PETALING JAYA: The controversy over a laundrette’s policy of rejecting non-Muslim customers has revived interest in recommendations put forward in 2014 by the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which is now practically defunct.
Amanah vice-president Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the only opposition MP in the NUCC, said it was a shame that the government had decided to put aside the council’s proposals.
Adli Zakuan, programme director for the Pusat Komas human rights group, agreed with him, saying it was time for Putrajaya to revisit the recommendations. He noted that these included a proposed mechanism to deal with racial and religious discrimination.
The offending laundrette, located in Muar, has since withdrawn the Muslim-only policy at the instruction of the Sultan of Johor, but the issue has raised the question of where to draw the line between discrimination and the right of business owners to exercise their freedoms.
Adli said the laundrette’s policy was not in line with the spirit of the Federal Constitution, which calls for equality before the law.
“However, a person or business cannot be prosecuted for simply acting unconstitutionally,” he said, adding that there were no laws pertaining to businesses denying service to customers because of their race or religion.
DAP has reacted to the controversy by calling for an “equality” or “anti-discrimination” law aimed at fighting religious extremism, gender discrimination and all types of unfair practices.
But Adli said such a law would not be a solution to everything and could in fact raise complicated issues. Citing an example, he alleged that laws to fight extremism had been misused.
“National harmony and social cohesion isn’t something we can force and implement by law,” he said. “So there is a need to find a more comprehensive and holistic approach to promoting non-discriminatory practices.”
He said the NUCC appeared to have taken such an approach.
The council proposed three initiatives to counter discrimination, namely an anti-discrimination law, a national harmony law and a national harmony commission.
Mujahid told FMT provisions in the anti-discrimination law were specific and would not contradict constitutional provisions pertaining to the special rights of the Malays and Bumiputeras.
As for the national harmony law, he said it was aimed at punishing hate speech and behaviour against a race or religion. “It’s different from the Sedition Act because it’s more specific and the burden of proof is very high.”
For action to be taken against any party under the proposed law, he added, there must be evidence that the hate speech or action was deliberate, repeated and could lead to physical harm or chaos.
Explaining the proposal for a national harmony commission, he said its purpose was to educate the public, play the role of mediator and give advice to authorities on issues of race and religion because these were not always black and white. “The commission would have to conduct investigations and then recommend action,” he said.
The Malaysian Muslim Consumers Association (PPIM) has dismissed the need for anti-discrimination laws, saying businesses just needed to learn to communicate better.
“In the case of the laundrette, I believe the owner just wanted to cater to customers who may have concerns over clothes which have dog fur on them,” PPIM activist Nadzim Johan told FMT.
“But his explanation was perhaps too general and made it seem that non-Muslims are dirty. He should have explained it properly.”
Nadzim said the laundrette owner’s move was probably a business decision.
“If it’s a business decision, then we shouldn’t see it negatively. If a shop is hiring Chinese speakers because their clientele are Chinese speakers, I don’t think that’s discrimination.
“If I wanted to hire a driver, I might even prefer to hire a non-Muslim because he can work during Hari Raya.”
Nadzim said there was no need for separate washing machines for Muslims and non-Muslims because not everyone would mind sharing the machines. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the customers. They can always go to another laundrette if they don’t agree with a company’s policies.”
He said intervention should happen only if there was discrimination in monopolies, as there would then be no alternatives for consumers.
Veteran economist Ramon Navaratnam said licensing authorities should ensure that businesses didn’t discriminate on the basis of race or religion when serving customers or hiring workers.
“You can say that you need someone who can speak Mandarin if your business deals with the China market, or if your customers are from China, but there is no need for a Chinese to do this. If there are Malays or Indians who can speak Mandarin, then they shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to apply for the job.”
He said that the appropriate authority should have instructed the laundrette owner to abandon its restrictive policy before the Sultan of Johor stepped in.