal innocent act in English culture, while on the other hand, it is considered an offense in Islamic Law because it has been stated so in the Quran and the damage to society was proven in both Traditions and legal accounts.
In short, it is a very thin line between liberty and anarchy. Any Laws prescribed in the country are there to tiptoe on that line. It might be suffocating to some, but it is impossible to please everyone anyway.
I suppose you agree with the Taliban!
Oh please. Taliban is extreme, and its law are a potluck of Pashtun tribal customs sprinkled with insignificant amount of Islamic reference to give it religious credibility. Unfortunately, Taliban is a poster child of Islamic Law today, no thanks to the media. But the real Islamic Law as encoded in the Islamic statutes is not at all like what the Taliban, the Abu Sayyaf or whatever militant groups out there espoused. It smells just like a normal legal code familiar to all students of law.
you didn’t make a strong enough argument for your case that there is a “thin line between liberty and anarchy”. but the examples you presented certainly show there is only a very flimsy line between religious-based moral policing and authoritarianism.


“there is only a very flimsy line between religious-based moral policing and authoritarianism. “Yes ? , and neither has a place in society; not even in an Islamic society. Moral policing as imposed by Islam is a figment of a time after the Prophet.

Yes, there is also a thin line between moral policing and authoritarianism. Preventing crime from happening when all possible trigger factors are available (say, a couple in conspicuous situation inside a dark hotel room) is policing, but preventing crime when only one factor is available (say, a couple holding hand in public) is ridiculous authoritarianism.
But the Common Law also does moral policing, in a sense, so that does not make religious law, (in this case Islamic Law) exclusive examples. The Common Law does say that, for example, stealing is an offense because it is an expropriation of private property belonging to someone else, and prescribe appropriate punishment for it. Not too different in Islamic Law then.
The only difference in treatment that the Islamic Law gets is that its enforcers are deemed overly zealous in catching khalwat, gamblers et cetera and as such are deemed encroaching into people’s liberty. Maybe it’s a legit concern, but try to imagine the reverse situation. Now consider the fact that our own police force are very lax in enforcing the Common Law, therefore giving so much liberty to all those drug dealers, pimps and charlatans to peddle their poison and damage the society. That is probably the kind of liberty the liberals want, isn’t it? Do you like the liberty given so far, based on recent news?
Too much of a good thing can be bad, in short. Enforcement can be annoying and suffocating to some, but it is a needful thing in the long run.
overcoming the problem of police force in enforcing law by replacing them with a totally different legal system ? shouldn;t the focus be in finding out the flaws and the cause for the lax in enforcement ? if they are lax in enforcing a set of laws, they will lax in enforcing other set of laws and your proposed response is totally ridiculous. there is absolutely nothing wrong with the current improved liberty and it is current standard in line with current respect to human rights and individualism. there is however big problem in the incompetence of our police force in solving crimes and overcoming criminal elements without preventive laws because they have been relying on them for ages. if police force in other countries with more liberal laws are able to control crime and enforce law, but Malaysian police force are incapable of doing so, the fault lies entirely with the incompetence of the police force. enforcement is not annoying, it is their inability to police and enforce without pre-emption that is the problem.

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