Oktoberfest 2014 and the rise of intolerance in Malaysia

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When Carlsberg Malaysia organised its Oktoberfest 2014 events, culminating in a three night party (October 10-12) at One Utama shopping centre, it cannot have predicted the huge political storm which would erupt. After all, it, and the country’s other large brewer, GAB (Guinness Anchor Berhad), have been organising these annual homages to the German beer festival for years.

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But in the latest sign of growing ethnic and religious intolerance in Malaysia, various Islamist organisations and pressure groups  called for Oktoberfest 2014 to be cancelled. Most worryingly, those urging a ban include the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party; Pas), which appears to be becoming more conservative by the day.

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In an effort to calm tensions, Carsberg agreed to move the One Utama party from the ground floor, to a car park on the fourth floor. But this was still not enough for extremist groups such as Ikatan Muslimim Malaysia (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity; Isma). Then again, when has appeasement ever worked with fascists?

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The good news is that despite all the controversy, thousands of revellers turned up to the first night of the party, including a number of opposition members of parliament. Indeed, the added publicity may well have helped to boost the popularity of the event.

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We are not sure quite how much beer was consumed, but the initial batch of special litre mugs ran out by 9pm on the first night, requiring an emergency supply of 500 more to be brought in. In retrospect, Carlsberg may even have been grateful for the change of venue, as the super hot temperatures made for some very thirsty party-goers.

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As for the orgy of sex and violence which the Islamists claimed the beer festival would unleash, we could see no evidence. As any reasonable person would have known beforehand. Malaysians tend to need a bit more than a couple of beers to engage in mass fornication and/or drunken brawling.

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No, what we saw was thousands of mostly young people, from various ethnic groups and religions having a pleasant time together. Lots of smiles. Lots of laughter. And most of all, lots of innocent fun. Why is all this merriment is such a threat to Islamists, we have no idea, apart from a suspicion that they are angry at missing out.

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The saddest part of this whole story is that until comparatively recently, Malaysians of all ethnic groups and religions would go to school together, work together and socialise together. Over recent years a yawning divide has grown between Muslims and non-Muslims.

As an example of how things have changed, when the Carlsberg brewery officially opened in 1972, the guest of honour was then prime minister Abdul Razak. Fast forward to 2014, and that same brewery was the target of a bomb plot by Islamic State (IS), the terrorist group responsible for countless atrocities in Syria and Iraq.

Far from acknowledging the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism within Malaysia, the country’s current premier, Najib Razak – the son of Abdul Razak ironically enough – has expressed admiration for IS. Is it any wonder that Isma and other extremist groups feel able to made daily attacks on non-Muslims and non-Malays?

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Supporting an event like Oktoberfest is much more than fighting for the right to party. Or seeing pretty girls dressed in lederhosen. It is about asserting that all Malaysians should be allowed to live in peace and dignity, as intended by the country’s founding fathers.

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As well as making Islam the official religion of first the Federation of Malaya, and then Malaysia, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion to non-Muslims. With every passing year, this guarantee is coming under greater threat.

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Banning beer festivals, such as Oktoberfest and St Patrick’s Day, represents the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. How soon before all outdoor drinking is outlawed, before all non-Muslim celebrations have to be held behind closed doors, before all other faiths are made illegal, before the Talibanisation of Malaysia is complete?

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All Malaysians, including Malays, should have the right to choose their faith, and to make proper grown-up choices about how to lead their lives. The only way for this to be achieved is for the silent majority of moderate, tolerant, easy-going Muslims to stand up to the extremists, and say “no more!”.