Earlier this year, Malaysia witnessed back-to-back drink driving fatalities that led to a massive outcry for heavier fines and punishments. The debate started gaining momentum in June when Foodpanda rider Mohamed Zaili lost his life after a drunk driver had slammed his motorcycle, killing him instantly.
From there, it seemed like more lives were being snatched and the root of the cause was drunk driving and its lenient punishments. After numerous petitions and even a survey by Malaysia’s Transport Ministry, the proposal to implement heavier fines and longer imprisonment sentences was approved in principle by the cabinet.
Now, offenders might face up to 20 years in jail and a maximum RM150,000 fine if the proposed amendments to Road Transport Act 1987 (Act 333) are agreed in the cabinet and passed in the Dewan Rakyat soon.
While that was the goal for most Malaysians and parliamentarians, a recent debate by PAS MP Nik Muhammad Zawawi has suggested otherwise. It seems to him that the fines and punishment are not enough, and that alcohol in itself needs to be banned permanently.
His statement undoubtedly lit a match and sparked a fiery debate that entwines the practice and ideology of religion with the recent spikes in drink driving incidents and policies pertaining to it. In his speech, he insisted, based on his studies on religion, that all beliefs forbade the consumption of alcohol, even Christianity. He claimed that Jesus had forbidden alcohol in the Bible before it was “manipulated.”
His remarks has since led to the long-overdue need to confront whether religion and politics should be discussed within the same context. This article chronicles the timeline of all statements made after the incendiary remark in order to provide a chronological and cohesive telling of events.
The statement was made during a debate on the Road Transport (Amendment) Bill 2020 which is used to propose heavier fines and punishment for drink drivers. He said to DAP’s Beruas MP Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham,
“Beruas, I hope you study the facts of other religions, because before the Bible was ‘manipulated’, Jesus had made all consumption of alcohol, including consumption in small amounts as ‘haram’. This is according to studies I have done when comparing between religions, that all religions do not allow its believers to consume alcohol.”
The Beruas MP then rebutted by citing Christian rituals such as the Holy Communion that make use of bread and wine. He then asked Zawawi to correct his statement, yet he refused. He then replied that he used his knowledge on religion, and not just on Islam, to corroborate his statement.
In actuality, many religions are divided on the consumption of alcohol. While religions such as Islam forbid it, religions such as Fali, Judaism, and yes, Christianity too, use it in rituals.
This matter was brought up due to PAS’ proposal to ban alcohol in its entirety in order to put an end to drink driving. In the debate, PAS even criticised Pakatan Harapan for not acting on the issue strongly enough and not banning the sale of alcohol at all neighbourhood stores which includes convenient stores like 7-Eleven.
Rev Clarence Devadass retorted in response to Zawawi’s claims by affirming that Christianity does not forbid alcohol, it only forbids inebriation and drunkenness. The religion believes that alcohol in itself should not be chastised since it is up to the consumer to control their intake. Of course, if consumed excessively it will lead to debauchery which makes a mockery of the drink and the consumer.
In his words, “The Bible does not forbid the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but drunkenness is clearly condemned and considered sin.”
Another reverend, Rev Herman Shastri, contributed his thoughts to the discussion by pleading the PAS lawmaker to not make such incendiary statements. He said,
“The PAS MP should not impose his views on others. In a diverse society we need governance based on rational thinking and not taking the religious high ground.”
Despite mentioning his knowledge on religious studies, Zawawi did not provide any texts or scriptures to support his statement. In turn, Christian Federation of Malaysia executive secretary Tan Kong Beng decided to provide actual texts from the Bible in order to prove that Zawawi’s statements were false.
He then concluded his statement by saying,
“I think it would be better that everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim, come together and learn from each other for the sake of religious harmony. We should learn from one another’s scriptures, as opposed to speaking out of turn and mentioning the religions of others without much knowledge.”
The Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) chairman Archbishop Simon Poh also called for an apology from the PAS lawmaker. He believes Zawawi’s statement crossed the threshold for religious sensitivity and that it was highly offensive to Christians who hold the Bible near and dear to them.
Poh claimed that the remarks were a violation of the Federal Constitution which guarantees the right for all citizens to practice their religion freely.
The ACS has remained committed to inter-racial harmony in Sarawak and the entirety of Malaysia which is why the inflammatory remarks by Zawawi should not remain unchecked. Poh said,
“When this becomes an insult against religion, ACS strongly rejects such a form of religious imposition from the PAS MP on Christianity and other religions.”
“They have no right to be offended. What I said was not an accusation, but a fact. There is no need to apologise. Why should I? I don’t want to comment, what I said is right. Why should I apologise?”
Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas noticed the spiralling of back-and-forth between Christian authorities and Zawawi. He encouraged that everyone stop engaging with the PAS lawmaker. By continuing to talk about it, Zawawi’s statements will further permeate more platforms and be amplified which is the most undesired outcome. He urged,
“We have laws such as the Sedition Act and the Penal Code to prevent religious conflicts among the different faiths and religion. The relevant authorities must act to strictly enforce our laws for any breach thereof by anyone to ensure continuing respect for our laws and judicial system.”
Bandar Kuching Member of Parliament Dr Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen echoes the thoughts of Uggah and those before him that engaging with this kind of statements will only lead to division and not unity. He wrote a letter to Dewan Rakyat, stating his disappointment and urging for action to be taken against the PAS lawmaker. He said,
“I have also raised the issue last week in Parliament itself for a ruling and I will continue to follow up on the matter as it sets a bad precedent in the honourable House where insensitive comments against other religions should not have been condoned.”
The remorseless attitude of Zawawi was definitely the trigger which catalysed so many others to come forward and criticise his statements. It is said that the remark goes against the message of unity across all creeds, religions and races that our forefathers have fought so hard to achieve.
The last person to chime in on the issue is Anwar Ibrahim. He offered his insight and said that religious bigotry goes against the teachings of Islam. He said in a statement,
“Pasir Puteh MP Nik Muhammad Zawawi Salleh’s commentary on the Bible is insensitive and reflects a poor understanding of Islamic teachings on using wisdom in our discourse with members of other faith communities.”
The story is still ongoing but the consensus is already resoundingly clear.
As mentioned by Tan Kong Beng, the message of unity needs to be emphasised and making statements that deride other religions is certainly not the right way to move forward. Mixing politics and religion is a recipe for disaster and we hope that the right actions are taken to ensure that Malaysia will no longer stay silent when it comes to discrimination, even if it’s done by a member of parliament.