Reclaiming our culture and public spaces
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OCTOBER 6 – When I attended Oktoberfest at the 1 Utama shopping complex a few years ago, I had an all right time. I drank beer and ate delectable German sausages, though I’m not a fan of sauerkraut.
Fast forward to 2017 and beer festivals have suddenly become the victim of racist and bigoted political campaigning ahead of the 14th general elections due by August 2018.
The Better Beer Festival 2017, scheduled this weekend at the hipster mall Publika in KL that had been set to showcase over 250 craft beers from 43 breweries across 12 countries, was the first to be cancelled after PAS protested against it.
Because we have no local council elections, the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) is controlled by the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government even though most of the city’s MPs are from Pakatan Harapan (PH).
The inspector-general of police insisted that police had advised against the Better Beer Festival because there was a real security threat, not because of religious or racial sensitivities.
District police have also claimed that the German beer festival and Oktoberfest scheduled at shopping centres in Klang and Petaling Jaya were targets for militant attacks, advising local councils against approving them.
As a result, the Klang event is in limbo while the Petaling Jaya City Council outrightly rejected Oktoberfest.
Both the police and local councils have been passing the buck back and forth, refusing to be the one to support or approve the beer festivals.
It is despicable if our institutions are being abused for political campaigning. Voters should not be implicitly blackmailed into supporting a particular coalition to protect their personal freedoms.
While PAS has repeatedly protested against Oktoberfest, this year was the first the Selangor state government controlled by PKR, DAP and PAS caved in. In 2014, the festival was merely shifted from the open-air car park in 1 Utama to the fourth floor parking lot.
It is unfortunate that PH prioritised the perceived Malay-Muslim vote above protecting the civil liberties of the urban electorate in KL and PJ.
Politics is local.
As KL and PJ are cosmopolitan cities, most Malay-Muslim residents probably don’t care one way or another about beer festivals. They, like anyone else, have more important things to worry about like the rising cost of living and traffic jams than about a bunch of beer lovers having fun at a mall.
A Malay-Muslim voter living hundreds of miles away in Kelantan or Terengganu is also unlikely to be impressed with the cancellation of an event in KL, PJ or Klang, and would probably give greater weight to other local factors on a long laundry list when judging PH, BN and PAS.
I myself am particularly incensed by the ban on Oktoberfest because 1 Utama is within cycling distance from my home. I don’t want to have to fly to Sarawak just to enjoy the festival.
Even worse than acquiescing to religious fundamentalists, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) actively engaged in the same bigoted campaigning as their rivals by launching a petition to ban all beer festivals throughout the country.
The silence of PH component parties PKR and DAP only means that they condone the petition by Armada Selangor and have no issues with such extremism being a part of the coalition’s proposed policies, should it win state or federal power in GE14. Muslim party Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) has also said they do not support beer festivals.
On the BN side in Selangor, MCA is caught in a similar conundrum and was forced to lodge a police report when Umno threatened to protest against the German festival in Klang.
In racial politics with political parties and governments formed along racial and religious lines, ethnic and religious minorities will always lose. It also makes for confusing policy-making with different parties in the same coalition having contradictory stands on issues like civil liberties.
Yet, both PH and BN are lukewarm about enacting anti-discrimination laws that would, among other things, prohibit race- and religious-based associations and political parties.
Some non-Muslims told me they don’t care much about the cancellation of Oktoberfest because one can always consume alcohol at home. Detractors of beer festivals similarly claim that they are not against one’s right to drink in private, but dislike these so-called “public” events because they are supposedly not part of Malaysian culture.
Shopping centres are not actually public areas but private properties. The only reason why Malaysians are forced to throng these boring, soulless malls is because federal and state governments do not bother upgrading public parks or work on creating world-class libraries and museums.
I started the #SaveOktoberfest petition because I believe it is important for us to reclaim our public spaces. It isn't so much about the right to consume alcohol in private, but the right to publicly display our culture and lifestyle in cosmopolitan cities like KL and PJ because Malaysia is a diverse country.
All Malaysians are equal. No one culture, ethnic group or faith is superior.
A German beer festival may not be part of local culture, just like Italian, French or Middle Eastern cuisine, but that doesn’t mean that Malaysians don’t partake or celebrate them because we love food in general.
Malaysia should be just as proud of nasi lemak as siew yoke (roast pork), banana leaf rice, Sabahan and Sarawakian cuisine, and dishes from the many other cultures here.
This country was built by the blood, sweat and tears of Malaysians across cultures and racial and religious groups. Telling a certain community that their beloved food and drink should only be consumed in private as it is not worthy of public celebration is utterly disrespectful.
Insinuations that our cuisine is “dirty” are also highly offensive.
If we are to promote Malaysia to the world as “truly Asia“, then we must celebrate all types of cuisine with equal vigour, whether they are “halal” or not.
Excluding a certain community from public life is akin to ignoring their contributions to Malaysia and marks the top of a slippery slope down to apartheid.
But political parties across the divide have no problems with it. And they wonder why some millennials want to abstain from voting in the next election.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.
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