Malaysia appears determined to make an international fool of itself. The latest news, according to Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the Women's Minister, is that the country is considering organizing an international conference on caning and whether it is an appropriate punishment for women under Islamic law.
The announcement by Shahrizat comes on the heels of a government statement last week, nine days after the fact, that a shariah court had ordered the caning of three women for adultery. A fourth, far more publicized, is the case of Kartika Dewi Shukarni, a part-time model who was ordered by a shariah court to be caned for drinking beer. The case is still hanging fire while the Regent of Pahang decides how to treat the matter.
This all is in addition to the widely publicized show trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of consensual sex with a male, a selective prosecution at best even if he did it, since Kuala Lumpur throngs with gay bars, and political persecution at the worst over widespread suspicion that the charges were trumped up. There is also the January violence in the wake of a high court judge's decision to allow the Malaysian Catholic Church to use the word Allah as a synonym for God in its Malay-language editions of its newspaper, the Catholic Herald. Eleven churches, a Sikh temple and two Muslim prayer rooms were attacked.
Many critics hold UMNO responsible for fanning racial disharmony. In the cases of the prayer rooms, eight UMNO members were arrested for attacking them in an apparent attempt to make it look like either Chinese or Indians had done it. There are similar suspicions that ethnic Malays had thrown pigs' heads with money in their mouths into mosques in Kuala Lumpur.
That, plus the continuing political turmoil, appears to be driving up flight capital totals and citizens who are leaving along with their money. And it is giving international investors some serious second thoughts at a time when the export-led economy is finally starting to emerge from the global financial crisis that began in October of 2008.
As to the caning, in the first place the government ought to organize a conference on whether caning, Malaysia style, is an appropriate punishment for anybody, anywhere, unless for crooked government politicians, of which Malaysia has a surfeit . Although caning is officially outlawed in only 25 countries, it is rare in a lot more, and in very few is it practiced as barbarically — on men — as it is in Malaysia, which until quite recently was regarded by the world as one of the globe's most advanced Islamic states.
Now that reputation is in shreds, largely driven not by religion but by politics. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, a traditionally conservative opposition Islamic party, has expressed concern about the canings, announced by Hishammuddin Hussein, the Home Minister. It may well be that PAS will end up more lenient on caning than UMNO, and thus draw in more moderate Malays alienated. Dzulkefly Ahmad, the Islamist party's chief strategist, called the canings politically motivated and said Islamic justice calls for fairness without cruelty or corruption.
The caning itself makes one wonder if Malaysia can do anything right. Hishammuddin told reporters the caning was carried out while the women were fully clothed and seated, and the person wielding the whip was not allowed to raise his (or her) arm above the shoulder. The caning, he said, "did not injure them, [but] the three women said it caused pain within their souls."
One would assume that the purpose of corporal punishment is to cause pain. And when it is done to males in Malaysia and other countries that were once part of the British empire, the damage from the rotan, a thick rattan whip, can be so traumatic that they pass out after one or two strokes. The wounds can take months to heal, at which time the authorities may subject the offender to the rest of his strokes. Offenders have been known to beg for more prison time to escape the rotan. Authorities use only a light rattan stick to hit women on their backs.
So what the caning of the women has done is to show that to much of the world the authorities look like barbarians, while to the rest of it they look like fools for sparing the rod and trying to have it both ways.
Certainly, the outcry across both Malaysia and the world should have been enough to give pause to the government.
"The case constitutes further discrimination against Muslim women in Malaysia," said Hamidah Marican, executive director of Sisters in Islam, a moderate Muslim women's group, in a statement. "And to do this surreptitiously implies that the government wanted to hide this degrading and unjust treatment from public scrutiny." Sofia Lim Sui Ching, president of the All Women's Action Society (AWAM), told local media the government must explain itself for allowing the punishment to be carried out in a government prison in secret without addressing issues raised in Kartika's case, which is still hanging fire while the ex-model meets with the Regent of Pahang.
"The caning of these three women is just the tip of the iceberg," said Donna Guest, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific program, in a prepared statement. "Since 2002 the Malaysian authorities have caned over 35,000 people, mostly non-Malaysians for immigration offenses."
The rights organizations also object on the basis that Malaysia has a two-tier justice system. Muslims come under the jurisdiction of shariah courts for personal matters as a result of changes pushed through by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the 1990s to create a parallel court system. The other 40 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people, mostly ethnic Chinese and Indians, come under the regular civil courts. Under the country's civil justice system, flogging of wmen is forbidden. Thus, the rights groups say, Muslim women are being discriminated against.
Nonetheless, Shahrizat said she plans to invite ministers from other Muslim-majority countries, academics and religious experts to exchange "ideas and experiences with regards to the implementation of shariah law."
This is not particularly a product of Islam. Judicial corporal punishment in Asia is practiced only in countries formerly ruled by the British. The late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto put an end to the practice in Pakistan.
Despite the concerns over the Anwar trial, which has drawn criticism from lawmakers in Australia and the US as trumped up to snuff out a legitimate opposition, tourism visits are up – or were, hitting about 1.5 million from January 2009, a rise of 7.2 percent year-on-year in October. Expectations of a double-digit increase in 2010 tourism may be dampened by the publicity.
*A reader points out that there are two different kinds of caning in Malaysia. Caning under civil law can take the flesh off the person being punished. Caning under Islamic law is designed to cause shame, not pain.