As Islamic hardliners grow more influential, political parties hesitate to offend the voting bloc of religious Malays, and the cancelled Oktoberfest-inspired event is likely a sign of things to come
Compared to the millions-strong boozy crowd of Munich’s fabled, month-long Oktoberfest, the now-cancelled Better Beer Festival in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur would have been a decidedly flat affair.
Planned for this weekend in a shopping centre and with just around 6,000 people expected to attend, the latest installation of the country’s biggest annual craft beer event would have posed little threat to public order, and was likely to have gone unnoticed in the international media.
But now its abrupt cancellation – compelled by Islamic hardliners seeking blanket alcohol prohibition – has sparked a fresh political maelstrom for both Prime Minister Najib Razak and his chief opponent, the 92-year-old ex strongman Mahathir Mohamad.
Two other Oktoberfest-related, beer-themed events in shopping malls are also likely to be banned in areas the opposition controls.
While Najib for years has been under fire for his purported appeasement of Islamic fundamentalists, these bans are raising questions on whether the Mahathir-helmed opposition is in the pocket of religious conservatives as well, despite its public brand as a champion of secularism.
The beer festival bans are tricky for both leaders as, with a general election looming, they are each battling for the support of the country’s largest vote bank: rural Malay Muslims for whom religious conservatism is a way of life. The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is popular among these voters.
At the same time, Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition and Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan need to assure secularist urbanites across the racial divide that Islamic mores like alcohol prohibition will not be imposed on everyone.
Most Malaysian Muslims practise a moderate form of Islam, and do not impose their faith on others.
About 40 per cent of Malaysia’s 32 million people are non-Muslims, most of them Chinese or Indian.
Police have insisted the decision to disallow the Better Beer Festival was due to threats of a terror attack, rather than pressure from PAS.
A leader from the hardline political party had earlier demanded that authorities ban the event, or risk the national capital turning into “the largest vice centre in Asia”, with rampant rape and criminal activity.
With few details released about the planned terror attack, some observers say the police explanation might have just been an excuse for the real reason behind the ban: mollifying increasingly influential PAS leaders.
Najib is seen as intensifying the use of Islam as a wedge issue to shore up floundering Malay support, a tactic first masterminded by Mahathir when he was in power from 1981 to 2003.
“The Najib administration has repeatedly used religion to galvanise Malays, positioning themselves as the defenders of Islam in Malaysia and reinforcing a siege mentality,” said Malaysian politics researcher Rashaad Ali.
Najib, facing pressure because of the graft scandal at the state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) – in which he denies any culpability – has gone as far as to suggest a loose partnership with PAS in the coming polls.
Mahathir and his successor Abdullah Badawi both actively galvanised Malay support using Islam, but never entered into an actual alliance with PAS during their terms in office.
The hardline political party controls the rural Kelantan state and has 14 MPs in the 222-seat national legislature.
Last year, it was ejected from the opposition coalition because of its push to strengthen sharia courts in the country. Its dalliance with Najib has coincided with an increase in episodes of intolerance.
In a high-profile instance last month, a Malay laundromat owner in the southern state of Johor briefly barred non-Muslim users. He was ticked off by the province’s monarch Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, a staunch supporter of multiracialism.
And in August, the government banned a book on moderate Islam, claiming it was “likely to alarm public opinion”.
“We’ve ... seen a marked increase in incidents of some kind of religious conflict or discord,” said Rashaad of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
He added: “These incidents are also happening ‘organically’ at a grassroots level without further prodding from [the ruling party], which indicates a people that are increasingly divided along religious and racial lines, alienated from one another.”
Boo Soo-Lyn, co-founder of the Malaysian secular rights group Bebas, said both sides of the political divide were “sacrificing our personal freedoms just to appease the minority of religious fundamentalists because they think this will gain them political points with the Malay Muslim base”.
But most Malays likely “don’t really care about beer festivals in the first place”, she said.
Boo took particular aim at Pakatan Harapan, which has promised to expand civil liberties if it comes to power.
Two Oktoberfest-themed beer events in the Selangor state it controls are unlikely to take place, amid a lack of support from local municipal councils and the coalition’s top leadership, including Mahathir. Police meanwhile have suggested these events too could be targeted by militants.
“[Pakatan Harapan] are using the same bigoted tactics as their rival to get the Malay vote,” Boo said.
In comments to This Week in Asia, a Malaysian government spokesman sought to dispel the idea that Najib was appeasing hardliners.
He said the premier’s stance as a champion of religious moderation was “a matter of public record”. Praise for the Malaysian leader from his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in April for countering terrorism showcased Najib’s global reputation in this regard, the spokesman said.
“The prime minister regards protecting Malaysia’s harmony, peace and security as vital, as he has said many times over many years,” he added.
Charles Santiago, an MP with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a constituent of the opposition bloc, said the Johor monarch’s intervention in the case of the Muslim-only laundromat was “a tight slap in the face of Najib”.
“It shows a clear lack of leadership that a sitting Sultan had to intervene before Najib as prime minister spoke about the issue,” said Santiago.
Sultan Ibrahim had publicly admonished the laundromat owner’s “extremism”, adding that “Islam teaches the faithful to be tolerant and respect other people and faiths.” Najib, in comments released hours after the Sultan’s views were published in a local newspaper, said the government supported the constitutional monarch’s views and embraced wasatiyyah – moderate Islam.
He had stayed silent for days as images of the Muslim-only laundromat circulated online.
Zaid Ibrahim, a former law minister who has joined the DAP, said “sustained recruitment [of] Saudi-trained Islamic scholars into the civil service and religious establishment” had made religious moderation untenable in the current administration.
The Singapore-based researcher Rashaad said Mahathir, who claims he crossed aisles to end Najib’s “kleptocratic” rule, has to shoulder some blame for the current climate of intolerance.
“Considering the climate that has been fostered over the last 20 to 30 years, and accelerated in the last 10 years, it would be political suicide for [Najib] to take a middle path and speak out against hardline groups, let alone curb the powers of the religious bureaucracy,” Rashaad said.
He added: “Path dependency dictates that this strategy is unlikely to change any time soon, making a strong case for Najib taking ‘Islamisation’ much further than his predecessors.”
Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, a Malaysia analyst with the BowerGroupAsia political risk consultancy, said the wishes of middle ground, urban voters like Boo are likely to be overlooked by both political coalitions as they fight for the hearts and minds of rural Malays.
“The rural Malay constituencies are the key battlegrounds... disgruntled urban voters are a minor headache that both [sides] are willing to take,” Asrul Hadi said. The government spokesman meanwhile signalled Najib was bullish about his chances at the ballot box.