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When alcohol trumps polygamy

LET’S assume that in a democracy, the purpose of journalism is to provide the public with accurate and reliable information to function as individuals and members of society. By this definition, Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia should then be an accurate and reliable provider of public interest information to Malay-speaking readers across the nation.

During the period of the recently concluded Hulu Selangor by-election, one could conclude that Malay-speaking Malaysians were preoccupied with morality. Or to be more specific, they were concerned with Parti Keadilan Rakyat candidate Datuk Zaid Ibrahim‘s “Islamic morals”. On 19 April 2010, the paper front-paged some bloggers’ threats to “prove” that Zaid was an “alcoholic“. On 21 April, the paper again front-paged Zaid’s admission that he not only drank, but also owned a racehorse.

Headlines of Utusan Malaysia on 19 and 21 April respectively

Throughout the week, Utusan‘s inside pages were filled with commentaries and news articles discrediting Zaid in this manner. In fact, on 23 April, the paper even highlighted several bloggers’ criticisms of Zaid. This included Dr Siddiq Azani, who asked why the Islamic authorities had not arrested and punished Zaid for consuming alcohol.

It is thus curious that the paper buried on page 16 its 21 April report on Umno’s Kinabatangan Member of Parliament Datuk Bung Moktar Radin‘s self-confessed illegal polygamous marriage. After all, isn’t this also a serious breach of “Islamic morals” — by a federal legislator from the ruling coalition, no less?

The news report on 21 April

Political calculation only?

The lack of proportionality in this coverage on politicians’ “morality” could have been the result of a simple political calculation. Hulu Selangor was a high-stakes parliamentary by-election. It is therefore unsurprising that an Umno-owned newspaper would train its sights on a senior politician who was not only sacked from the party, but was now a rival candidate.

But it is also highly likely that Utusan‘s political calculation was embedded in the larger public discourse on what constitutes “morality”, and by extension “public interest”. What Bung Moktar and actress Zizie Izette did was certainly illegal according to Selangor’s Islamic Family Law Enactment. But it appears, from Utusan‘s coverage, that Bung Moktar and Zizie were just being naughty, whereas Zaid’s personal history was downright scandalous and punishable.

After all, the news report on Bung Moktar and Zizie, a popular actor, closed with this paragraph: “Before leaving the [syariah] court grounds separately, Zizie Izette was asked a naughty question, which was whether she had a ‘bun in the oven’ already … she merely responded by smiling.”

Utusan‘s numerous news reports on Zaid did not close with reporters asking him naughtily whether he preferred Australian or French wine, or whether his racehorse was really a thoroughbred.

(Pic by winterdove /

Evolution of Muslim societies

It seems then that Utusan‘s Islamic moral compass points the opposite way from that of other Islamic experts, scholars and legislators. Prominent Islamic scholars and ulama have argued that while drinking alcohol is a personal sin in Islam, it should not be punishable as a crime against the state. These scholars include New York-based imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Melbourne-based academic Prof Abdullah Saeed, and Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic jurisprudence expert Prof Mohammad Hashim Kamali.

On the other hand, illegal polygamy is being treated more seriously under the law in several Muslim-majority countries. Article 40 of Morocco‘s extensively reformed Islamic family law says, “Polygamy is forbidden when there is the risk of inequity between the wives.” In fact, a wife can add in her marriage contract that her husband shall not engage in polygamy. If the husband violates the contract, the wife can apply for divorce.

In Tunisia, any man who contracts a polygamous marriage can be jailed for a year. A woman who knowingly enters a polygamous marriage is also liable to the same punishment. These countries limit polygamy based on an interpretation of the Quran — verses 3 and 129 in Surah An-Nisa — that the fear of injustice between co-wives is prevalent in almost all cases of polygamy.

And so, in some parts of the Muslim world, the pattern is that the abuse of polygamy is increasingly viewed as damaging to women’s rights and the public good. Private matters, such as alcohol consumption, are increasingly viewed as personal sins only between the believer and God, and should not be punishable by the state.

Malaysia, though, seems to be immune to this evolution in Islamic thought and practice. The idea of “morality”, as defined by media outlets such as Utusan Malaysia, is very much tied to personal conformity or non-conformity to religious tenets. And these personal sins are deemed to be public interest issues because, well, the public appears to be very interested in Muslims’ private lives.

Before and after: Whiskey bottle superimposed onto a Nut Graph photo of Zaid,
as featured on an anti-PKR blog

The larger environment

And so, Utusan‘s coverage obscures the difference between Zaid’s “offence” and the offence committed by Bung Moktar and Zizie. Apart from being a personal sin in Islam, Zaid’s drinking did not harm any other human being. If he did cause or potentially cause harm — such as by driving under the influence — then he should be held accountable for harming or potentially harming others. If he did not harm anyone else, then as a Muslim, Zaid’s only reckoning should be with his God.

