The political cost of caning Kartika

Like it or not, Malaysia still depends on trade and international goodwill from the developed countries of the West, not Afghanistan. This, then, is the dilemma that Malaysia faces at the moment, and there seems little consensus on how to proceed.


MALAYSIA has long been trying to cultivate its image as a moderate Muslim state that can serve as an exemplary model for others. Particularly in the wake of the attacks on the United States in 2001 and during the heated years of the war on terror, successive Malaysian Prime Ministers have worked hard to ensure that Malaysia would remain on the list of moderate Muslim states that could serve as the cultural bridge between the Western and Muslim worlds.

Today, however, that image stands to take a significant pounding thanks to a relatively isolated incident that has managed to grab the headlines worldwide: A Malay-Muslim woman by the name of Kartika Sari Dewi is set to be caned for the offence of drinking alcohol in public.

Kartika's case has bedevilled the lawmakers of Malaysia for the simple reason that nobody seems to know what to do about it, and her. Kartika was found guilty of drinking beer in the state of Pahang, West Malaysia. The religious authorities of Pahang subsequently found her guilty of committing a syariah offence, and she was made to pay a fine.

Kartika herself pleaded guilty, but was also sentenced to six strokes of the cane. What baffles most observers of Malaysian politics is that the former model then stated that she was prepared to be caned, and what is more, to be caned in public. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has reacted to the case by asking the thorny question of whether Malaysia will celebrate its independence day with the caning of a Muslim woman instead.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has himself asked Kartika to appeal her sentence, and to reconsider. Needless to say, the case had made international headlines and brought Malaysia to the world's attention for all the wrong reasons.

The problem that this case poses for Malaysia is complex and manifold: For a start, Kartika's case that was handled by the Syariah court of Pahang now raises the question of whether the Federal government can intervene to save her. Federal-state relations in legal matters will therefore be the crux of the legal side of the debate.

Adding to the confusion is the problematic and complicated relationship between religion and politics in the country, where the borderline between Islam and politics has grown increasingly blurred after three decades of state-driven Islamisation. Malaysia's enfeebled ruling UMNO party is now trying its best to defend its own Islamic credentials in the face of the opposition Islamic party PAS, but at the same time would not like to see Malaysia gain the same reputation as the Taliban of Afghanistan.

The Islamic party in turn is likewise split in its conscience, between moderates who wish to push the democratisation agenda and conservatives who wish to lay the foundations for more Islamisation. Already in the state of Selangor where PAS has come to power as part of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, moral policing has been introduced by the conservative PAS leader Hasan Ali, who has called for religious functionaries to arrest Muslims who go against Islamic law.

In the long run however, all these internal changes will be tempered by realpolitik considerations. The conservatives of PAS may feel that their electoral gains thus far have given them the green light to further Islamise the country, calling for a ban on the sale of alcohol, music concerts, and compelling Muslims to abide by Islamic norms and regulations. But in the wider context of international politics Malaysia is looking more and more like an isolated, parochial state where books are banned and people are whipped for doing things that are regarded as perfectly normal elsewhere.

The conservative Islamists of Malaysia, their religious convictions notwithstanding, simply do not seem to understand how and why the international community is upset with the idea of a woman being caned for drinking a pint. A case in point is the Mufti of Perak, Harussani Zakaria, who even asked why there was such a fuss being made about a woman being caned six times when, in his opinion, the punishment ought to have been 80 lashes instead?

It is this deep-rooted sense of disconnect that adds a surreal air to the goings-on in Malaysia today, and the case of Kartika herself. The Malaysian government is concerned that failure to enact Islamic law and punishment will compromise its standing in the eyes of conservative Muslims in the country; but to have Kartika caned would jeopardise the country's image internationally.

Like it or not, Malaysia still depends on trade and international goodwill from the developed countries of the West, not Afghanistan. This, then, is the dilemma that Malaysia faces at the moment, and there seems little consensus on how to proceed.

Kartika's caning has been postponed to the end of the month of Ramadan, but this buys precious little time to resolve what has to be a landmark case in Malaysian syariah law. One thing, however, is certain: The costs of caning Kartika are simply too high, and should that line be crossed the country would have jumped one rung up the Islamisation ladder yet again.

From then on, there is no turning back and this may be a sign of what is to come in the future. 

(FARISH A. NOOR is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.)