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Is Zaid’s drinking relevant?

IT probably had to happen sooner or later. The Hulu Selangor by-election has finally descended into an orgy of attacks against Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate Datuk Zaid Ibrahim‘s personal piety and morality. First, the Umno-controlled media started highlighting Zaid’s opposition towards the Kelantan PAS government’s hudud legislation back when he was still in Umno. Then, accusations against Zaid went quickly for the moral, and more likely “Islamic”, jugular: he drinks alcohol and gambles, and therefore should be rejected by voters.


The attacks began on a blog, which superimposed a bottle of whiskey in Zaid’s hands. The Nut Graph confirms that this image is doctored, because the original is in fact a picture that we took of Zaid during our 2008 interview with him over breakfast. He was drinking coffee, not alcohol, during the interview. The point, though, appears to be moot now, because Zaid has admitted that he consumed alcohol in the past, declaring it as “old news”.


Umno leaders such as Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein have denied the party’s hand in the attacks. But this has not prevented other Umno leaders such as Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam and Seremban Umno chief Datuk Ishak Ismail from using Zaid’s alcohol consumption as campaign fodder for the Barisan Nasional.

Really, what implication does this aspect of Zaid’s private life have on his professional potential to perform as a Member of Parliament (MP), should he win the by-election?

Sinister implications

The short answer is: none. But the attacks on Zaid are actually more sinister than the average personal scandal exposé. Remember the caning sentence on beer-drinking model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno? The sentence has been commuted to community service, but from the widespread support for the initial caning by various Muslim groups — including PAS Youth — the insinuation is unmistakable. Zaid is only fit to be lashed, not to be an MP.

So, the impact of these attacks against Zaid goes beyond the by-election. It means that the private lives and personal morals of Malaysian Muslims are increasingly under attack, and that this is also acceptable not just in politics but in everyday life.  

Never mind that some very high-profile Islamic scholars have questioned, from within the Islamic framework, the need to treat personal sins as crimes against the state. Human-applied punishments for sins such as drinking alcohol are unnecessary, and this has been argued by experts, from New York-based imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to Melbourne-based Prof Abdullah Saeed and Kuala Lumpur-based Prof Mohammad Hashim Kamali.

(Pic by vierdrie /
Similarly, we should ask if there is some intellectual dishonesty in the related attacks on Zaid’s gambling. Certainly, some people do develop gambling addictions — as they do with alcohol — which could potentially harm others. But where is the proof that this has happened in Zaid’s case?

Besides, if a person’s gambling involves money from his or her own pocket only, how is it of more interest to the public than allegations of corruption, of which there are many against Umno leaders?

In short, whether or not Zaid drinks alcohol or gambles as a Muslim is something that he needs to answer to his God, and not to Umno, or voters, or any other human authority. By that logic, it is what Zaid stands for in the public interest that the public should be, well, interested in.

Tit for tat

Sadly, this is not where the discourse is going. Bloggers accept challenge to prove Zaid an alcoholic, screamed Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia‘s 19 April 2010 front-page lead. What about Zaid’s stand on issues such as a potential Freedom of Information Act, or the role of an MP, or what Hulu Selangor’s electorate really need? All unimportant, apparently, because he is a Muslim who drinks alcohol and gambles.

Khairy (File pic)
To be fair, this is not a political strategy that Umno has a monopoly on. Even PAS supporters and certain PAS leaders resort to the same knee-jerk moralising to discredit their political enemies. One PAS supporters’ blog had earlier published “damning” pictures of Umno Youth chief and Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin hanging out in a nightclub, with bottles of alcohol in front of him. Amazingly, this same blog is now defending Zaid‘s alcohol-consuming past because the PKR candidate says he has “repented”.

To Khairy’s credit, he has not taken the bait. Khairy has even gone on record to say that he disagrees with smear campaigns, including the one against Zaid. Whether anyone else in Umno will follow his cue is another matter altogether.

Notwithstanding leaders like Zaid and Khairy, the truth is that judgement of personal morals is getting more entrenched in Malaysian politics. It could be the result of protracted intra-party power struggles, as the country witnessed with MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek.

And where Malaysian Muslims are concerned, it does not just end there. In fact, with Malaysia’s catch-all syariah legislation, there is a more comprehensive array of attacks that could be made on Muslims whose personal conduct or convictions do not conform with the status quo.

After all, former PAS Youth chief Mujahid Yusuf Rawa once said, “[Muslim] citizens should hate [liberals] because they proliferate through associations that espouse the label of defending rights, especially women’s rights.” And now Umno, whether via its politicians or media, is banking on stirring up exactly this kind of public hatred towards the “liberal” Zaid.

This is what raises the stakes even higher for the Hulu Selangor by-election. The Nut Graph columnist and political analyst Wong Chin Huat has argued that this by-election could eventually determine the future of race-based politics in Malaysia. It should be added that Hulu Selangor could also indicate whether Malaysians are fed up with moral policing, or whether they endorse it.

See also:
Hulu Selangor’s significance
What will Kamalanathan do?
Hulu Selangor’s four-corner fight

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13 Responses to “Is Zaid’s drinking relevant?”

  1. siew eng says:

    All those busy-bodies, go stand outside the many lottery shops and catch all the Muslim gamblers and flog them to your oh-so-pure heart’s fulfillment until you think you qualify for heaven.

  2. aim says:

    Professional liquor handlers don’t hold their drinks that way dude…Am not pro to any parties, but that is the fact.

  3. vaisanavadas says:

    We should concentrate on issues and not personal attacks. BN/Umno should learn to win from people’s confidence as they are the ruling government.