Illegal polygamous marriages, however, are not merely a “private” and “personal” matter. There are lives that can be ruined or traumatised when a husband takes a second, or third, or fourth wife. Will the other co-wives be accorded the same security, respect and dignity in the marriage? Will the children be spared emotional harm, financial negligence and public humiliation? Can the existing wives opt for a just and fair divorce if they do not agree to the polygamous marriage? These are real issues that could affect vast numbers of people.

But the larger environment in Malaysia does not seem to encourage this sort of discussion. Perhaps the larger environment in Malaysia is best captured by a story run by Mingguan Malaysia on 25 April, Pelajar maut tergelincir ketika elak diserbu JAIS.

A male student tried to escape in fear and accidentally fell to his death when Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) officers snooped on him and his girlfriend at 1:40am on 24 April. Jais has since denied that its officers were involved in the raid. But the repercussions are there — Malaysian Muslims themselves are increasingly terrified of the intensifying moral policing here.

(Pic by vierdrie /

And yet, it is Zaid’s drinking and gambling that made the front pages of Utusan Malaysia during the week of 19 to 25 April. Perhaps the newspaper’s editors believed that this really was the most important piece of information the public needed in order to function effectively as individuals and as a society. No matter — what a shame that a personal sin was deemed to be more problematic for the ummah than a transgression that clearly impacts on Muslim women and children.

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21 Responses to “When alcohol trumps polygamy”

  1. thokiat says:

    Dah kata 1 Malaysia 2 standard. Yang di sebelah sana semuanya tak betul. Yang di sebelah sendiri, semuanya halal dan mengikut undang-undang. Sedangkan penawaran RM300 mil dalam nada kalau menang lu datang KL jumpa gua, kalau kalah tak payahlah pun boleh ditaksirkan sebagai pelaksanaan projek berdasarkan kepentingan rakyat. Malaysia memang boleh.

  2. peter leow says:

    The objective of keeping past records of Zaid’s has been achieved. It is the same as [Ong Tee Keat] did to [Chua Soi Lek] when MCA had its recent elections.

    It is obvious if you are a celebrity, in any field [whether] sport or entertainment, you better be wise and prudent, do not fall or else the past will come back to haunt you, just like what Zaid has suffered. He is tarnished, and despite [his repentance being] widely promoted, [he has] challenged the power brokers and these powerful brokers will not let you off. This is universal all over the world!!

  3. faith04 says:

    No one is perfect. Let the one who has no sin cast the first stone.

    Zaid had the courage to publicly admit past wrong doings and repented. He has the qualities to be a law legislator; brave, courageous, accepts criticism, self reflects, knowledgeable, non-racial, just … etc.

    I will support him in the next election. Truly hope he wastes no time and starts to build his base in Hulu Selangor immediately.

  4. MLP says:

    In the strictest sense, that’s actually a bottle of bourbon.

  5. bung says:

    if Bung Moktar defies the party leadership, resigns as Kinabatangan MP and stands against Kalamanathan, he would eventually win anyway. But the problem is Zaid is the one who stood against Kamalanathan in Hulu Selangor.

  6. adriana says:

    It is very difficult to be Muslim in Malaysia. And the government is not doing anything about it. These JAIS people can do as they like and want others to follow Islam the way they see fit. It’s very sad, they probe into your private lives and so on. Muslims don’t have any freedom here. But the truth is, these people are worse off than any of us.

    But what can we do? They are the ‘authorities’. It is true, achohol, gambling are all personal sins. As long it does not effect or hurt others, it’s between the sinner and God. But in Malaysia, *these* people like to play GOD. I just wish the government would do something and just wipe out JAIS and let us be. But then again, it’s wishful thinking.

  7. Shanmuga says:

    I think it’s been highlighted previously that the crime Bung Moktar and Zizie were charged with is treated extremely leniently by the Syariah authorities. Most are slapped with what is to many of them a nominal fine of RM1,000.00. Contrast this with the maximum sentence meted out to Kartika for drinking in public despite her guilty plea and professed repentance. Go figure.

  8. M.K. says:

    It was just a minor setback for Datuk Zaid and PR. Remember what happened at Ijok? [Tan Sri] Khalid Ibrahim is now the MB of Selangor even though he lost earlier in the bye-election in Ijok.

    Datuk Zaid deserves to be in Parliament a.s.a.p.

