A spate of drink-driving incidents, including three recent fatal ones, has made the issue a powerful political weapon, pitting the Malay-led Perikatan Nasional (PN) government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin against the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Chinese-based faction with the biggest number of lawmakers in the opposition.
Following calls for harsher punishments against offenders last week, Tan Sri Muhyiddin said yesterday that he had ordered the Transport Ministry to amend existing laws to allow heavier penalties to be meted out. They are expected to be tabled at the next Parliament sitting in July.
“It is hoped that this amendment will provide for heavier mandatory penalties in line with the offences committed by drunk drivers who not only cause injuries but also fatalities,” Mr Muhyiddin said in a Facebook post.
The Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) had called for the sale of alcohol to be halted until the issue is resolved, and there are accusations on social media blaming the former Pakatan Harapan government for not banning alcohol sales in neighbourhood stores, a sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
“Drink driving should not be viewed lightly. It stems from weak laws and enforcement apart from the selfish and stubborn nature of drunkards,” the party’s information chief Kamaruzaman Mohamad said in a statement on Tuesday.
He said the PN government, which PAS is a part of, must set up a special Cabinet committee comprising several ministries to combat the scourge.
He cited World Health Organisation statistics ranking Malaysia as 10th in the world in alcohol consumption, with more than RM2 billion (S$648 million) spent on alcoholic beverages in 2016, and said that beer consumption was at a “worrying level”.
However, de facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan, who is also from PAS, said on Friday that the government would not deny non-Muslims their right to drink alcohol.
“They are free to do so, as long as they abide by the laws relating to it,” he said in a statement, adding that the government backed the proposal of a mandatory jail term for drink driving, and will also seek to raise the fine and increase the jail term for drunken drivers.
A series of accidents have raised tensions on the Internet, with some Malaysians urging harsher punishments, including the death penalty, against drunken drivers.
Reactions by netizens have been racially charged, while the issue has also been turned into a religious one by some.
With alcohol consumption commonly associated with non-Muslims, the issue often ignites a racial backlash in Malaysia, leading to a blame game against non-Malays, particularly when the victims are Malay.
DAP MP Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen said he had received more than 900 death threats for opposing PAS’ call to ban alcohol.
“Such solutions should take a different holistic approach without infringing on or taking away the rights of others especially in a plural and multicultural country like Malaysia,” Mr Yii said in a Facebook post in response to the death threats.
Both sides of the political divide have accused each other of not tackling the drink-driving issue effectively.
The equivalent of S$648 million – the sum spent on alcoholic beverages in Malaysia in 2016, according to World Health Organisation statistics which Parti Islam SeMalaysia’s information chief Kamaruzaman Mohamad cited.
Now the pressure is on the Malaysian Chinese Association, a Chinese-based party in ruling coalition PN.
Under current laws, drunken drivers who cause injury or death can be jailed for a maximum of 10 years and fined up to RM20,000.
DAP on Wednesday said former transport minister Anthony Loke had planned to amend the laws to impose stricter punishments for drunken drivers, and that this would have been brought to Parliament this year.
“The issue of drink driving, which used to be a major issue for the opposition BN and PAS, is no longer a priority now that they are in government,” it said in a statement, referring to the Barisan Nasional coalition, which is part of PN.