Malaysia needs more outspoken moderate voices like Johor’s Sultan
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Malaysia needs more outspoken moderate voices like Johor’s Sultan

IT hasn’t been a great month in the global headlines for the concept of moderate Malaysia.

Much like the “pretzel dog” debacle of yesteryear, we seem to be grabbing the world’s attention for reasons ranging from the loopy to the downright absurd.

Starting with Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) kicking off about a beer festival that they believed could lead to criminal acts, free sex and rape.

A leading member of the PAS central committee, Dr Riduan Mohd Nor denounced the festival, claiming it would turn Kuala Lumpur into the “largest vice centre in Asia.”

The attention that followed led Kuala Lumpur City Hall to shut down the event and, given their success in the capital, it seems PAS is now turning its sights on similar events throughout the state of Selangor.

Swift on the heels of this cancellation came another moral panic almost Orwellian in nature when the Immigration Department made a bid to stop attendees of a gay party from entering the country.

Director-general Datuk Seri Mustafar Ali said his department was working with the police and the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) to ban individuals flying in for the party, although how exactly they planned to do this, I’m not entirely sure. I guess the security scanners at KLIA can now pick up “gay.”

But after all of the furore, officials were left red-faced when organisers of the White Party Bangkok released a statement saying they had “no intention of bringing the event to Malaysia.” Feathers could begin to return to an unruffled state.

Until of course, just a few days later, details of bare knees in Kelantan emerged where religious authorities ordered a Muslim man into counselling and imposed a fine for wearing shorts in public.

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While most of these incidents triggered an onslaught of social media comments, ranging from ridicule to praise, there appeared to be little vocal pushback from people in power.

But for one man, it was news of a Muslim-only launderette opening in his state that broke the camel’s back.

Hats off to His Majesty Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar who on Wednesday spoke out forcefully against such “extremist” measures in his state and ordered the owner of the launderette to apologise or leave Johor.

“I want to put a stop to such extremism. Extremism has no place in my state,” he said, stating that true Islam “teaches the faithful to be tolerant and respect other people and faiths.”

The Sultan didn’t mince his words, saying the people of Johor were “angry and embarrassed” by such behaviour as it “went against the vision of a united, harmonious, moderate, tolerant Johor.”

Throwing his parting verbal jab, the Sultan said the man needed his “brains cleaned up.”

It was refreshing to hear someone of such consequence state show such unequivocal disdain for extremist and divisive practices when all too often they are met – at best – with a gentle murmur of disapproval, but more often than not, complete silence.

To hear a firm and convincing argument for moderate Islam so unapologetically voiced was greeted with joy by much of Malaysia who are beginning to feel the slow creep of Islamisation in their daily lives.

Last week, UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights in Malaysia Karima Bennoune expressed concern over an “increasingly rigid and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam” that was spreading into Malaysian society and polity. She warned that the spread of religious fundamentalism has dire consequences, not just for minorities, but for the Muslim community themselves. As Bennoune put it, “the freedom of religion or belief of Muslims themselves is now at stake in the struggle against fundamentalism in Malaysia.”

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While the government may tout the moderate message on the international stage, it seems the reality for many back home is troublingly different.

Malaysia has always been a thriving multiracial, multi-religious (just to use a tired old cliché) melting pot. By chipping away at this tolerance and diversity, we threaten to destroy the very multi-ethnic fabric that holds this country together.

If the government wants to wave the moderate flag to the rest of the world, then they need to raise their voice to condemn religious intolerance and extremist behaviour at home. Malaysia needs more outspoken voices like that of the Sultan who, when he sees the creep of fundamentalism in his state, he does something about it.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent