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The arbitrariness of moral policing

CRITICISMS towards moral policing in Malaysia are nothing new. Back in 2005, the Federal Territories Islamic Department came under fire after its infamous raid of Kuala Lumpur’s Zouk nightclub. After the Muslim detainees’ claims of sexual harassment and other abuse by religious enforcers, the government sought to curb moral policing, in rhetoric at least. In 2006, then de facto Minister of Religion Datuk Dr Abdullah Md Zin also admitted to procedural flaws in enforcing khalwat (close proximity between unmarried men and women) laws.

But the truth is that the institution of moral policing also has deep support. In 2008, for example, the then president of the Malaysian Syarie Lawyers Association, Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, said: “Have we forgotten that building a moral and upright society is one of the basic principles of [Malaysian] nationhood? If we want to abolish morality legislation, the fifth principle of the Rukunegara (‘good behaviour and morality’) should also cease to exist.”

Because morality legislation is often enacted and applied in the name of religion, the debate often gets emotional and tense. Perhaps a better way to frame the discussion on moral policing would be to analyse the substance of moral policing laws, and the procedures involved when moral policing is actually implemented.

Regarding the laws’ substance, some questions people could ask are: Where do these laws come from? What areas do they cover? Why do we need these laws in the first place? If they are enacted in the name of a particular religion, for example Islam, do they differ from Muslim society to Muslim society? If yes, why; if not, why not? Regarding moral policing procedures: How do enforcers go about doing their jobs? What happens before, during and after a moral policing operation? Who are enforcers accountable to?

Disquieting picture

In our attempt to understand moral policing in Malaysia, The Nut Graph ran a series of four interviews with individuals who have encountered the moral police. We wanted to know from a procedural perspective what actually happens during, for example, a khalwat raid.

Although the four interviews hardly represent the total number of individuals who have encountered the moral police, they do paint a disquieting picture. All the individuals interviewed seemed to have been arbitrarily targeted. In all cases, varying degrees of intimidation were employed. In some, enforcers used violence. One interviewee even testified there was corruption involved in her case.

And then we have to ask if there were any underlying prejudices involved in how the different targets were treated. For example, Mona Abu Bakar, a middle-class, English-speaking daughter of a high-ranking civil servant, got off minimally embarrassed and inconvenienced. But Rina and Ros, two transsexual women who are arguably lower than middle-class, were physically and verbally assaulted by religious enforcers. In between the two extremes is Nabila Nasir, a young, urban, middle-class Malay Malaysian woman who was intimidated and verbally harassed for dating a Chinese Malaysian man.

The comparison doesn’t end there. Mona and Nabila eventually got off without facing any charges. Rina and Ros, on the other hand, had to face the syariah court a mere days after they were detained. Rina and Ros also testify that they did not have legal representation when they appeared in court and were eventually fined RM700. But in any legal proceeding, shouldn’t an accused have the right to a lawyer and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty?

Substance vs procedure

It would appear, then, that moral policing in Malaysia does not have clear processes and systems for individuals to safeguard their rights even within the syariah framework. Nevertheless, proponents of syariah-based moral policing in Malaysia often point towards the comprehensiveness of Islamic legislation. Islam does not separate between personal and public morality, we are told. In other words, criticisms against procedural abuse are countered by quoting the idealised substance of Islamic legislation.

But this idealised view of Islamic law does not take into account the fact that Islamic law can only be applied by human beings. Human beings are flawed creatures prone to making mistakes, despite the best of intentions. And we cannot discount the fact that there are probably a large number of religious enforcers who hold racist, misogynistic, or homophobic views, or who are not above engaging in corruption. The question remains: If the moral police are there to watch over our morals, who watches the moral police?

And in Malaysia’s syariah-based moral policing legislation, it is not only transvestism  and khalwat that are considered crimes. Non-compliance towards other personal religious practices is also considered crimes punishable by the state. The provisions are quite catch-all, and the Malaysian system conveniently confuses the substance of Islamic morals and the procedures in human application of Islamic laws. Therefore, in order to untangle the substance from the procedures of moral policing, we eventually need to analyse the substance of Islamic teachings.

Substance vs substance

For example, though it is a virtual consensus that alcohol consumption is a sin in Islam, does Islam, in its substance, advocate worldly punishment for Muslims who consume alcohol? And though the view is that Friday prayers are obligatory for Muslim men, does Islam actually view non-attendance of Friday prayers as a crime?

This is where diverse interpretations of Islamic law and thought emerge. Predictably, this is also where the debate gets shut down in Malaysia. Advocates of the Islamic status quo invariably panic that these questions are “insults to Islam”, itself a crime punishable under syariah law.

And so, this is how state-sanctioned moral policing perpetuates itself. Fear, shame and intimidation are effective ways for the moral police to assert their authority – just look at how Ros, Rina and Nabila’s Chinese Malaysian ex-boyfriend capitulated. But in the end, even citizens in the most repressive of environments start getting sick of feeling afraid.

