A troubling news story out of Malaysia:
Woman to be caned [beaten with a bamboo stick] for drinking a beer in a public place.
Malaya was a British colony until 1957, when it became an independent member of the British Commonwealth. It gained full independence in 1963 as Malaysia. With their cultural respect for authority and bureaucracy, its large ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities took leadership of the system of government bureaucracy that the British left behind. Of course, this led to ethnic strife, and in 1965, Singapore, with its majority-Chinese population, separated from Malaysia.
In the 1980s, a charismatic Mahatir Mohammed, was elected Prime Minister, and began to play the Muslim majority against the political power of the Chinese and Indian minorities. He pushed laws that favored Muslims (bumi putri, or sons of the earth) and forced dubious legal charges against his non-Muslim political rivals.
Still, Malaysia remained secular, with a thriving international tourist industry, and many expatriate residents employed in the oil industry. The capitol, Kuala Lumpur, became a cosmopolitan city. (Though, to its chagrin, it was known throughout Southeast Asia as “poor man’s Singapore”.)
The introduction of sharia, or Islamic law, into Malaysian jurisprudence is a fairly recent, natural outgrowth of the politically engendered strife between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is an unfortunate development, since Malaysia has been secular since the arrival of the British in the early 1800s, and its economy has thrived partly as a result.
The current case that has drawn international attention involves a young Malay woman who was drinking beer with friends in a hotel lounge in Kuala Lumpur. Sharia forbids Muslims from consuming alcohol, and this unfortunate woman was arrested and charged. Her trial recently concluded with her being sentenced to flogging (six strokes with a bamboo cane). This is not an unusual sentence for men convicted of various infractions, but is the first time in Malaysian history it has been imposed upon a woman.
Malaysia has made enormous economic and political progress since the 1970s. Now the rise of Islamic fundamentalism threatens that progress. The potential positive outcome of this event, if any, will be a backlash by the modern, secular elements of Malaysian society, which includes many Muslims. This could become the event that opens the eyes of secular Malaysia to the threat that sharia promises.
But a very negative outcome is also possible if the Islamists succeed in intimidating the rest of the population into accepting such punishment as the beating of young women for enjoying a cool adult drink in a public lounge. The acceptance of Islamic fundamentalism in SE Asia would be a troubling development.