The scheduled caning next week of a Malaysian woman for drinking a beer in violation of Islamic law underscores the tensions between Kuala Lumpur’s desire to promote Malaysia as a moderate Muslim society and the increasingly tough actions taken by local religious police and courts.

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno sits with her daughter Kaitlynn, 5.

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno sits with her daughter Kaitlynn, 5.

The case of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno has riveted Malaysia in recent weeks after she was sentenced to six strokes of the cane for consuming alcohol in public at a hotel bar in Pahang, the home state of Najib Razak, the country’s urbane prime minister. It is the first time that such a punishment has been ordered for a woman in Malaysia for any offence.

The case has also attracted attention because she now lives in neighbouring Singapore, though she has agreed to return for punishment. Pahang’s Islamic High Court decided this week that the sentence should be carried out in spite of appeals by local civil rights groups.

Raids of restaurants and bars by the Islamic police to catch Muslims drinking alcohol are a normal occurrence, mainly in rural areas such as Pahang where the Muslim Malay population is concentrated. Those arrested are usually punished by a fine or warning.

“Incidents like this give the mistaken impression to foreign investors that Malaysia is an intolerant place,” said a foreign businessman based in Kuala Lumpur.

The government has been reluctant to condemn the sentence. Mr Najib does not want to alienate ethnic Malay voters when support has been on the rise for the conservative Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), which is part of the three-party opposition alliance.

Mr Najib has already angered some ethnic Malays by relaxing preferences that benefit them in government and business in an effort to attract more foreign investment.

Opposition politicians have largely kept quiet on the issue as well, out of fear that criticism might displease PAS, amid speculation the Islamic party could defect to the Malay-dominated ruling coalition in the name of racial solidarity due to a rise in tensions with ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

The debate about Ms Kartika is taking place against the background of calls by hardliners from the United Malays National Organisation, the lead party in the ruling coalition, to protect the interests of ethnic Malays. Their demands are seen as an attempt to win back Malays who support PAS because of unhappiness over corruption.

Farish Noor, of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, believes that the caning of Ms Kartika is “a sign of what is to come” as Umno tries to appear more Islamic than PAS in appealing to the Muslim Malay majority. — FT