Take, for example, the Saudi Arabian woman who was stopped by a religious enforcer in May 2010 when she was walking in an amusement park with a man she was not married to. She got so angry that she beat the religious enforcer up and put him in hospital. Or how about the two Saudi women stopped by a religious enforcer in 2007 apparently for wearing makeup? One of them took out a can of pepper spray and emptied it into the religious enforcer’s face. Her friend filmed the incident with her mobile phone while calling the Saudi religious enforcers “terrorists”.

While some might find these stories funny or even justified, they demonstrate that the violence and arbitrariness of moral policing only beget more violence and arbitrary retaliation. The only way out of this ugly spiral is for open public debate on moral policing to be allowed and encouraged. And in a true democracy, such open public debate would eventually allow society to settle on what kind of laws its members want in order to have their rights safeguarded and upheld. Will this ever, however, happen in Malaysia?

Related posts:
Married but busted for khalwat
“Is Chinese penis really that good?”
“Diam, pondan!”
“Memang kami kena guna kekerasan”
Kartika’s protest

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12 Responses to “The arbitrariness of moral policing”

  1. Moolah says:

    ‘Absurdity’ sounds better than tongue-twister ‘Arbitrariness’. Therefore the final title shall be: “The absurdity of moral policing: Romancing the Taliban?”.

  2. Farouq Omaro says:

    Moral policing in Sabah is relatively new. When Umno formed the government, the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment 1995 was enacted!

  3. stewoolf says:

    A scientist announced a week ago that a complete DNA was assembled synthetically and successfully put into a bacteria [which had] its DNA taken out. The dead bacteria became alive and behaved according to the [human]-made genes. It even reproduced!! Thus, humans have created a life form according to [their] liking!! [Within] a few days, President Obama and the Pope voiced their opinions on the moral impact.

    Muslim scholars should put their energy [in]to researching the morality of such profound and serious topics. The fact that the founding members of Malaysia did not “federalise” the Islamic establishment, instead letting each state have its own syariah laws and organisation, implies that it’s up to the local communities, families and individuals to self-determine. Moral policing is a huge topic!! And a bottomless pit!!

  4. Ellese A says:

    You write on arbitrariness of moral policing. But what about The Nut Graph’s arbitrariness on censorship. My two latest criticisms on Chin Huat’s NEP article and The Moon Rises column were sent three and eight days ago respectively and have yet to be published. In fact, previously another of my criticisms of Chin Huat was not even published. What’s the standard of your censorship? Why so arbitrary? There were no profanities or vulgarities. Are we not entitled to criticise The Nut Graph’s editors, especially Chin Huat? If you’re unhappy, then respond to it rather than censoring it.

    You should also have a KPI in the timing for publishing [comments]. Should not be more than a day. Mine took more than a week to be moderated. What’s this? Don’t tell me that it’s your prerogative to manage these criticisms. I don’t buy it. Not when you have all the liberty to criticise others.

    [1. Chin Huat is not a TNG editor. He is a columnist.

    2. Our comments policy clearly states how we moderate all comments. You can check it out yourself here:

    3. If you don’t like or disagree with our comments policy, feel free to comment on another site. Just as we have the right to moderate comments on our site, so, too do you have to right to choose where you’d like to leave your comments to be published.

    4. If we had more resources and a larger team, we would for certain publish all reader comments far more quickly than we are now.

    Jacqueline Ann Surin
    The Nut Graph]

  5. a malaysian muslim says:

    I hope I have the strength to beat the crap out of those enforcers if they ever come to harass me.

  6. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear TNG,

    Why complain about Malaysia’s system alone? How about Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, [the] Gulf States, Brunei and so on? I fully agree with you that Malaysia’s syariah system is somewhat cranky. But that does NOT mean that you get to bend Islam according to your whim and fancy. There ARE limitations.

    Look, the truth is that Islam is in dire need of a reinterpretation and reform. But that will take another 100 years. Islam, as we know it today, is based upon the social structures of the medieval era. But an industrialised society has a completely different structure. So Muslims are caught in between this time warp.

    We have to be very patient…………….

    [Why do we focus on Malaysia? Because we live in Malaysia and as Malaysian journalists rightfully need to hold accountable the Malaysian state, not the Pakistani or Brunei states.

    However, where possible, we have and will continue to draw parallels with other countries as we have done in this article.

    Jacqueline Ann Surin
    The Nut Graph]

  7. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    And another thing, we cannot expect Islam to bow to democratic rules. Islam is founded on [the] Quran and [the] Hadith and NOT popular democracy! You cannot vote to change Islamic rules.

    The democratic ideal that TNG promotes may be quite impossible to attain in a Muslim country like Malaysia. Even Singapore is much less democratic than Malaysia!

    • farha says:

      Are you saying that ‘popular democracy’ can undo limitations in Islam, and all the teachings in the Quran and Hadith? Of course not! So what’s wrong with opening up public spaces to allow for various opinions to be heard?

