Thursday, August 30, 2007

Malaysia, 50, turns back morals clock

From The Australian, by Nick Meo, Khota Bharu, Malaysia August 30, 2007:

...celebrations are starting for Malaysia's 50th year as an independent state. Its proud achievements are modern universities, a buoyant economy, and a respected place in the world as a moderate Islamic nation.

Mr Hassan's [Islamist ] party boasts a different set of achievements; banning miniskirts, chastising unmarried couples .....It also closed down nightclubs, banned nearly all bars except a few Chinese restaurants where no Muslims are allowed, and refused to let a proposed cinema open unless there were separate sections for men and women and the lights remained on to prevent immorality.

The Chief Minister is said to have mellowed since then and this year looked favourably on a proposal to open an alcohol-free disco for tourists. The idea never got off the ground after he insisted it be single-sex.

Mr Hassan, a moderate who was once a lawyer, is proud of his party's achievements in Kota Bharu. He says it has kept the rustic capital of Kelantan state upright and clean-living. The biggest building in the city houses the moral enforcement department whose officials spend their time prowling Kota Bharu's parks in search of amorous young sinners.

Mr Hassan is sensitive about the nickname "Taliban lite" often levelled at his party in Kuala Lumpur, where bars do a roaring trade and cinemas are full of dating couples.

"We are not the Taliban, we are in favour of women's education and against violence and corruption," he grumbles. "Malaysia is a Muslim state. We hope we can change people's mindset in Kuala Lumpur so they can live according to Islamic principles."

As it celebrates 50 years of independence from Britain this week, Malaysia has stepped up its long-running and angst-ridden debate about just how Islamic it should be.

Older Malays bemoan a younger generation that has become puritanical, self-righteously declining to attend social functions where alcohol is served. Headscarves, rare 20 years ago, are worn by almost all Malay women now, although often in combination with tight jeans.

Some non-Muslim Chinese and Indians feel increasingly treated like second-class citizens. They complain, usually privately, that Islamic religious schools are much better funded than theirs and that a system of affirmative action favours Malays when it comes to university places.
Some fear assertive Islam threatens to upset the delicate balance between the 60 per cent Malay-Muslim majority and the non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, which have managed to co-exist, sometimes uneasily, since Malaysia's troubled birth in 1957 at a time of civil war and ethnic tension.

Islam is Malaysia's official religion and the constitution says anyone born Malay is Muslim.
Every state has a religious department with Saudi-style moral enforcers. Nowhere are they more active than Kota Bharu. Unmarried couples sharing hotel rooms are hunted down by enforcers. Couples caught sitting too close together on park benches are fined 2000 ringgit ($706) in the city's shariah court.

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