It started off as a relatively straightforward debate in the Malaysian Parliament at the end of last month, but little did anyone know that it would erupt into a full-blown religious row, with one community leader after another steadily caught up in a typhoon of recrimination.
Alcohol consumption and its effect on society is a hot topic in this country at the moment. It goes without saying that it is forbidden for Muslims to buy or consume alcohol, but in multicultural Malaysia it is tolerated among non-Muslims to do so, albeit subject to astronomical tax levies which make it more expensive to drink in trendy Malaysian bars than it would in cities in many developed nations.
Meanwhile, as part of the nationwide lockdown first imposed on March 18 to combat COVID-19, pubs and clubs have been forced to close, along with almost every other venue where people had the potential to congregate in numbers.
There was little argument from the people, as the overwhelming sentiment was defeat the virus first, then kickstart the economy later when the health service could keep a handle on cases.
As promised, bit by bit over the following months, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin authorised one industry after another to start trading and contribute to economic recovery.
The food and beverage industry was one of the first to reopen its doors, despite potentially crippling social distancing and hygiene restrictions. Malaysians are social animals and eating out is a daily habit.
However, while eateries have now been open for the better part of three months, establishments that rely on alcohol for revenue remain firmly closed.
In parallel, after a spate of alcohol-related fatal road accidents, lawmakers have been debating tightening up laws to deter drink-driving.
In situations like this, it is normal for ultra-conservative Islamist party PAS — which is intent on imposing strict sharia law — to attempt to turn the religious screw and further put the squeeze on non-Muslims.
So, in a parliamentary debate about alcohol, it was expected that a PAS lawmaker may say something that would make non-Muslims bridle.
Yet nothing prepared the house for Nik Muhammad Zawawi Salleh, the MP for Pasir Puteh, who stood up and calmly stated his opinion that Christians had “distorted or changed” the Bible in reference to alcohol consumption.
His comments angered Christian MPs, who immediately demanded he retract his statement.
Later, church groups joined in the condemnation but had to choose their words very carefully, so as not to be seen to be attacking Islam as a religion.
It should be noted at this point that in hypersensitive Malaysia, any dispute between a non-Muslim and a Muslim is routinely escalated to a systematic attack on Islam, thus prompting Muslims to exact retribution.
Meanwhile, opposition leaders were quick to follow the Christian community, notably Anwar Ibrahim, who pointed out that Nik Zawawi’s comments were not in the spirit of Islam and contrary to Quranic teachings.
Nik Zawawi stuck to his guns and even poured fuel on the flames by adding that no major religion permitted alcohol consumption.
While at first, criticism was directed at the MP, the battleground widened when the government — PAS in particular — refused to bring Nik Zawawi to heel for his comments.
Various sections of society have since called for the rogue MP to be charged with sedition and the police have fielded a number of complaints to that end.
Yet, still we wait and, as time goes on, Nik Zawawi remains stubbornly unrepentant for his words.
If we put the shoe on the other foot, had a Christian MP behaved in the same way, then the police would have been waiting outside the debating chamber to take the offending politician into custody and sedition charges would have swiftly followed.
On paper, no religious dissent is tolerated in Malaysia at all, not even under the protection of parliamentary privilege. There are clear provisions for this in the constitution and a variety of laws passed over the 60 or so years of Malaysia’s short history.
So, until the end of last week, the focus was purely on Zawawi. Then the prime minister threw the cat among the pigeons when speaking at an event in which he quipped that he hoped pubs and clubs would remain closed after movement restrictions were lifted completely.
PAS MPs pounced on this as public backing of their colleague’s position, but it has left large sections of Malaysian society in a state of bewildered alarm.
Now, Muhyiddin has achieved notoriety over the years for his almost deadpan humour and regularly injects a one-liner into speeches to break up what he knows can be monotone subject matter.
Famously in 2015 — while deputy to then-prime minister Najib Razak, who was under the microscope for his part in looting the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund — Muhyiddin joked at a party event that the only accurate information he received on 1MDB was from The Edge newspaper breaking the story.
Najib fired Muhyiddin shortly thereafter.
However, Najib is not the only Malaysian to react negatively to Muhyiddin’s brand of subtle tongue-in-cheek comedy.
It is wasted on most people here, who are very much more literal in interpretation. Deadpan, subtlety, sarcasm or irony make little or no impact.
Muhyiddin has yet to clarify whether he was joking and until he does Muslim conservatives are making hay while the sun shines.
It would also be prudent to note that, while the prime minister hones his stand-up routine, he is more famous for saying he is Malay first, Malaysian second.
This position is matched by his historic staunch backing of pro-Malay policies, including teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia instead of English while he was minister for education.
Given this crystal-clear statement of position, on which no Malaysian is in any doubt whatsoever, non-Muslims are quite rightly sweating.
Muhyiddin may well have recently opened up his previously Malay-only Bersatu party to all-comers but political analysts believe this move is merely lip service to bolster his flagging credibility among the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.
Regardless of the overtures Muhyiddin is making, the message is clear: Malaysia is Malay first, everyone else a distant second.
The government has an established track record of trampling on the constitution and the legal rights of ethnic and religious minorities as and when the situation dictates, and this is no different.
The police force is reluctantly shuffling along the path to transparency and reform, but Nik Zawawi will likely be no more than interviewed, with no charges brought.
Coupled with absolute silence from parliamentary disciplinary oversight, Malaysia’s official position has become that Christians have distorted holy scripture for their own ends, thus – to conservative lawmakers at least – reinforcing the need to maintain the group’s supplicant position in society.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.