Dennis Ignatius: Coronavirus, Breweries and Wannabe Mullahs

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As usual, we keep getting fixated on the wrong things at the wrong time.

In the middle of a deadly pandemic, some of our politicians are engaged in yet another futile religious debate about alcohol. This latest episode in Malaysia’s long-running beer wars comes on the heels of revelations that the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs had given approval to Heineken and Carlsberg Breweries to operate during the Movement Control Order (MCO).

PAS, which fancies itself the custodian of the nation’s morality, was as usual, quick to work itself into a frenzy over the issue with multiple PAS leaders expressing their indignation.

Central committee member Nasrudin Hassan said that “the Muslim community, in particular, will be offended” by the decision to allow the breweries to operate. His colleague Ahmad Fadhli Shaari chimed in that it was “mandatory for a Muslim like myself and the Muslim community to stand up and voice our protest against this leniency and privilege given to the alcohol industry, let alone during the Covid-19 outbreak.” Continuing, he said, “what value is left for a Muslim who prays to God while they allow alcohol to flow freely when they could stop it.”

PAS Youth quickly followed up with a statement of its own saying that the “government should be educating the rakyat to avoid the drinking culture as it has been proven to bring more damage than benefit.”

Now, I really couldn’t care less whether breweries operate or not during the MCO though I must confess that I myself stocked up on my favourite beer to wait out the crisis. What irks me, however, is that some of these wannabe mullahs seem to think that they have a right to impose their values on the rest of us. While I understand that alcohol is haram to some, PPBM, UMNO and PAS should also understand that Malaysia has a sizeable non-Muslim population which has the right to make its own decisions on these matters.

When we start imposing the religious values of one group upon the rest of society, we start down a slippery road that can only end in a kind of hellish religious authoritarian orthodoxy. It is not as far-fetched as it might seem given that PAS has tried to impose its own ideas about dress codes and other such things on the rest of us.

Besides, it is just too much to hear some of these politicians go on and on about the dangers of the “drinking culture” when they do nothing about the far more deadly culture of corruption that hangs over the country like a pall of death.

Where was their moral outrage when the whole 1MDB scandal was being played out? Where was their righteous indignation when helicopters and gun boats bought with public funds were not delivered? Why were they not moved to action when corruption was allowed to flow more freely than alcohol ever did?  Why were they silent when their own party leaders used public funds to purchase for themselves posh limousines when so many of their own people remain mired in poverty?

Isn’t it incumbent on men of faith – whatever the faith – to uncompromisingly stand against corruption instead of sanctioning it with their silence? Doesn’t religion place far greater emphasis on integrity, honesty and justice than on superficial things like what one drinks or what one wears?

Kudos, however, to the Deputy Minister of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Rosol Wahaid (who is from PAS) for standing up for his officers in the midst of the controversy. He was quoted as saying: “There are reports stating that the minister (Alexander Nanta Linggi) and I were not informed about the matter [i.e. the decision to grant the breweries permission to operate]. That is untrue. We knew about it.” It took courage and integrity to admit it and I, for one, salute him for it.

I’m not sure why the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs gave approval to Heineken to continue operating during the MCO; if it is inconsistent with the MCO, then by all means withdraw the approval but for heaven’s sake, spare us all the hypocritical paternalistic religious moralizing. Cheers!