Sin Squad on Patrol in Malaysia


Abdul Hami and his girlfriend, Batmini, were awakened in their hotel room at 4 a.m. by an insistent knock on the door. “Housekeeping,” a male voice called out. Bleary-eyed, Abdul opened the door to find the religious police.

Five plainclothes officers from the government’s Islamic Affairs Department quickly entered the small room. Three more blocked the door. They had no search warrant, but they didn’t need one. Abdul, it was clear, had violated the law against khalwat--being alone with a woman who was not his wife.

Batmini grabbed what clothes she could and hid in the bathroom. Officers soon concluded that she was a Hindu and not subject to Sharia, or Islamic law. But Abdul, a Muslim, was arrested. The 29-year-old chauffeur faces up to two years in jail and a maximum fine of $790--the equivalent of four months’ pay.

“I will ask to pay the fine,” a downcast Abdul said as he waited at the police station to be booked.


Malaysia’s beautiful beaches and luxury hotels attract visitors from around the world. Its modern capital, Kuala Lumpur, boasts the tallest building on Earth. The federal government, looking to the future, has created a competitive high-tech manufacturing sector.

Yet Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country of 22 million people, is striving to maintain its strict religious traditions in the face of globalization. Civil rights, as known in the West, take second place to the preservation of Islamic values.

The state-funded religious police routinely cite or arrest Muslims for drinking alcohol, kissing in public, gambling, committing adultery, practicing homosexuality, insulting Islam or eating in public during the holy month of Ramadan. In Sharia court, Islamic judges chastise defendants for not praying enough and send the worst offenders to jail for months or even years.

“Although good moral standards are taught at home and in school, there are people who will break the law, and we need enforcement,” said George Town defense attorney Ahmed Bazari, who handles many Sharia cases. “The law is good.”


Malaysia’s version of Sharia is more tolerant than in countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where Islamic law is strictly enforced. After all, this is Southeast Asia, and Malaysia’s neighbors include indulgent Thailand and materialistic Singapore.

Malaysia, a former British colony, gained independence in 1957. Today, it is a multiethnic state where Malays--most of whom are Muslims--make up half the population, while descendants of Chinese and Indian immigrants account for a third. Islam is the national religion, but there are many Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and Christians.

A Western-style police and court system enforces criminal laws that apply to all Malaysians.

But Sharia law is enforced only against Muslims, contributing to a sense that the country has dual personalities.

The same government that hopes to lure more Hollywood productions after the profitable filming here of “Anna and the King” is intolerant of dissent, controls the press, jails opposition leaders without trial and is openly antagonistic to the West. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s autocratic leader, accuses Western powers of seeking to dominate his nation through globalization.

“Foreigners who once colonized us, who have done nothing to help us, these foreigners have no good intentions,” Mahathir said last month. “They hate Malaysia. . . . They wish us to become their puppet client state.”

Mahathir is 75, and his 20-year grip on power is weakening. He is under challenge from Islamic fundamentalists on one side and the liberal opposition on the other. His solution has been to appease Islamic leaders while cracking down on his democracy-oriented critics.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, once considered a shoo-in to be the next prime minister, ran afoul of Mahathir in 1998. He was arrested, beaten and convicted on what were widely decried as dubious charges of corruption and sodomy. In April, 10 of Anwar’s leading supporters were jailed without trial.


At the same time, Muslim fundamentalists have won power in rural parts of the country and are pressing for stricter Islamic law. Some Muslim leaders want to adopt hudud, a code that would permit harsh punishment, such as stoning adulterers to death.

Supporters of the Sharia code say it helps reduce out-of-wedlock births, alcoholism, adultery, the breakup of families and a host of sins common in the West.

As Malaysia’s male-dominated society changes and young women move from villages to work in factories, Muslims say it is especially important to protect them from evil influences. The religious police serve as “big brothers” who watch over such women, whose families aren’t nearby to tell them how to behave.

The Islamic Affairs Department, or Jabatan Agama Islam, was established shortly after independence. Its role as moral enforcer expanded in the mid-1990s, when the nation’s Sharia laws were strengthened.

In 1997, the Islamic police raided a beauty pageant in Kuala Lumpur and arrested two winning Muslim contestants. They were carted off to the police station wearing their formal gowns and lugging their trophies. They were charged with indecent exposure and fined $160 each.

Malaysia’s Sharia law is written broadly, covering a wide range of behavior and imposing tough sentences. The Islamic police investigate frequent complaints from citizens and stage raids to nab Muslims who flout the law.

Any Muslim man, for example, who misses Friday prayers three weeks in a row without good cause can be arrested and sent to jail for up to six months. Violating Ramadan by eating, drinking or smoking in public during the day can bring a jail term of a year.