  4. Sean says:

    No – unless he is on his knees under the beer bong on the floor of the Dewan Rakyat (during office hours) I completely fail to see the relevance. The whole fuss appears to me to be the work of dedicated busy-bodies with nothing better to do.

    I am a bit sad to hear that Zaid has ‘repented’. There’s no demon in drink – the problem with alcohol is its ability to dissolve carefully constructed and methodically maintained façades, allowing one’s ‘inner R-soul’ to shine through. There are people who are as genuine, respectable and good-natured people after a glass of wine as they are before it.

    I have more respect for the very few Malaysian Muslim writers who say they drink and the matter is between them and their god. Is Zaid campaigning to represent Malaysians in politics, or to become an imam? Is it necessary for him to be more Muslim than his supporters, or is it okay for him to acknowledge that some of them are ‘better Muslims’ than he is?

  5. M.K. says:

    It is like the pot calling the kettle black. People living in glass houses should not throw stones!

  6. Ellese A says:

    I don’t understand the angle of the writer. What Zaid’s facing is a typical candidate evaluation in any democratic society. This is a common sociological occurence in election. Candidates are normally elected based on societal values without exception. A Muslim will never win in a highly conservative Christian southern state of the US. Why? Different values. Different culture and different mores. People cannot relate. So if Zaid wants to contest in a kampung place surely he must have similar values for people to relate. It’s not those in KL or PJ for that matter. So it’s a moot point to say to those people values and morals are not important.

    But the funny part of Zaid’s predicament is the consistency of stand. If one is dismayed by attack on Zaid’s morality one should also condemn attack on morality of Rohaizad (the previous BN candidate). Zaid did nothing to stop the attack by PKR then but complains now. PAS regularly attack Najib’s and Mahathir’s morality (religiosity) but say an attack on PR ‘s candidate is not right. Similarly with BN who has skeletons in its closet. I know politicians cannot be principled including Zaid but am amazed how people cannot see this hypocrisy, and this includes the writer.


    I’m not sure you even read the commentary. In it, I have also held the Pakatan Rakyat (in this instance, PAS) accountable for past character assassinations it has made on BN leaders (I gave the example of its supporters’ attacks on Khairy Jamaluddin). Besides, you seem to be confused between what is of public interest and what is personal morality. Zaid’s drinking = personal moral issue between him and his God. Rohaizad’s embezzlement = public interest issue.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  7. Ida Bakar says:

    Follow up from MK’s statement above: People in glass houses should also wear clothes! While the printing press can be controlled the www is less so. Now the shenenigans of Najib, Nazri and their sons are doing the rounds.

    There is this anecdote about the late Tunku (then aged 67) when he was asked by King Feisal of Saudi to accept the post of Secretary General of an Islamic Secretariat in Jeddah. Tunku replied that he drinks and he gambles, what would the leaders of the Muslim nations say? King Feisal replied that the Tunku was the best man for the job and that was all that mattered.

  8. MyMalaya says:

    Lots of hypocrites. Lots of PR supporters now are condemning the attack on Zaid’s character but they forgot that was their modus operandi during past by-elections. I just wonder where was Shanon Shah when PKR/PAS/DAP ran down BN candidates’ character.

    I am not condoning the method used by those Umno bloggers even though I am an Umno supporter. It’s disgusting and it’s forbidden. That’s his problem and we shouldn’t step in because in the end only Allah knows best what to do with him.

    I hope this latest episode will put a stop to this dirty tactics on both sides. We could start with the Sibu by-election. But knowing PR, I am sure everything is fair if it benefits them and everything is hell if it slaps them.

  9. Andrew I says:

    “Notwithstanding leaders like Zaid and Khairy, the truth is that judgement of personal morals is getting more entrenched in Malaysian politics. It could be the result of protracted intra-party power struggles, as the country witnessed with MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek.”

    Um, you need to rewind a bit further back, Shanon. Once upon a time, there was a DPM…

    And to cream it off, we’ve been advised by our moral guardian to be selective in our moral judgement. Only recently, if I recall correctly.

  10. pei ling says:

    Zaid is too capable and successful. Umno can’t find fault with him on his capability as a future MP, just like previously Eli Wong and Chua Soi Lek’s political rivals couldn’t find fault with their professional capability, so they resorted to personal attacks on their morality. How sad.

    This probably also demonstrates BN’s lack of confidence in their own candidate. Voters with good common sense will see right through their trick – it’s too obvious.

  11. D Lim says:

    I give up on Malaysian politics. The personal attacks reflect an immature society and unfortunately this is common both in developed and developing countries. It is also a reflection on the future of the society as a whole. A society incapable to judge based on merits and rise [above] personal attacks deserves what it gets in future.

  12. Merah Silu says:

    If you want to be a leader, you need to comply with various criteria. As a Malay and a Muslim, you should not commit sin if you want to be a role model and you want to be trusted. Do you think we can trust that Zaid has repented and will not drink again? I am old enough to believe that he still drinks, just this time not seen by people that he cannot trust.

  13. Ellese A says:

    Shanon replied ‘Zaid’s drinking = personal moral issue between him and his God.’

    This statement exactly exemplifies my point. For Shanon’s information, in Islamic jurisprudence, intoxication/drinking is of public interest and is a crime (even Nik Aziz would concur with this). In any event please note that even in western democracies, being gay or having extra marital affairs which are personal in nature, are still relevant issues and are debating points during elections. So I clearly don’t understand why you make such a distinction to defend Zaid. By the way, those who know him from his legal days, including me, would never call him principled. Just do a simple, sensible investigation, and [you can find] many who can reveal his true self.

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