Washing dirty linen – an unqualified right?

AS has become vogue of late in Malaysia, a simple event can become ugly and hotly contested. As in the case of a lone "Muslim-only" launderette in my home town of Muar.

Former Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad (and my former university mate) wrote in the official PAS publication that Muslim-only launderettes should be permitted. He knew of no law in Malaysia that says it is illegal to operate them. He fortified his contention thus:

"A launderette owner is an individual and not a government entity, and Article 8 of the Federal Constitution on equality cannot apply to an individual. It only applies to the government ... as a private businessman, a launderette owner had the freedom to choose who he wanted to do business with.

"All businesses want to earn profits. If the owner thinks that his business would do better by targeting Muslims, he should be free to do so ... "

Well and good. But, with respect, this is way off the point. The sting lies in the justification for the move. It is not really about equality under the constitution. The sign at the launderette said it was closed off to non-Muslims on the ground of "kesucian" – meaning purity. So, first, it is based on religion. Second, it implies that non-Muslims are impure.

Now, it is a crime under our law for any person – by whatever means: act, conduct, activity and such like – to disrupt or prejudice the maintenance of harmony or unity on the basis of religion. Such act is punishable with imprisonment for up to five years.

It is difficult to ignore the disruptive effect of this "launderette" act on national harmony and unity in our religiously diverse society – if allowed to spread. A Perlis launderette owner also immediately after initiated a similar move for his shop. And true to form, clerics have jumped in to say that non-Muslims are unclean and unhygienic. In comparison to Muslims – including Chinese Muslims.

The Johor Sultan – the constitutional head of the Islamic faith in the state – said the owner of the launderette was violating "the vision of a united, harmonious, moderate and tolerant Johor". The very words penalising such conduct under our criminal law.

The rulers too in a joint statement condemned such action in much the same vein: "In recent weeks, the actions of certain individuals have gone beyond all acceptable standards of decency, putting at risk the harmony that currently exists within our multi-religious and multi-ethnic society."

The very point missed by the former chief justice.

This "Muslims-only" policy advancing cleanliness of Muslims and deprecating non-Muslims as unclean was a form of extremism that His Highness said "… has no place in my state …. Islam teaches the faithful to be tolerant and respect other people and faiths."

Strangely, there is stony silence by our political leaders to such expressions of extremism. The PM only reacted belatedly – after the Johor Sultan's admonishment. And the immediate reported response of the Johor mentri besar was that the launderette owner was free to do as he wished.

Surely the time has come (perhaps long overdue) to resurrect the trinity of laws on racial harmony drawn up by the National Unity Consultative Council. Dust them off from the PM Office's shelf.

After all, the then Minister in the PM's Department Tan Sri Joseph Kurup had given an assurance that there was nothing controversial in the harmony law.

"Malaysia would have a system that could unite the people", he said.

The PM too once held out the proposed National Harmony Act as promoting peace and harmony. The Sedition Act 1948 was to be consigned to the dustbin of history, as it "represents a bygone era", he said. This was part of his reforms to develop Malaysia into a progressive democracy. That was in 2012.

But then followed a complete volte-face. Barely two years later, at the Umno general assembly, he announced that the sedition law will "be strengthened and made more effective"! Succumbing, no doubt, to pressure from hardliners within his ruling party.

Now that the sultans have declared their strong united stand against the ever-growing plethora of religion-related divisive acts, how will the political leadership react. Follow the royal clarion call? Or pussyfoot on these issues that all Malaysians view with growing concern and trepidation?

Gurdial, a former law professor, now practises as a consultant in a law firm. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com