Adultery and homosexuality are punishable by a maximum $1,315 fine, a whipping and three years in prison.


Some provisions are exceedingly vague.

A Muslim who commits an act “preparatory to sexual intercourse out of wedlock” can be imprisoned for two years. Officers say they apply this section when they catch a couple in incriminating circumstances but not engaging in intercourse.

Any Muslim who “behaves in an indecent manner in any public place” can face six months behind bars. Officers say this can include hugging at the beach or holding hands in a park. Usually, officers say, they issue a warning or, in the case of teenage violators, call their parents.

One of the broadest code sections is the rule against khalwat. Under this provision, any Muslim--such as Abdul Hami--found with an unrelated member of the opposite sex “in any secluded place or in a house or room under circumstances which may give rise to suspicion that they were engaged in immoral acts shall be guilty of an offense.”

Officers say they use a standard of “close proximity” to determine whether a couple has committed khalwat. But critics say the law is so sweeping it invites abuse.

Ahmed Bazari, the defense attorney, cited one case in which a man and woman were riding a motorcycle when the driver’s cell phone rang. He pulled over to answer it, and the couple sat on the motorcycle while he talked on the phone. Officers who were passing by arrested them for being in “close proximity.”

Tales abound of unmarried couples arrested for sitting in cars on moonlit evenings and of men jailed for unlawful intercourse when they registered to marry their pregnant girlfriends.

The Islamic enforcers add to the trauma by giving the names of those arrested to local newspapers.

Officers say they can usually tell a Muslim by his or her name. To make it easier, Malaysian identity cards now list the holder’s religion.

In addition, married Muslims receive matching identification cards that bear the photographs of both husband and wife. A man who has the maximum four wives allowed under Islamic law has four cards, each with a photo of himself and one of his wives.

In a test program in April, Malaysia became the first country to begin issuing computer-readable identity cards that include religion and ethnicity information, as well as health records, financial data and fingerprints. The so-called smart card will eventually be issued to every Malaysian and can serve as a driver’s license, passport and cash card.

For the enforcement officers operating on the island of Penang off the northwestern coast of Malaysia, imposing Islamic morality is tough.

Penang, dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient” in British times, is a popular tourist destination and one of the most liberal parts of the country. Non-Muslim Chinese are the largest ethnic group there, and Muslim Malays make up only a third of the population.

George Town, Penang’s capital, is alive with temptations: clubs, bars, restaurants and tourist hotels where alcohol is served and men and women of various ethnic groups socialize in close proximity.

The Penang enforcement officers base many of their arrests on complaints from citizens. The law allows officers to enter any house without a warrant if a witness provides credible evidence that a Muslim is inside drinking alcohol or engaging in illicit sexual activity.

The officers also carry out surprise raids on weekend nights and on special occasions such as Valentine’s Day.

On one recent Saturday night, 10 plainclothes officers equipped with flashlights and handcuffs piled into three SUVs to cruise the local bars.

The first stop was the tawdry New City bar, an establishment made up of dozens of small rooms where two or three people can sit and drink alcohol or otherwise amuse themselves.

Joined by four regular police officers, the enforcers burst into the club simultaneously through the front and back entrances. To their disappointment, there were no Muslims on the premises.

The officers suspected that the club has a secret room where Muslims hide during raids, but a search turned up nothing.

The next stop was the Satit Lounge in the neighboring city of Bayan Baru. As the officers drove up, a group of women in short skirts and high heels ran out. When the officers entered the bar, it was empty except for two men.

A few doors down at the Benz karaoke club, the officers hit pay dirt. Four Muslims were sitting on a couch with beer mugs in front of them. Several Muslim women and two Muslim men in drag appeared to be working at the club.

The officers grilled the sullen staff and customers. Then they gathered up the evidence, carefully putting the half-full beer mugs into plastic bags.

Two of the alleged beer drinkers were handcuffed together and forced to carry their own evidence as they were taken to a nearby police station.

Altogether, the officers arrested 12 suspects--four customers for drinking alcohol and eight suspected employees for serving them.

The officers recognized one of the alleged drinkers as a man they had arrested not long ago for khalwat. As a repeat offender, he could get a year in jail.

“Islam forbids it, and I am sorry,” Mohammed Rasyid, 22, another of the accused beer drinkers, said as he waited his turn at the station to be booked. “We are not going to do this again.”

The arrest of Abdul Hami at the Paramount Hotel in George Town came during the officers’ last stop of the night.

It’s a hotel they visit often. Officers decided to search the room of Abdul and Batmini after the clerk pointed to their names in the register.

Abdul, whose luggage consisted of two motorcycle helmets, insisted that it was the first time he had gone to a hotel with a woman.

He said he held no grudge against the officers who barged into his room. “They have the right,” he said, “even though they have ruined my reputation.”