“Shah Alam City Council (MBSA) has been slammed for defying the Selangor state government by confiscating beer worth RM620 at a 7-Eleven outlet in Shah Alam on Wednesday (29 July 2009).”
State executive councillor Ronnie Liu condemns the action as serious defiance of the state government and said action will be taken against those who act without any directive from the state. Apparently, a task force has been set up by the state to come up with guidelines to regulate the sale of beer by the end of August.
Hopefully, the guidelines will ensure that non-Muslims will not be harassed just because some Muslims take offence at what non-Muslims are doing. Still, at the end of the day, we should not need to rely on directives of the state to declare which non-Muslim activity is haram or hallal. Why should non-Muslims need approval from Muslims for their personal life style? The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith as one sees fit is a fundamental liberty enshrined in the Federal Constitution.
Muslims regardless of their personal scruples should be mature enough to accept cultural differences of their neighbors. I would have thought that a tolerant outlook should be natural in a pluralistic society like Malaysia. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that the Muslim society (or at least officials who claim to act on their behalf) has increasingly shown less tolerance towards people of other faiths. The seizure of beer from the 7-11 shop in Shah Alam is only one incident amidst a disturbing trend of rising incidents of threats and harassment directed towards small time traders who are easily cowed by the Muslim officials.
It is therefore important that we analyze and critique the mindset of these Muslim officials.
We begin with the statement from MPSA: “the sale of all alcoholic drinks including beer will not be allowed at Muslim-majority areas”.
Note that the statement assumes that Muslim majority has more cultural rights than non-Muslim minorities in Muslim majority areas. Once the assumption is accepted, prohibition of sales of alcohol flows logically:
1) The majority population has the right to decide whether a cultural practice is acceptable
2) Muslims are the majority in Shah Alam
3) Muslims decide what is culturally acceptable and prohibited in Shah Alam
4) Muslims cannot accept sales and consumption of alcohol
5) Therefore the sales of alcohol is not allowed in Shah Alam
How do we challenge this argument? We challenge it right from the beginning, that is, analyze and reject the assumption or presupposition of the position of the Muslim officials. We assert that while the argument is logically valid (the truth of its premises entails the truth of its conclusion), nevertheless, the argument is not sound (the argument is valid but the premise (s) is not true) and it therefore rightly rejected).
We begin by asking, “what is this “Muslim majority?” Do Muslims in Shah Alam actually all and one object to the selling of alcohol/beer? There was no survey or referendum done to confirm that the majority of Malays in Shah Alam approve the high handed action of the authorities. Even if the present authorities is elected in the last General Election by the majority, it is illegitimate to conclude that their votes could be transferred to every policy implemented by the present authorities. It is a fallacy to equate a vote in the last General Elections against a corrupt and unpopular government that was thrown out with as a vote for intolerance exhibited by the present authorities. The truth is “the majority” does not share the same intolerance as the officials. For example, a recent social survey shows that 83% of Peninsular Muslims favor interfaith dialogue when the Prime Minister issued a ban on interfaith dialogue.
Furthermore, even if we grant for argument sake that the majority wants a ban on sales of alcohol by non-Muslims – that is, that proposition (1) is true – it must be judged that such a decision violates the spirit of justice and democracy. Indeed, political philosophers have consistently warned against granting the majority unqualified entitlement in a healthy democracy. We do well remember the memorable words of John Stuart Mill when he describes a situation where the majority has arrogated so much power for itself that it freely and readily imposes its arbitrary demands onto minority communities as “the tyranny of the majority.” It is a more dangerous tyranny than the tyranny of ancient kings. Ancient kings were basically interested in gathering the material produce of its citizens through arbitrary taxation. In contrast, the tyranny of the majority formulates and implements social policies that incarcerate, suffocate and eventually snuff out the inner spirit and outward cultural identity of the minority.
This grave threat of the tyranny of the majority can only be resisted with two fundamental democratic propositions:
a) The equality of all cultures and religions as enshrined in the Constitution
b) The non-negotiable fundamental liberties for all citizens enshrined as basic laws of the Federal Constitution.
(As a passing note, the fundamental liberties in the Malaysia Constitution are not entrenched under the category of “basic law” (Grundgesetz) or “basic norm” (Grundnorm) – norms that override ordinary ‘statute law’ passed by the legislature. Without this special status, our fundamental liberties cannot be guaranteed and in principle Parliament could still rescind them by a special act).
These liberties then are expressed to include the following – i) inner cultural freedom grounded in a clear conscience with freedom for outward expression in thought, opinion and cultural practices, ii) liberty of “taste and pursuits” consistent with our self-chosen lifestyle and iii) liberty to associate with other citizens and organize such social groups to promote fundamental liberties for all citizens.
Liberties should be comprehensive since each culture has its own complexities. No liberty is too trivial either as fundamental liberties exist as a seamless fabric. Finally, liberties should not be interfered with by other people simply on grounds of subjective dislikes or different religious outlook. We can be pretty sure that liberties should be wide ranging and is meaningful only with minimal state interference in the lives of citizens.
