Dennis Ignatius: No cheers for Timah whiskey

- Advertisement - [resads_adspot id="2"]

The really sad part to all this is the silence emanating from the Prime Minister himself.

News that a locally-brewed whiskey, Timah (or tin in Malay), had gained international recognition has sparked yet another needless controversy in Malaysia. The religious establishment, always on the alert for imaginary slights, sprang into action.

Idris Ahmad, the minister of Islamic affairs called it a provocation and suggested that it was aimed at normalising the consumption of alcohol among Muslims. PAS president Hadi Awang opined that the name was intended to cause confusion among Muslims as it was too close to the name “Fatimah” (daughter of the Prophet). And this despite his deputy, Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, pointedly remarking that “Timah means tin and is not a Muslim name or even a person’s name”. Another PAS leader went so far as to demand the government close down the distillery, calling it “a catastrophe and an insult to Malaysia.”

As usual, the standard mantra that the sensitivities of Muslims must be heeded to avoid racial tensions in Malaysia was repeated ad nauseum. Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor, the Penang mufti, for instance, called on the government to instruct the whiskey company to change its branding so as “to maintain racial harmony in Malaysia”.

Even the once moderate leaders of Parti Amanah Negara couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon. Mujahid Yusof Rawa opined that “the promotion of Timah as a Malaysian product was bad for the image of Malaysia with Islam being the official religion of the country”. And for good measure, he added that “the sensitivities of Muslims needed to be considered in all alcohol-related matters”. His party colleague, Mahfuz Omar, said that branding an alcoholic beverage Timah was “insensitive to Muslims” and that in any case having an award-winning whiskey was not something the country should be proud of.

I wonder if they ever take time to listen to themselves and all the absurd and puerile arguments they make to justify their ridiculous assertions. How does a word which simply means tin confuse Muslims or encourage them to drink alcohol? How do they make the leap from an innocent and common enough word to some sinister plot to undermine their religion? Are they so insecure, so afraid of their own shadow that they would turn something so inconsequential into a major issue?

But then, they have gotten away with it so many times before that such lunacy has become normalized. Remember how they insisted that hot dogs might confuse Muslims or root beer would encourage Muslims to drink alcohol or Christmas trees might subtly influence Muslims?

Clearly, the contempt these religious leaders have for their own followers is simply staggering. They think their co-religionists are so shallow in their faith that they are easily confused or led astray. It is nonsense, of course. Issues like these are not about defending the faith; it’s about controlling the faithful.

And what does it say about the priorities of the religious establishment that they are focused on such petty things while the nation is sinking deeper and deeper into corruption and the moral degeneracy that comes with it? If only they would spend as much time campaigning against the real threats to the nation instead of picking on petty things, perhaps Malaysia’s future wouldn’t look so gloomy.

The whole Timah whiskey brouhaha is also a reflection of a mindset that erroneously sees Malaysia as an exclusively Islamic nation. Anything that detracts from that image is immediately denounced and made out to be something detrimental to the national identity.

It is a view that must not go unchallenged for the simple reason that constitutionally, Malaysia remains a secular, multicultural democracy – a land of many ethnicities, religions and cultures. Although the Constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation” – Article 3(1) – it also emphasises the rights of all others. Why shouldn’t the nation then take some satisfaction that a Malaysian whiskey producer has won a measure of international recognition? And why should such an achievement be viewed as detrimental to our national image? Indeed, it is a tribute to our multicultural identity.

The Constitution also embodies the spirit of accommodation, compromise and tolerance. Over the years, however, tolerance has become a one-way street: non-Muslims are expected to be extremely alert to Muslim sensitivities while Muslim leaders are free to insult and demean other faiths at will. PAS leaders, for example, have made all sorts of hateful and disparaging remarks about Christianity without ever being sanctioned by the authorities.

Surely, that cannot be right. Non-Muslims are neither ‘dhimmi’ (subjected people) nor ‘pendatang’ (immigrants) but full citizens with rights and freedoms protected by the Constitution. Their sensitivities matter just as much as Muslim sensitives. Perhaps if men like Hadi, Idris, Mujahid, Mahfuz and Wan Salim are just as sensitive to the many hurts and grievances of non-Muslims, they might be better able to safeguard the racial harmony that they talk about.

The really sad part to all this is the silence emanating from the Prime Minister himself. He travels all over the country promoting his ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ (Malaysian family) concept, talking about national unity, respect for diversity and tolerance, but he cannot seem to find the courage to speak out against the bigotry that is constantly surfacing within his own ranks. He should have immediately sanctioned his religious affairs minister, but he opted, as they all invariably do, to play it safe. Absent the honesty, integrity and political courage to say enough is enough, Malaysia is doomed to careen from one needless and divisive controversy to another. –