KUALA LUMPUR - 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 Muhyiddin Yassin's 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 this week, Tan Sri Muhyiddin said today (May 30) 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 earlier 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 (May 26).
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 which ranked Malaysia as tenth in the world in alcohol consumption, with over RM2 billion (S$650 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, on Friday said 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.
On May 3, a policeman was killed after a suspected drunk driver rammed into him at a roadblock on the Kajang-Seremban Highway.
On May 25, a man was killed after a driver, believed to be drunk, drove against traffic and collided into him in Kuantan.
On Friday, a courier died after his motorcycle was hit by a drunk driver in Kuala Lumpur.
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 the non-Malays, particularly when the victims were Malay.
Law student Ming Yao wrote on Twitter on May 23: "I'm really sick of seeing the same posts every week making drunk-driving a racial/religious issue. Literally nobody supports drunk drivers, you can ask any non-Muslim. Everyone rational supports heavier penalties. Nobody hates drunk drivers more than those who drink responsibly."
DAP MP Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen said he had received over 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 drunken drivers effectively.
Now the pressure is on PN's Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a Chinese-based party in the ruling coalition.
Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong, who is from MCA, said mandatory jail sentences are being mooted, even though legal provisions for it already exist.
"If we introduce mandatory prison time, that might give some awareness to those who choose to drive under the influence," he told reporters.
Under current laws, drunken drivers who cause injury or death can be jailed for a maximum 10 years and fined up to RM20,000 (S$6,500).
DAP on Wednesday said that 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.
DAP member and political secretary to party veteran Lim Kit Siang, Syahredzan Johan cited statistics from an oral reply to Parliament during former premier Najib Razak's tenure that there were 1,035 road accidents recorded between 2010 and April 2015 caused by drink driving, resulting in 618 deaths.
"I just want to ask Najib one question, why did his government not amend the laws during his nine years of rule?"
But despite the concern over drink driving, police statistics show that the number of accidents involving drink driving have actually gone down over the last few years.
In 2018, there were 54 deaths due to drunk driving, or 0.85 per cent of overall road crash casualties, and in 2017, 58 or 0.86 per cent.
This compared to 229 in 2015, which made up 3.41 per cent of overall casualties.
Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at University of Tasmania, said the moves to politicise the issue come as PN attempts to find its footing, ahead of the July parliamentary sitting.
"PN is using this issue to put DAP and PH on the defensive as DAP and PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) are not against drinking by non-Muslims."
By using the Islamic card, the issue may force PKR and its ally Parti Amanah Negara, a moderate Islamic party, to take a stand and create a split in the opposition PH coalition.