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?
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 / sxc.hu) 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.
Chua 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.
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