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Judicial CP - May 1987


The Independent, London, 4 May 1987

Letter from Kuala Lumpur

Islam, whipping up its political power

By Robert Cottrell


"KHALWAT" means, more or less, closeness, specifically with a person of the opposite sex. Though potentially pleasant under most jurisdictions, it is not a condition which is to be found in the north-east Malaysian state of Kelantan, which recently made "closeness" among Muslims an offence punishable by flogging.

The first person to find himself on the receiving end of this sentence was a 21-year-old travelling labourer who drank a few bottles of beer at a roadside restaurant in January this year and stayed after hours to keep company with the waitress. He was sentenced to a fine for drinking alcohol, and a caning for khalwat-ing with the waitress. Emerging from gaol after the sentence, he said that he would be getting out of the state fast.

The incident provoked a public debate on the finer points of flogging, Kelantan-style. Being relatively new to the routines of Islamic punishment, Malays wrangled in the columns of local newspapers about the scripturally proper durability of the cane, the arc of the flogger's swing, and the intended effects -- retributive or preventative -- of the punishment.

Though the older and worldlier professed themselves disturbed, some members of the pro-flogging camp were so pleased that they demanded the right to cane non-Muslims too.

Kelantan was the first Malaysian state to authorise the enactment of Islamic justice; but the country as a whole is gradually exchanging its Western values for many of Islam's.

Fundamentalism, strong for centuries in rural communities, is advancing into everyday urban life. Bacon is vanishing from some hotel breakfast menus. Even the Proton Saga, the new "national" car built with Japanese parts and know-how, sports a crescent moon on its radiator.

Islam gathers its strength in Malaysia from racial and economic, as well as religious, values. The Muslims are almost entirely Malay, the ethnic group which constitutes almost half of Malaysia's population; the non-Muslims are mainly Chinese. The Malays, particularly in the countryside, are relatively poor; the urban Chinese middle class is relatively prosperous. The United Malays National Organisation, the political party which has dominated the ruling coalition since independence, is dedicated to raising the status and wealth of Malays within Malaysia: and, though the constitution provides for freedom of worship, Umno is for Islam, as well as for the Malays who profess it.


The most conspicuously Islamic member of Dr Mahathir's cabinet, Mr Anwar sailed through ballotting ... after making a speech criticising party colleagues who were half-hearted in their religious faith .... He will be a far cry from the urbane Umno elder statesman who, speaking shortly after the Kelantan flogging, said it seemed slightly unfair to fine a man for drinking beer when he as a cabinet minister had ceremonially opened a brewery.

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