  9. sham sunder says:

    It is really so simple. The government-controlled media will highlight what they chose to and disregard the rest, no matter how important. There is no credibility and intelligent discussion like your report. What is amazing is that you should be surprised.

  10. DL says:

    Our first prime minister drank, smoked, gambled and raced horses as pointed out in Lee Kuan Yew’s book. He was criticized by Umno Baru during the fight with S46. However nothing was said about this in this by-election. Two-faced Umno!

  11. danny leebob says:

    Adriana says “It is true, achohol, gambling are all personal sins. As long it does not effect or hurt others, it’s between the sinner and God.”

    I disagree with Adriana. Sin is usually defined as wrongdoing against God’s laws. That being the case, sin always affects somebody, somewhere, at some point of time. There is no such thing as “personal sins”. God has a purpose in creating these laws.

    However, I believe drinking alcohol is not a sin by itself, but the abuse of alcohol or any other substance is a sin. In the Jewish and Christian faith, this is covered by one of the ten commandments which forbids one to bow down to other gods. Abusing a substance is actually letting the substance take over and control your life, and that is bowing to other gods.

  12. lizziewong says:

    On one hand, Zaid said he regretted his actions and had made peace with God. On the other hand, I read in The Star that while at court, Zizie who was seated behind Bong was seen stroking his hair. A visible public display of intimacy in the court room without a shred of shame or remorse. That is Umno??

  13. Azizi Khan says:

    Hey, I’m still trying to work out how to own a slave in Malaysia. It’s legal under syariah laws remember? I reckon that Malaysia’s extremely pious “Jabatan Agama” will provide some guidelines on how I may obtain one or more.

    Besides, it’s legal to have a slave under syariah laws, but illegal to be polygamous without consent.


  14. U-Jean says:

    “Will the other co-wives be accorded the same security, respect and dignity in the marriage?”

    I think you’ve brought up an important point here. Polygamy is always seen from the economic and attention (how much time for each wife) perspective but security, respect, and dignity for the wives and children are rarely giving attention to.

    Thank you for this interesting perspective.

  15. Hang Jebat says:

    I agree with Adriana. It’s difficult to be a Muslim in Malaysia. Too much emphasis on form over substance. Too much social pressure to conform. Too much hypocrisy.

    However, I disagree that there’s little we can do. We can reverse the trend towards politicised Islam by putting these so-called “religious authorities” out of power. We can demand and vote for more separation between mosque and state – where these religious authorities are stripped of political or policing powers over Muslims.

  16. Reza says:

    Danny leebob said, “…sin always affects somebody, somewhere, at some point of time. There is no such thing as ‘personal sins’. God has a purpose in creating these laws.”

    Yes, there are many malicious sins that affect others such as murder, theft, deceit, etc. But there ARE also personal sins which do not affect others. Let’s take gambling and alcohol. In Islam, gambling and drinking alcohol is forbidden. And yes, if these are done in the extreme they can affect others eg. a drunk driver knocking over a pedestrian or going back home and beating his wife; a gambling addict losing all his money and no longer being able to support his family. But if these are done in moderation, then there is no problem. Unfortunately Islam bans all forms of gambling and alcohol consumption, moderate or extreme. But the point is, if done moderately, they do NOT affect others, yet they are still considered in Islam to be sins, and thus they can be considered as “personal sins”.

    Another common personal sin in Islam is not fasting during Ramadhan. Not praying the allocated five times a day is also considered a sin. And yet how do these sins affect others?

    So, I have to disagree with your statement that there are no personal sins. Maybe in your religion there might not be any personal sins but in Islam there most certainly are.

  17. adriana says:

    Hang Jebat, I do hope that we can actually do something to ‘wipe out’ ‘these so -called ‘religious authorities’ , from probing into our private lives. From the recent event that has been going, the future looks pretty bleak to me. It seems ‘they’ are more powerful than before. We are known as a Muslim country, but I feel so suffocated as a Muslim living in a Muslim country (this is only my personal opinion).

    But yes, I would still like to have hope that there is hope.

    Reza – thank you for explaining it so much better.

  18. Dinesh says:

    It looks like there is too much “religion” in Malaysia.

  19. adriana says:


  20. Peter says:

    @adrianna/Hang Jebat

    Are you sure you (and those that think like you do) are in the majority?

    That’s the inherent problem with democracy. The authorities that you want to do away with are just acting on the wishes of the “majority” and, in a nutshell, that’s us.

    Either that, or the majority is silent and therefore, consenting.

  21. Arvind says:

    Polygamy, most of us know already, is the practice of having more than one spouse at a time. It is considered legal in many countries. Different countries have different laws governing polygamy. International laws on polygamous marriages or potentially polygamous marriages are worth being aware of.

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