KUALA LUMPUR:On the rooftop of a popular shopping mall in Selangor, tents stood empty on Friday (Oct 6), set up for an event that would not come to be.
The yearly Oktoberfest celebration at 1 Utama Shopping Centre had been due to kick off the day before, on Thursday. The shopping centre management had held out hope that the celebrations would go ahead as scheduled.
Hours before the event was slated to start however, the local city council confirmed it could not proceed, citing security reasons.
The cancellation will cause losses amounting to more than US$70,000, the mall management told Channel NewsAsia.
The event at 1 Utama was one of several Oktoberfest celebrations which had their approvals reviewed or applications rejected in the wake of security concerns and political objections to alcohol-focused events in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
The BetterBeer Fest, meant to be held at the Publika Shopping Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, was cancelled weeks before it was scheduled to take place as the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) would not grant approval.
Opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) had protested the event, saying it would turn Kuala Lumpur into "the largest vice centre in Asia", reported The Star.
“At our meeting with DBKL, we were instructed to cancel our event as there are issues with the licensing," the festival organisers said in a statement in September.
“We were further informed that the decision was made due to the political sensitivity surrounding the event,” the statement added.
The organisers tried to appeal the decision but Malaysia's police chief IGP Mohamad Fuzi Harun issued a statement saying police would not endorse the event. According to him, authorities had received intelligence that there were parties intending to sabotage the festival or launch a terrorist attack.
Two weeks later, the police chief issued another statement, amid criticism that the ruling UMNO party was pandering to court PAS and the Muslim vote in a potential election year.
The police statement stressed that the decision not to grant approval to the festival organisers was based on solid intelligence - not politics or religious sensitivities.
“NARROWING PUBLIC SPACES FOR NON-MUSLIMS”
However, the issue has become political in multi-ethnic Malaysia.
On Thursday, outside the gates of the opposition-led Selangor state government building, the leader of Malaysia's right-wing "Red Shirts" movement Jamal Yunos smashed crates of beer with a sledgehammer in protest of alcohol-related festivals in Selangor.
"I am thankful to the PAS exco for objecting to these alcohol fests," he said before he began.
"But the (opposition) DAP (Democratic Action Party) exco who are supporting these alcohol fests are disrespectful. Stupid. No brains, no morals," Jamal added.
Jamal was arrested the following day under laws dealing with illegal assembly and being a public nuisance - but his comments reflected the pressure placed on Muslim politicians to not be seen to support such beer events.
Members of other Malay-based opposition parties have also stated their objections to beer festivals.
Selangor, however, is an urban state of upper-middle class voters where non-Muslims form a significant part of the population.
One observer thinks Selangor’s chief minister Azmin Ali of the People's Justice Party can afford to ignore the pressure.
"The current uproar over the beer festival ban is mostly an urban issue and what the opposition needs now is to win more rural Malay seats," said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst at Bower Group. "Therefore, this is a minor headache that the opposition can afford to take."
For secular movement Bebas, politics and religion should have nothing to do with the beer festivals as citizens should have the freedom to make their own decisions.
According to Bebas spokesperson Azrul Mohd Khalib, the current situation feels like there are narrowing public spaces for non-Muslims in Malaysia where there should instead be room to coexist.
"One of things that Muslims are taught is (that) there is no compulsion in religion," said Azrul. "And I think we have to go back to (the) fundamentals of that."
“DONT PANDER TO EXTREMISTS”
However, the police believe that security concerns surrounding the event cannot be ignored.
Malaysia's only terror attack in recent history was at a nightclub in Selangor last year. Police are standing by their intel and maintain they are not taking any chances when it comes to public safety.
However, Azrul believes that police and the public should not give in to these extremists.
"The guarantee of security is the mandate that has been given to the police. The guarantee of people being able to live in harmony and so forth is the mandate the Malaysia people have given to the Malaysian government," he said.
"Rather than acting by cancelling all these events, they should instead be able to bolster and guarantee security at these locations in which these events are being held," Azrul added.
"The precedent that this is setting is basically the mindset that you're not allowed to organise these events at all because there will be a risk (of security threats)," he said.
The situation is not the same across Malaysia, however.
For instance, the Sarawak government said it is happy to host Oktoberfest events as they are good for tourism and are a celebration of culture.
Similar events are being held in Penang too, with one organised by the Malaysian-German Society serving non-alcoholic beer alongside regular lager.