Dated :31th August 1997 – The Sunday Times
[31th August 1997]KUALA LAMPUR Three Moslem women, who were rounded up by Islamic authorities in Malaysia’s Selangor state for parading in bathing suits in a beauty contest, await their fate outside an Islamic court in Kuala Lampur. (L-R) Noni Mohammad 19, Fahyu Hanim Ahmad 18, and Shalina Shaari 23 , if convicted are liable for a maximum fine of 1000 ringgit ($200) or sixmonths jail or both. Selangor state said it was cracking down on Moslem women and men " who go beyond the limit" in their clothing in public.
The arrest in Malaysia of three Moslem beauty contestants who paraded in swimsuits has touched a sensitive nerve in a country whose official religion is Islam but whose laws are secular.
The move occurred against the backdrop of a controversial government ruling that a course on Islamic civilisation would be made mandatory in universities.
The fact the incidents took place when Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was running the country while Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was on leave, added fuel to the fire.
Non-Moslems have long been suspicious of Anwar, who launched his career as a firebrand Islamic youth leader and who chaired the Islamic affairs meeting which issued the ruling on the university course.
"Miss Malaysia Petite" contest raided
The beauty competition row erupted when religious officials raided the finals of the Miss Malaysia Petite contest in central Selangor state in June, and arrested the trio in front of television cameras and a gasping audience.
Part-time models Fahyu Hanim Ahmad, 18, Noni Mohamed, 19, and Shalina Shaari, 23, were fined 400 ringgit ($143) each for breaking a state law.
The law against "indecent" dressing in public was passed by the Selangor state assembly in 1995 but was not widely known. It had not been acted upon until the June arrests in the ballroom of a leading hotel.
The move was hailed by religious authorities as a triumph over what they see as growing moral decay among Moslem youths in Malaysia, where nearly 60 percent of the 20 million population is Moslem.
Recently, religious authorities in Malaysia’s Borneo state of Sarawak ruled that Moslem men may not take part in body building contests, because of body exposure.
By then, Moslems themselves were already split over the beauty contest ruling.
"Moslems should support the action as a way to guard the purity of Islam and a step to stop social ills. Why should we sympathise with those who break the law?" university student Haziyah Hussain was quoted as saying in Harakah, the newspaper of the opposition Islamic party PAS.
Others, including the prime minister’s outspoken daughter, were livid.
"What worries me most of all is, what next? What constitutes indecency in Muslim women? Not covering our heads? Wearing skirts? Short sleeves?…
"Excuse me, but did the Taliban infiltrate our country?," Marina Mahathir wrote in a July 9 column in The Star newspaper, referring to Afghanistan’s purist Islamic movement.
Government leaders red faced
Certain Malaysian government leaders were embarrassed at what they saw as a setback to years of hard work convincing people at home and abroad that Islam is a moderate religion.
"That is not the Islamic way," the prime minister said of the beauty contest raid. "It does not strengthen the people’s belief. We can take other methods of action which are more effective."
Mahathir then drew fire, with some Moslem leaders calling him an apostate for his remarks. Later, a government official spoke of a misunderstanding, saying the prime minister had not been accused of being un-Islamic.
Meanwhile, the controversy over the university course bubbled for a couple of weeks until the cabinet ruled the subject would cover both Islamic and Asian civilisations.
Mahathir promoting Moslem prosperity
Mahathir, who has promoted a moderate face of Islam since taking office 16 years ago, frequently says Moslems should focus on building up their wealth and power to break the cycle of oppressive poverty found in many Islamic nations.
He has engineered the rise of a breed of Malay Moslem entrepreneurs through large-scale privatisation of former government assets, to show that given the chance, the country’s Moslems can succeed. But Malaysia’s rapid economic growth, which created a thriving middle class of Moslem Malays, has brought with it a host of social ills.
Newspapers are filled with stories of narcotics raids on youth hangouts, dumping of illegitimate babies in public toilets, child-custody battles, incest and rape. What worries government leaders is that much of it seems to be happening in the Moslem Malay community.
Mahathir said in July that state chief ministers "would like to ensure that the focus (of action) is on people who rape their children, rape other people, beat their wives and take drugs rather than focusing on people’s dresses."