Racism and religious intolerance have been fed into the blood stream of Malaysians for so long that all of us are so poisoned in our thinking that even those acting with the best of intentions find it difficult to see the woods from the trees; between law enforcement and law making, between legislative policies and social or religious concerns.
The recent comments by the Selangor State Executive Council member Hassan Ali of his fellow Pakatan Rakyat Executive Council member, Ronnie Liu on Shah Alam Municipal Council enforcement personnel seizing and confiscating beer sold by a convenience store is a case in point. Hassan Ali said that PAS Selangor supported banning the sale of alcoholic drinks in convenience stores in Muslim areas especially Shah Alam. He also said PAS would come out with its draft by-laws governing alcohol sales in the State.
The statements show the urgent need for us Malaysians to be aware of this sub-conscious racial discrimination and religious intolerance poison in Malaysians and the dire need for Malaysians to cleanse and detoxify ourselves so as to stop looking at every issue from the perspective of race and religion, imagined or otherwise. There is a need for a Malaysian renaissance of our views, our values and our mindset.
Law Making and Law Enforcement
There are clear laws relating to the manufacture, distribution and selling of beer and liquor. There are also like smoking cigarettes valid social concerns. There are no doubt also religious concerns because all religions teach us to respect our own bodies and take care of our health. However, not all laws and not all concerns are due to race or religion.
The laws governing the powers of the Local Government Agencies are clear. There is no law prohibiting the sale of beer by convenience stores. There are laws governing the sale of alcohol and liquor but the sale of beer is not included as the alcoholic content of beer is lower than the prescribed limit of alcohol.
The enforcement unit of the Shah Alam Municipal Council is not empowered to make laws and regulations. They only have the power to enforce the existing laws and regulations. There is no law prohibiting the convenience stores from selling beer. There are however, Syariah law governing Muslims from consuming alcohol. However, the enforcement officers of Local Councils do not have jurisdiction to enforce Syariah law and certainly not against non-Muslims. Therefore, the Shah Alam Municipal Council was wrong to confiscate the beer from the convenience stores.
Legislative Policies and Social Religious Concerns
Hassan Ali in saying that PAS supported the banning of alcoholic drinks in convenience stores in Muslim majority areas ought to have also mentioned that he has been elected not only to represent Muslims but also all Malaysians irrespective of race and religions. There are many other quarters, Christians, Buddhist, Hindus and social organizations that are concern about the ill effects of beer drinking and he should have sought their views and give voice to their concerns. It would be surprising if they are not concerned about alcohol abuse. Hassan Ali ought to have articulated their concerns also.
However, there is a difference between concerns and laws. For concerns to be turned into law, the laws should be amended before enforcement agencies act to prohibit convenience stores from selling beer. Whether alcohol should be banned should be debated by all Malaysians, by those who drink and those who do not and those who do not drink but will defend the right of those who wish to drink. In doing so, we should not reinvent the wheel because Selangor is not the first and certainly not going to be the last society in having to deal with alcohol. We can look and learn from history of other societies and countries.
The first half of the 20th century saw periods of prohibition of alcoholic beverages in several countries:
* 1900 to 1948 in Prince Edward Island and for shorter periods in Canada
* 1914 to 1925 in Russia and Soviet Union
* 1915 to 1922 in Iceland (though beer was still prohibited until 1989)
* 1916 to 1927 in Norway (fortified wine and beer also prohibited from 1917 to 1923)
* 1919 in Hungary
* 1919 to 1932 in Finland
* 1920 to 1933 in United States of America
In the United States the manufacture, sale and transportation of liquor was made illegal on 16 January 1920 pursuant to the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution and clarified by the Volstead Act that stated beer, wine or other intoxicating malt or vinous liquor meant any beverage that was more than 0.5% alcohol. The Act stated that owning any item designed to manufacture alcohol was illegal and it set specific fines and jail sentences for violating Prohibition. Prohibition was meant to reduce the consumption of alcohol to curb crime and corruption, solve social problems, poverty and improve the economy.
The Prohibition was ineffective. It caused an explosive growth in crime and increased the amount of alcohol consumption. Drinking went underground and illegal “speak-easies” mushroomed all over the country. Bootleggers smuggled liquor from overseas, stole it from government warehouses and produced their own. The illegal liquor business fell into the control of organized crime. Al Capone is perhaps the most infamous Bootlegger during the period known as the Roaring 1920s.
