THE RIGHT TO DRINK
Unless you were born Malay, and have Islam written on your identification card, the right to consume alcohol wouldn’t seem like such an issue in Malaysia. But here’s a fact that a lot of us aren’t privy to; Malaysia has the highest taxation and duties imposed on alcoholic beverages. “How much?” you ask, well, to quote Alcohol Consumer-Rights Group (ALCON); “[taxation and duties are] highest in the world, highest in Asia.” That’s right, folks, paying nearly RM30 at a bar for a pint ain’t the norm elsewhere – barring Norway – at all.
Discovering that the government were planning to increase taxes even higher than it already was in 2011, founder Deepak Gill (Deep) had to do something about it. Consumer rights group catering to drinkers was unheard of, “it seems like a ridiculous and audacious idea,” says Deep, and he only had a week to “kick their a$s” by forming Alcon. Despite the brevity of time given, the lightning-fast campaign succeeded. “The media actually showed up for our media conference, at a bar of course. and I was sober enough to make very valid points,” he jokingly shares with us. The same points were then submitted to the Ministry of Finance in the fittingly bar-less Putrajaya. Suffice to say, they haven’t raised the taxes since. Government body or not, Deep “won’t take sh*t from any goddamned alcophobics.”
Alcon has since made 14 appearances in different media – 15 counting this one – from radio to print. An impressive feat for an idea he claims wasn’t taken too seriously in the beginning by others. “People laughed at the idea initially, and so did I. Now the media calls me when they need views of consumers of alcohol on the Federal Budget,” he tells us. It seems like Alcon has become the go-to spokesperson for “boozeheads” (as Deep affectionately says it). It’s an interesting contention point though, alcohol consumption doesn’t seem like alcohol is taboo here at all. Deep agrees; “It’s accepted as a subculture – you don’t even need a license to sell beer (laughs).”
Why did it take so long for us to have our own consumer rights group then? According to Alcon, drinkers contribute billions to the economy; $5.6 billion spent with $1 billion taxed in 2010 alone. “Unfortunately the government doesn’t love us as much as it loves capitalists,” says Deep. “[They] like money,” he continues, adding that in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, taxes were raised without putting thought into its long-term impact; standard of living, smuggling, moonshining, the tropes of prohibition era United States basically. Worse, this decision wasn’t opposed by anyone at the time.
“You can go blame your parents now (laughs).”
While it doesn’t seem like the taxes will be lowered any time soon, Alcon has at least kept it at a stasis for now. There were hearsays of a ban on public drinking, but as Alcon found out, it was merely a proposal that was limited to areas where children are at risk – such as playgrounds. “We can still booze in public, s’all good, do not fear, Alcon’s here!” reassures Deep. We aren’t sure if he were half-serious or he really took up the mantle of some sort of boozy superhero.
As problematic as consumer rights are when it comes to alcoholic beverages, Deep admits that we do have a solid amount of drinking freedom here; “[It’s] definitely freer than places like Australia! I’d rather be caught with a gun than a bottle in hand [there] (laughs).”
Getting back to first sentence of this article, we just had to ask him – isn’t the law against Malays drinking alcohol the ultimate restriction on consumer rights? Understandably, Deep is brutally honest about this, telling us that this isn’t their fight and due to its sensitive nature, it should be led by Malays themselves.”[Otherwise] we would seem to be planning to take over the country by ‘drugging the natives’ or some such,” portends Deep.
That’d be another fight for another movement then.