Statement (a) suggests that Muslims, majority or not, have no business to limit and interfere with the personal lives of non-Muslims, especially in matter of “tastes and pursuits.” Interestingly, Mill himself cites the issue of pork eating in Muslim countries in his classic political tract, On Liberty:
“As a first instance, consider the antipathies which men cherish on no better grounds than that persons whose religious opinions are different from theirs, do not practise their religious observances, especially their religious abstinences. To cite a rather trivial example, nothing in the creed or practice of Christians does more to envenom the hatred of Mahomedans against them, than the fact of their eating pork. There are few acts which Christians and Europeans regard with more unaffected disgust, than Mussulmans regard this particular mode of satisfying hunger. It is, in the first place, an offence against their religion; but this circumstance by no means explains either the degree or the kind of their repugnance; for wine also is forbidden by their religion, and to partake of it is by all Mussulmans accounted wrong, but not disgusting. Their aversion to the flesh of the “unclean beast” is, on the contrary, of that peculiar character, resembling an instinctive antipathy, which the idea of uncleanness, when once it thoroughly sinks into the feelings, seems always to excite even in those whose personal habits are anything but scrupulously cleanly and of which the sentiment of religious impurity, so intense in the Hindoos, is a remarkable example. Suppose now that in a people, of whom the majority were Mussulmans, that majority should insist upon not permitting pork to be eaten within the limits of the country. This would be nothing new in Mahomedan countries. Would it be a legitimate exercise of the moral authority of public opinion? and if not, why not? The practice is really revolting to such a public. They also sincerely think that it is forbidden and abhorred by the Deity. Neither could the prohibition be censured as religious persecution. It might be religious in its origin, but it would not be persecution for religion, since nobody’s religion makes it a duty to eat pork. The only tenable ground of condemnation would be, that with the personal tastes and self-regarding concerns of individuals the public has no business to interfere” (p. 82).
Mill famously declares that the only interference acceptable is one based on the ‘Harm Principle’. As Mill puts it, “That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (p.12).
Applying this principle would mean that it is acceptable to punish people who drive under the influence of alcohol. Sales of alcohol to minors should also be prohibited. I can imagine a borderline case whereby vendors are advised not to set up a liquor store right next to an existing mosque, not because Muslims are harmed so much as distracted from their worship by wafts of alcohol. But such considerations do not in any way apply in the indiscriminate and callous action committed by the Shah Alam authorities.
Applying the ‘Harm Principle’ obviously requires a nuanced discernment but accommodation to the sensitivity of our neighbors and should not be taken as license for the majority to impose its subjective preferences unto others. As Mill puts it, “the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place.”
I shall conclude with a further observation. Applying the principle, “the majority population has the right to decide whether a cultural practice is acceptable” (1) initiates a slippery slide and erosion of fundamental liberties for non-Muslims. Today, sale of alcohol is prohibited because Shah Alam has a Muslim majority. Tomorrow,Muslims officials will extend the prohibition beyond Shah Alam to the whole nation, since “Malaysia is a country with a Muslim majority.” A fortiori, Muslim official will further ban whatever they regard as activities that are even more ‘sinful’ and objectionable than sales of alcohol. The consequence of accepting the ‘majority principle’ is the limitation (and violation) of the fundamental liberties of non-Muslims.
I therefore strongly urge the Selangor government to bear in mind how the ‘majority principle’ does more harm than good when drafting the forthcoming guidelines. The guidelines should not be strictly based on the principle that the majority can unilaterally decide what is socially acceptable and should take into account the legitimate interests and rights of the various cultural communities in the country.
Quotations taken from John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Utilitarianism. Everyman Library (Alfred Knopf, 1992).
THE SUN LINK
Local Council slammed by State Govt for confiscating beer
PETALING JAYA (July 30, 2009) : Shah Alam City Council (MBSA) has been slammed for defying the Selangor state government by confiscating beer worth RM620 at a 7-Eleven outlet in Shah Alam on Wednesday.
MBSA officers confisticating the beer cans and bottles in a 7Eleven
outlet in Section 8, Shah Alam on Wednesday evening.
State executive councillor for local government, research and development Ronnie Liu described the action as serious defiance of the state government and said action will be taken against those who act without any directive from the state.
“No local council is bigger than the state government. Nobody should do anything before the guidelines (to regulate the beer sales) are out,” he told theSun today.
MBSA had seized some 70 cans and bottles of beer from a 7-11 outlet at Section 8 in Shah Alam at 4.35pm on Wednesday, despite there being no directive from the state government to do so.
A task force set up by the state was expected to come up with guidelines to regulate the sale of beer by the end of August.
Liu, who sent officers to investigate the matter after being contacted, said the MBSA officers claimed there were “unaware of the status quo” and admitted there had been a “big misunderstanding”.
“The officers have returned the cans and bottles of beer which were seized on Wednesday upon learning the sale is allowed,” he said.
7-Eleven executive director Ng Su Onn when contacted said he was upset with the city council’s actions.