Instead of reducing crime, Prohibition saw the crime rate skyrocketing with a nearly 78% increase. It saw serious crimes such as homicides, assault and battery increased by 13 %. There were gruesome shoot-outs as gangs fought for control over the profitable illegal business. The number of Federal convicts increased 561%. Consumption of liquor instead of reducing increased. Seldom had a law been more flagrantly violated. Not only did Americans continue to manufacture, barter and possess alcohol, they drank more of it.
Prohibition was a dismal failure and it was repealed on 5 December 1933 by the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution repealing the 18th Amendment. It was the first and only time in US history that an Amendment has been repealed.
These countries that have experimented with Prohibition have now come to realize that not all social concerns and society’s ills can be solved by making them illegal. With alcohol abuse, it is through education and voluntary temperance that these societies learnt to be more effective measures to counter alcohol abuse than by making the consumption of alcohol illegal.
The Religious Looking Glasses
It is unfortunate that Hassan Ali looked at the problem solely through a pair of Muslim’s spectacles. The problem is wider than that and the evils of alcohol abuse affect all races, followers of all the various faiths, and even the atheists and agnostics. His statement has caused a perception that has turned the problem from a social concern to a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims. It has raised the mistaken belief by non-Muslims that Islam does not tolerate the existence of other religions. Based on what I know of Islam, this is not true. Allah decreed in the Quran, Surah 2 verse 256:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion;
Truth stands out clear from Error;
Whoever rejects Evil and believes in Allah;
Hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks.
And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.”
According to the notes to this verse, compulsion is incompatible with religion because (1) religion depends upon faith and will, and this would be meaningless if induced by force, (2) Truth and Error have been so clearly shown by the mercy of Allah that there should be no doubts in the minds of any person of goodwill as to the fundamentals of faith, (3) Allah’s protection is continuous and His Plan is always to lead us from the depths of darkness into the clearest light.
There are many examples during the lifetime of the Prophet that shows the tolerance of Islam for other religions. Islam recognizes that there is a plurality of religions on this earth and give the right to individuals to choose the path which they believe to be true. Religion is not to be and was never forced upon any individual against his own will and there are many examples of this in the life of the Prophet and in the verses of the Quran.
Under the present oppressive and repressive rule of UMNO, it is important to understand that Malaysians have to resist oppression and repression. It has always been the central approach of Islam to resist all forms of oppression. It is this approach that is the foundation of Islamic religious tolerance. To succeed in this struggle against oppression, mere tolerance by Muslims of other religions is not enough; Muslims must unite with people of all religions and work towards the common goal of justice, mutual respect, equal treatment and robust pluralism.
After 52 years of the myth of racial inferiority of the Malays as leverage for special privileges which in actual fact are enjoyed by a selected few, the Malays, instead of enjoying God’s gift of a life to be lived with dignity, are trapped in the bondage of a dependency on UMNO chained by subsidies, loans, scholarships and handouts. Those brave enough to dissent and dare to be independent of UMNO are punished by having these forcibly taken away. We, Malaysians of all races must standup to liberate our fellow brothers from this bondage. To do so we need to maximize the common features of our different racial descent and to use the strengths of our diversity to forge a stronger bond.
In doing so, it is imperative that we Malaysians accept that the Islamic concept of Man and the concept of Man founded on the religions and traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and the major religions practiced in this country share the basic fundamental ideas of the virtues and morality of mankind. It is time to have a Malaysian renaissance where the growth, development and flowering of our Malaysian society is to be based on the common vision of the perfection for Mankind, imbued with truth and the love of learning, justice and compensation, mutual respect and forbearance and freedom with responsibility. There is a need for the renewal of our faith and the assertion of our multiculturality as a Malaysian phenomenon not to be hidden away in shame but to be shown off to the rest of the world in pride.
It is prayed that all Malaysians and in particular our Pakatan Rakyat state executive members will heed the call for a renewal of our values and to steel ourselves with the conviction that only a Malaysian renaissance will set us free.
6 August 2009
William Leong Jee Keen
Ahli Parlimen Selayang