IN December 2014, I spent a night in a budget hotel in Parit Buntar, Perak, sharing the room with my elderly mother.
In the wee hours of the morning, the Perak Islamic religious authority raided my room, suspecting me of khalwat. I tried to stop them from entering my room because it was supposed to be a space that I share only with my family. It was my private property for the night.
The men from the Perak religious authority insisted they had the legal right to come in. The combination of them claiming to have the legal authority and my fear of the repercussion of not cooperating eventually forced me to relent.
They entered and checked my room, and left after they were satisfied that nothing immoral by their Islamic standard was happening.
The officers who raided my room that night may have forgotten about it. It was just another raid for them.
But that incident is still firmly in my mind. I was scared not so much for myself, but for my mother.
Her heart problem means that we are always careful to make sure she is aware of her surroundings. If she had woken up while the men were in our room, nobody knows how things might have turned.
My biggest problem with the raid is the legal authority given to those men to violate a space that was supposed to be private to me. That was my space and no one else should have the right to invade it.
As someone who has experienced the repercussions of moral policing, I am cautious when hearing calls for new laws that will enable the authorities to impose their interpretation of morality on others.
That is why I have taken my time to observe the debate surrounding the Muslim-only launderette found recently in Johor and Perlis. I would not go to these launderettes because I disagree with their actions.
But calling for more government power to regulate and impose a certain interpretation of morality on the owners is a completely different thing.
It is easy to ride the wave of populism and call for laws banning this and that. Several parties want a new law that will further criminalise what people choose to do in their private property, like what the launderette owners chose to do in theirs.
Enabling the Government to encroach into our private spaces has been en vogue since the 1970s, when the size of our government started expanding rapidly.
The importance of liberty, the founding principle of our country in 1957, and the value of individual freedom, are fast forgotten. Today, it is more politically expedient to ride on the wave of Big Government espoused by the politics that came after Bapa Malaysia Tunku Rahman Putra.
And those who have benefited from Big Government would rejoice at the possibility of expanding government even more. That is their easy cop out.
Balancing liberty with social cohesion is very difficult and requires major investments, especially in a multicultural society like ours. It requires time before solutions can be found.
It is much easier to call for more government regulation of our lives, and you can quickly become popular by doing that, but that would be sweeping the problem under the carpet, not resolving it.
In reality, segregation exists everywhere. We choose to ignore these cases because they are not as newsworthy as those influenced by race and religion.
Some children get a better education because their families can afford it.
When you go to a wet market, there are stalls bearing signboards implying that they are reserved for non-Muslims.
When you go to hotels, banks or on flights, there are spaces reserved for those who are rich.
These are examples of segregation that are done within the confines of private properties. I have heard no calls for laws to ban them, and, I must add, rightfully so.
This raises another question. Why is it acceptable for some businesses to segregate while the launderettes can’t?
If some businesses can segregate their customers, and some are happily exploiting the syariah-compliant label to make their millions, why is there a demand for a new law to ban the smaller businesses from doing the same?
I will not attempt a full answer here, for it requires much more space. But I do think that calling for more government power is short- sighted.
We have already proven that the social pressure exerted on the two launderettes worked. Both have removed their segregation practices without the need for a law.
As someone who has suffered at the hands of moral police, I worry whenever people call for more moral policing. And I am glad that social pressure sans a law has once again proven effective.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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