September’s over, here comes Oktoberfest

SEPTEMBER 28 — The noise brewing over the Better Beer Festival cancellation and what not merits some reflection.

To avert pandemonium, I want to reassure readers there is plenty left in our taps, Oktoberfest has not been cancelled.

Bars and breweries will as always maximise on the theme and outlets nationwide will be, for the lack of a better term, feasting—rather than festering—this October.

One event has its plug pulled, over politics.

Though I was perplexed, aware of Malaysia’s fascination with records, about whether PAS central committee member Dr Riduan Mohd Nor slamming the event as one which turns the city into the “largest vice centre in Asia” was actually a flattering compliment.

It is remarkable that some individuals are convinced one event encapsulates the whole of Malaysia’s Oktoberfest. Perhaps it was the only poster that arrived at PAS’ and Amanah’s headquarters. 

The victimised event is now a surrogate for the unending moral battle between the Islamist parties. The former to emblazon its religious priorities and the latter to augment its claim the incestuous photo-ops with Chinese-centric DAP has not doused its unfailing faith.

The Federal Territories minister was having his BN secretary-general cap on when nixing the event, as he was thinking less of the Segambut voters, where event-venue Publika is located, and more about the puritanical votes available in Kuala Terengganu. 

They assume—a whole bunch of people left and right—the standard voter, 400 kilometres away would be salved in the soul knowing his saviours are battling demons in the capital.

Beers aside, these politicians have long lost touch with the average voter.

What is it about?

There are 140 dine-out and nightlife restaurants inside Publika, and the vast majority serve alcohol. The main social square is filled with restaurants and bars, with tables and chairs laid out. There is booze inside the shops extending to the square.

It is already present. It was never about a legion of beer-trucks parked for a week in an otherwise dry complex because of a craft-beer event.

The ban is about carving a symbolic win, not a practical shift in the prevalence of alcohol in highly urbanised zones.

Then, how about sentiments?

Most Muslims don’t care. Most are not staying at home with a dying thirst for a cold tap, but nor are they seething with rage that sorcerers are peddling their magic potions in expensive stations.

Indifference best describes the situation.

Most Muslims may be disappointed that they have to live their lives not being able to afford the nice things in Publika’s retail stores. Most Non-Muslims would also be envious of the better material world of the Publika folks. So it is really not the place for most Malaysians, Muslim or not, that Publika.

The wealth, however, showcases the social disparities in a country with a small uber-rich, substantial middle class and a growing underclass — who experience for instance, their city homes being torn down to make way for affluent condominiums.

How about that conversation, instead?

Personally, I would not have attended it anyways. I’m oblivious of craft beer festivals. Not an ignoramus, I do know of craft beer. But my Cheras sensibilities would have my right hand involuntarily slapping my face if I bought craft beer which are RM20 and beyond per bottle. I don’t have class, and I don’t intend to purchase it. I settle for my RM10 draught, which is already overpriced if you ask me.

Safe to say I won’t find a lot of the people I grew up with at these fests or at bars serving up craft beers. Unsurprisingly, craft beer has a fraction of the beer market.

The ban is not about drinkers or not, or even the contrived Muslims versus Non-Muslims. It’s about a small loud group of objectors versus a minor player in the large beer market, with the rest of Malaysia bemused.

A method in the madness

So to the agitators then, those mortified by beers in their midst.

They do two things.

Firstly, they present the downsides of alcohol consumption, prioritising alcohol abuse. They tend to say it like they have just discovered penicillin, and gloat about their irrefutable argument. 

There are various associated problems with excessive drinking, but no major model society is living in fear of spirits in glasses and nor are global bodies driven to eradicate drinking.

Drinking is part of society. It can operate in the shadows, like at the Diplomat Bar where I was waylaid to in Dhaka, or communally at the massive Cologne Christmas Market. Or in the heart of the holy lands, in Palestine’s Taybeh which is 30-odd kilometres from Jerusalem. Though a Christian owned brewery, it is in Muslim-led West-Bank and the annual celebration is filled with Muslims.

Better informed societies seek to do it responsibly.

Evidently, drinking has net benefits. But that’s not what this column relies on. This won’t deteriorate to whether drinking is worse than smoking, not as much with sugar-intake but certainly on par with public nudity.

Critically, all human social behaviours have costs, and it is not the purpose of societal processes to ensure total acceptance, but rather social space for all activities. The balance is not in outlawing behaviours, but in allocating social space, regulated in good faith.

The ban proponents seek only a discussion of the downsides and refuse to cope with the upsides. They absolutely abhor alcohol, and that is due to their personal beliefs rather than an adjudication of the facts and a balance of personal choice versus public costs.

It is a disingenuous manner of debating. They are ensconced with their points while the counter argument has no merit because they have already decided they are right as a matter of fact. It’s selective reasoning to the hilt.

Secondly, they believe they are insulted en masse. They don’t think it is limited to the hundreds who join their sporadic public protests, they believe collectively, every single person listed under the category of Muslim is upset about the festival, as a default. They speak with the authority of 16 million Malaysian Muslims, geriatrics, toddler and everyone in between. They believe the herd are fait accompli to their beliefs. In short, if they are visibly upset, then every other Muslim is equally upset, as much as them.

There lies the conundrum. There are millions of Muslims very concerned about their economic well-being, where are these moral crusaders on that? Of course they can argue for both matters, perceived moral protection and economic improvements, but please don’t be offended if I am sceptical about the ratio of time they spend on the latter. Or more importantly, the utility they derive from symbolic wins seems more valuable to them rather than the mundane achievements of upping household incomes and delivering social goods.

And even if they care for both equally, they cannot force their priorities as the priorities of all Malaysian Muslims, therefore assume they are correct in axing an upper class drinking event in an immodest enclave where those attending likely imbibe rather than binge like a summer-break gone wrong.

It is not limited to beer-fests, where religious activists subsume the power of the majority and claim their will flows through them, even if the majority have never heard of them.

Last call

Finally, it leaves a displeasing taste in the mouth that those who want social rights have to jump through hoops to appease those whose major argument is that they feel aggrieved, not that they actually are. 

There are a lot of human activities which make very little sense to me, but I am not going to be upset about these cultures or oppose those who participate because I feel aggrieved.

It takes a special kind of ignorance to argue working democracies are about adhering to the majority’s will without qualification, which it is not, and then assume as a part of their theology their right to own the vote of all those they have marked as part of their flock. If there is one clear thing about great democracies, is that self-appointed moral guardians cannot usurp the will of the citizen.

The citizen is supreme in a democracy. Great democracies find different ways to celebrate that belief.

That, I’ll drink to. All through October. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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