The Timah whiskey controversy and the true defenders of multiracial Malaysia: Star columnist

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – The whiskey won by a whisker. That’s probably not accurate but I couldn’t resist the play on words.

But while the controversy over Timah whiskey was raging, it did seem as if the angry voices of those who found the name and image on the whiskey bottle offensive to Islam were so loud and strident that they would force a name change of this homegrown, award-winning alcoholic beverage.

The issue was laid to rest after the Cabinet agreed to allow whiskeymaker Winepak Corporation to retain the name and accepted its proposal to explain on the label that “timah” refers to the country’s tin (bijih timah in Malay) mining past.

The controversy, however, had all the makings of yet another Muslim versus non-Muslim interest moment.

Non-Muslim Malaysians could not help but roll their eyes and sigh in resignation over yet another case of something quite innocuous being played up in the name of defending Islam.

Back in July 2015, an Australia-based company, Servcorp, dressed up its cute little ambassador wombat named Sidney in Malay baju for an electronic billboard advertisement in Kuala Lumpur to wish Muslims Selamat Hari Raya.

Instead of appreciating the gesture, some people were offended because they mistook the marsupial with its black snout and roly-poly body for a pig.

That was enough for Kuala Lumpur City Hall to immediately pull the plug on the billboard.

Another incident in December 2015 involved cross-shaped air wells in a newly completed housing project in Langkawi.

The developer had to repaint the air wells to pacify Muslims upset by the sight.

These incidents – and there are many more – continue to puzzle non-Muslim Malaysians. Time and time again, we are told such words and images can cause “confusion” among Muslims and mislead them to … what?

But a non-Muslim like me can’t question why Malaysian Muslims are so easily confused. Otherwise, I run the risk of being branded rude, insensitive and anti-Islamic.

So when Malaysian Muslims themselves do the asking, I am sincerely grateful to them.

These are my fellow citizens who are exasperated and frustrated by how such incidents give the impression that the Muslims in this country are so shallow and poorly versed in their faith that they are easily shaken and led astray.

Malaysians like Tawfik Ismail, Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi, Mariam Mokhtar, Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar and Siti Kasim are not afraid to speak up and question the agenda behind issues that strike at the heart of what makes Malaysia multiracial and multireligious.

I would also laud Datuk Dr Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas, Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, Khalid Samad and Deputy Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Rosol Wahid for speaking up in the Timah controversy.

Syed Ali, the former director of Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia, lambasted the arrogance of some people who refuse to accept Winepak’s explanation of the name.

To him, insisting “Timah” is the short form of the Prophet’s daughter’s name Fatimah is ruder than a company using it for a product. This is because no one short-forms the Prophet’s name as “Mat”, nor His daughter’s as “Timah”.

MP for Shah Alam Khalid had a similar view, saying no Muslim and sermons in any surau or mosque had ever referred to Fatimah as Timah.

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Former deputy speaker and MP for Pengerang (Johor) Azalina Said called for the “need to educate the public to think more logically”, which Rosol supported, also pointing out that if this issue continued, “there would be no end to it”.

“So, no matter what it is called, it is unimportant,” he added.

Well said, YB.

I am also in awe of the feisty Siti Kasim and Mariam Mokhtar. Both have bravely tackled many issues related to race and religion that polarise the nation.

They have been able to articulate the concerns, frustrations and disappointment of non-Malays who find themselves on the sidelines and unable to voice out for fear of repercussions.

Human rights activist and lawyer Siti Kasim, who used to write the Siti Thots column in Sunday Star, had this to say in an Aug 26, 2018, piece titled “The real Malay dilemma”: “Malays have been given preferential places in universities, GLCs [government-linked corporations] and the civil service for more than 40 years now, what have we got to show for it?

“The only reason the majority of the Malays today are satisfied with their lives to carry on being religiously obsessed is that the Malays, by and large, have been able to live off the teats of the government in one way or another.”

Mariam Mokhtar, who writes for an online news portal, is equally hard-hitting, if not more. Last year she urged Malay leaders to “stop being in denial”.

“Our Malay leaders think in terms of ‘Malay first, minorities second’ and squander our riches.

“Many non-Malays who excel can never head a government department. They have to be content with the second position. Why should any Malaysian accept this?

“Some of the deserving ones are denied scholarships and top jobs. Why do we mistreat our high-achieving non-Malays?”

Space constraints do not allow me to share more of what they have written in defence of a multiracial, liberal and secular Malaysia.

The same goes for Johan and Mohd Tajuddin.

But Star readers will know this as they are columnists for the paper, writing the fortnightly The Bowerbird Writes and Over the Top columns respectively.

Finally and certainly not the least is Tawfik, son of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman. If Tan Sri Nazir Razak’s new book, What’s In A Name, is about the legacy of his father Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and his own efforts to live up to the “towering surname” he was born with, then Tawfik can claim the same.

To many, former deputy prime minister and home minister Dr Ismail was the best prime minister Malaysia never had. He died in 1973 of a heart attack when Tawfik was 22.

Like Nazir, Tawfik is very protective of his father’s legacy, so much so he chose to bequeath Dr Ismail’s private papers to the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. That alone speaks volumes!

Tawfik was a one-term MP for Sungai Benut (Johor) in the 1980s. He has always said he was booted out for calling Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad a dictator.

That’s where I got to know Tawfik in Parliament where I covered the Dewan Rakyat sittings as a reporter for The Star. And we have stayed friends ever since.

Tawfik has been out of active politics for more than three decades but he has remained a keen political observer and commentator. And he is aghast at how far the country has swerved from its founding fathers’ principles, of whom his papa was one.

Tycoon Robert Kuok knew Dr Ismail well and described him as “a lovely man with strength of character, high principles and a great sense of fairness. He was probably the most non-racial, non-racist Malay I have ever met in my life.”

Tawfik subscribes to his dad’s vision of a liberal nation that treats all its citizens, regardless of race and religion, fairly, with no tolerance for extremism and bigotry.

There is no doubt Tawfik and his like-minded, moderate ilk have their detractors and haters who see them as traitors to their race and religion.

But at least they cannot be dismissed as having no locus standi to speak up as non-Malays/non-Muslims would be.

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Tawfik, at nearly 70, is returning to active politics by standing as an Independent candidate in the next general election. It cannot be an easy decision and I worry for him as he is not in the best of health.

When I asked why he was taking such a huge risk to do this, his reply was simple and so meaningful: “So that we can have a better country.”

Thank you, my friend. I will drink to that!

  • The writer is the former group chief editor of The Star Media Group Malaysia. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entitites.

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