“The state government said there will a task force to come up with guidelines, incorporating views of all parties, for retailing beer in Selangor,” he said.
“Ronnie Liu had made it clear that retailers are allowed to do what they are doing and no action can be taken by the councils,”
“The fact that MBSA acted on its own leaves us retailers confused,” he said.
MBSA had sent a letter to retail outlets on May 13 stating that the sale of all alcoholic drinks including beer will not be allowed at Muslim-majority areas in Sections 1 to 25 in Shah Alam.
The ban of sale of beer also covered outlets in Bandar Baru Sungai Buloh (Section U20) and TTDI Jaya (Section U2).
The state government, however, froze the ban on May 27 until the task force comes up with its findings.
In response to the council’s move, Guinness Anchor Berhad managing director Charles Ireland said: “We believe alcohol producers, retailers and consumers should respect cultural and religious sensitivities in Malaysia. At the same time, we think their rights to go about their own business should also be respected.
“With that in mind, we look forward to the state government’s response to discussions that we have had. We hope it will be fair and reasonable to those with interests in this matter, including Muslims, and individuals whose religion allows them to consume alcohol.”
He said actions that infringe on the lawful right of businesses to trade, exacerbate an (currently) already difficult business environment.
First News Update added on 5 Aug 2009
S’gor PAS: Ban alcohol in Muslim areas
MALAYSIAKINI 4 Aug 2009 LINK
Selangor PAS wants the Pakatan Rakyat state government to implement a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol in all Muslim-majority areas.
Speaking at a press conference in Shah Alam, Selangor PAS commissioner Hassan Ali said the proposed ban will only concern Muslims and not impinge on the right of non-Muslims to consume alcohol.
Asked if the move would be unfair to non-Muslims living in Muslim-majority areas, the PAS leader said they would just have to travel further to get the beverages.
Hasan also called on the state government to switch the portfolio of DAP exco member Ronnie Liu, who has “meddled in Islamic affairs.”
He said Liu, who oversees local councils, had misunderstood the ban and therefore overstepped his jurisdiction.
“We are disappointed when certain quarters intervene in our initiatives to control the sale of alcohol among Muslims,” he added.
Decision is unanimous
Hasan said Liu had meddled in an incident in Shah Alam on July 30, when he questioned local authorities and the Shah Alam municipal council (MBSA) decision’s to seize alcohol put up for sale in Muslim areas.
“Besides, PAS Selangor had also received reports about it and his action disturbed and affected the local authorities’ work,” he said.
However, Hasan denied when he was asked whether Liu should be dropped as a state executive councillor.
“No, I don’t want him dropped, maybe shift his portfolio. That would, to some extent would mitigate the problems of the past,” he said.
He contended that Liu (right), as an exco member, can interfere in matters of policy under his portfolio but not in its implementation.
Flanked by Selangor information chief Roslan Shahrir and PAS liaison secretary Kamaruddin Osman, Hasan said enforcement should be streamlined with the Syariah Criminal Enactment (Selangor) 1995.
The enactment, enforced by Selangor Religious Department (JAIS), can now be implemented by the local authorities such MBSA although guidelines have yet to be approved by the state government.
“It has been decided at the MBSA full board meeting that the selling of alcohol in Muslim areas should not be happening, and the decision is unanimous,” said Hasan.
However, this does not necessarily mean that the MBSA board is disobeying the state government.
“It means, it can act on whatever it has decided. The guidelines have been passed and unless the state government steps in and amends it it should be adhered to,” said Hasan.
Non-muslims rights intact
Hasan stressed that the non-Muslims are not are not bound by the local authorities’ ban on alcohol.
“We are not stopping them (non-Muslims) from drinking. We are only stopping Muslims,” he said.
Hasan said the non-Muslims can consume alcohol outside the banned areas. “In Shah Alam, there are many outlets selling alcohol several kilometres from one another. So there is no problem,” he said.
Although Muslims could travel outside banned areas to get alcohol, Hasan said a guideline on it will be included in the draft which will be approved by the state government soon.
In an immediate reaction, Liu while refusing to comment on the matter of his portfolio, said the MBSA officer involved in the alcohol seizure in Shah Alam was an Umno member.
He claimed the officer could be politically motivated when he issued the directive despite being aware that the state government had approved the sale of alcohol in convenient stores until such time it came out with a guideline to prevent Muslims and minors from consuming it.
Liu also said no full board meeting was ever held to approve the ban on alcohol by local authorities.
“There was no such meeting which unanimously imposed a ban on alcohol in Muslim majority areas in Shah Alam as claimed by Hasan,” said Liu.
According to Shah Alam Mayor Mazalan Mohd Noor who was with Liu, the full board meeting referred to by Hasan were “merely discussions”.
Mazalan stressed that Liu had acted within his powers when he asked the enforcement officers regarding the seizure of alcohol.
Mazalan also said the local authority did not have the jurisdiction to seize alcohol from convenience stores unless they are found selling it to Muslims and minors.