Malaysia's Ramadan Madness: Fines, Arrests, Shaming of Those Who Can't Fast

As Malaysia experiences a recent wider shift towards a more conservative form of Islam, religious authorities in the culturally diverse and multi-ethnic Southeast Asian nation are stepping up moral policing efforts to crack down on those who are violating the country’s laws on breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Regarded as the holiest month in Islam, Ramadan is celebrated in many countries worldwide. During this time, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual acts during daylight hours and break their fast after sundown. While it is a month of deep spiritual reflection and even celebration with friends and family, it can also be far from easy, as anyone who has tried fasting can attest. Fasting during Ramadan, also called sawm, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

In many parts of Malaysia, Muslims caught drinking or eating during daytime hours often find themselves on the wrong side of the law and are penalized and could face fines of up to 1,000 Malaysian Ringgit (about $200) and a prison sentence of up to a year. Non-Muslims caught selling food, drinks, or tobacco to Muslims during fasting hours could also face punishment.

Although no arrest figures have been released yet for 2024, religious officials in the state of Malacca, a major tourist destination, recorded nearly 100 arrests of Muslims caught breaking the fast during Ramadan in 2023, an increase from 41 arrests in the previous year. According to the state's Islamic Religious Department, JAIM, more than ten “hotspots” were also identified throughout Malacca.

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Rahmad Mariman, a Malacca State Executive Council member, said that “frequent monitoring and inspections” were being carried out at popular bars, restaurants, malls, and parks.

“Through these operations, JAIM enforcement officers will detain Muslims found eating in public and will not hesitate to take action against traders involved in selling food to them,” Mariman said. 

In the northern, neighboring state of Perak, the Gerik Islamic Religious Department (JAIPK), which serves as JAIM’s counterpart in the state, shared videos of inspections and fasting raids that religious officers conducted throughout March.

In one video, JAIPK officers wearing their distinctive black and white uniforms and reflective vests were seen arriving at an open-air restaurant in the town of Gerik during the day to question staff and catch Muslims buying food. One man wearing a blue motorcycle helmet, whose name was pixelated in the video, was seen fleeing the restaurant with a bag of food.

Raids and fines for Ramadan fast breaking spotlight religious conservatism in multicultural Malaysia | CNN
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This was not a reenactment by professionals. It is an actual video of what took place during our recent operations,” JAIPK wrote in a caption accompanying its TikTok video, which went viral and garnered more than one million views.

One religious enforcement officer from Malacca told CNN that more and more raids had been carried out in 2024 compared to the previous years. 

It is our responsibility to protect and preserve the name of Islam during this important time,” the officer said, who declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

However, the officer stressed that not all cases resulted in arrests, adding that “it is also important that we show compassion, especially on very hot days when we see people drinking water—sometimes it can’t be helped.

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