      And you say it will take another 100 years for Islam to reform. Well, it starts now…with questioning, discussing, and basically letting people speak up and allowing different opinions to be heard, even if one’s view is not to your liking.

      • Dr Syed Alwi says:

        Dear Farha,

        What I am saying is that Islamic rulings and practices cannot be modified by a mere vote via popular democracy. You cannot vote halal to become haram and vice versa – no matter what your inclinations are.

        As for a reform of Islam – well – where in the Muslim world is liberal Islam accepted? Nowhere! Where is the ijma that validates all your questioning and discussion?

        The Muslim world is still deep in orthodoxy. I believe that reform will take place – over many many decades. At least 100 years…

        Look at Malaysia. You think PAS will let you reform Islam ?

        • farha says:

          Dear Dr Syed Alwi,

          Yes, I agree that Islamic rulings and practices cannot be changed by ‘popular democracy’.

          I do think, however, that debates/discussions on such things, proper or improper (of course ijma is ideal but we’re far from it), will lead less knowledgeable people (like me) to seek greater understanding on Islam. This article by TNG, from the way i see it, is discussing the arbitrariness of moral punishment. Of course one can argue that freedom can lead to anarchy, leading people to question what’s haram/halal, but I’m an eternal optimist and I see it as a test of faith rather than anything else.

  8. Ellese A says:

    Dear Jacqueline,

    Thank you for your reply. I can accept moderated comments but am simply baffled if you practice censorship. Nut Graph seems to be sending mix signal.

    On one hand your site seems to have been most exemplary in accepting comments of various spectrum. You have published my comments in toto and inserted commentaries where you disagree. Certainly as Farish has said you seemed to be way ahead of other blogs. My experience with other blogs, for example, The Malaysian Insider, doesn’t even want to publish some of my comments against them or the opposition even though it’s not vulgar and is within decency. My comment like the one you commented here has been censored by them. That’s why at times to me you seemed to be one who practices what you preach unlike others. You espouse freedom of speech and allow and encourage free flow of debate in a moderated manner. I salute you on this.

    However when you do not publish commentaries especially critical of your editor or columnist in a timely manner, or when you ask me to write elsewhere, it shows that either you are practising censorship or are intolerant of criticism. This is sad as you are stooping low like other blogs who espouse freedom of speech only if it suits them.

    I do hope you are beyond this. I also hope that you understand that commentators are also eager or excited to read and put forth their views. Some want debate and in order to do this it has to be in a timely manner. If not timely, if you don’t already realise this, you are seen to be practicing arbitrary censorship. Take for instance my criticism of Chin Huat. He purported an article to claim that NEP was a mistake. Now I am criticising him that the basis he expounded on in his article was totally flawed. He cited the Gini co-efficient to show the income gap has worsened but his data actually showed we’ve improved. Chin Huat has an interest not to publish and either he censored totally or published it when the article is no longer the main reading. Not sure whether in Nut Graph’s case it’s Chin Huat or the editor who makes the call. But in any event a non-timely publication clearly shows whether rightly or wrongly, the perception of manipulating the debate or practising arbitrary censorship.

    That perception is further fortified when a later criticism like this one to you was published in a timely manner but an earlier (one week walker to be exact) criticism of Chin Huat wasn’t. The best way to handle this is thus to publish in a timely manner and if I am wrong to rebut it.

    I do hope that I am wrong in all counts of the negative perceptions raised and it’s just due to technical problems faced by you. I also hope you understand the need of a timely publication. I understand your constraint of limited staff but a one or at most two business day response or publication would be most appreciated.

  9. Gloria Ayob says:

    This very interesting article prompted me to wonder about a couple of things:

    1. The five sentences in the ‘Rukunegara’: are they imperatives (Malaysians *must* believe in God, say), or are they descriptions of the ideal Malaysian (a good Malaysian believes in God, as it happens)?

    2. ‘Susila’ is an uncommon word, and perhaps it really does refer to morality, but since when has ‘kesopanan’ meant ‘good behaviour’? Doesn’t it simply mean ‘politeness’?

    3. Since when has the Rukunegara acquired a legally binding force? Isn’t the Constitution of Malaysia the only document that can do this? Whatever the status of the Rukunegara is (and it would be good to get clarity on this), it seems downright misplaced of president of the Syariah Lawyers Association to appeal to it in order to legitimise moral policing.

    4. The elephant in the room, as Shanon Shah points out, is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any impartial authority to which the judicial branch (Syariah Courts) and the executive branch (“moral police”) of Islamic legal organisations are answerable to. Who are enforcers accountable to? Who are the law-makers accountable to? The fact that the Supreme Court of Malaysia has surrendered authority to the Syariah Court (e.g. in the Lina Joy case) makes the question a really urgent one: does the Syariah Court now stand above the Constitution of Malaysia? In which case, what is the point of having a constitution, if it no longer serves as the highest law of the land? Wouldn’t it at least be more honest if our lawmakers (both legislative and judicial) came out and admitted that the Syariah Court is answerable to no one?

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