UMNO Youth facing flack for overdoing boycott of KK Mart stores over sale of socks bearing the word "Allah"

Wiser to let the police and the attorney-general handle the matter professionally than to prolong the controversy over the sale of socks which insulted Islam.

A picture of current Malaysia's UMNO Youth chief Akmal Saleh walking along a corridor
On 20 March, defiant UMNO Youth chief Akmal Saleh said he would continue to call for a boycott of KK Mart stores despite advice that the issue not be prolonged. (Photo: Akmal Saleh/Facebook)

On 20 March, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim called for an end to the controversy surrounding the sale of socks bearing the word “Allah” that has been roiling the nation since 13 March.

Saying it was time to move on, Anwar added: “Why are we still caught up in this issue? A report was made, just take action and don’t insult religion. There is no need to continue this discussion.”

He said the discovery of some pairs of socks sold at KK Mart’s Bandar Sunway store in Selangor had been made out to be a huge disaster.

Muslims angered by socks which bear the word “Allah”

The controversy erupted after photographs of the socks were uploaded on social media on March 13. It angered Muslims, with UMNO Youth calling for a boycott of the KK Mart chain of convenience stores nationwide.

“My only advice is, not to go overboard and don’t be narrow-minded. In whatever action we take, do not go to extremes,” Anwar said.

I thought it was a very reasonable statement.

KK Mart offers public apology

Especially so since KK Mart had gone to great lengths to offer an apology and promise to be more careful in future. It placed an apology on the electronic displays and cash registers in all its stores, apart from apologising in the media.

Especially so as police were already investigating the matter, with federal police criminal investigation department director Shuhaily Zain saying four investigation papers had been opened after 143 police reports were lodged nationwide about the offending socks.

“We have recommended that both KK Mart and the socks’ vendor be prosecuted and are now waiting for instructions from the attorney-general's chambers,” he was quoted as saying at a press conference on 23 March.

It was also reported that police had confiscated 14 pairs of socks after investigating 800 branches nationwide.

Is UMNO Youth trying to play hero?

But UMNO Youth would have none of it.

On 20 March, defiant UMNO Youth chief Akmal Saleh said he would continue to call for a boycott of KK Mart stores despite advice that the issue not be prolonged.

He was quoted in the media as saying: “No one will be able to stop me even if they try.”

I don’t know if he was referring to Anwar or his party president and deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi who had said the matter should be put to rest as KK Mart had apologised and it was found that the supplier from mainland China was at fault.

“This matter should be settled, without prolonging the issue,” Zahid had said.

The UMNO Youth leader said on 22 March that KK Mart’s apology was insufficient and that the boycott would continue. He is reported as advising the owners of the KK Mart store chain to “find another business”.

Akmal, who is also Merlimau assemblyman, said the boycott was to teach anyone playing with the "3R” issues of royalty, religion and race a lesson.

Some have accused Akmal and UMNO Youth of wanting to play hero.

Usually, Islamist party PAS is the loudest when it comes to issues related to Islam. This time UMNO Youth has been more vocal and aggressive in protesting the matter. Does UMNO Youth think it will win over PAS sympathisers with this approach?

Perhaps PAS leaders know that even without making much noise the authorities will take action as this involves Islam; especially so after the King himself had called for stern action.

Police submit investigation papers to AG

I can understand that this is a highly sensitive issue for Muslims, and as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Ibrahim said: "Muslims revere the word Allah" and that matters which incite anger should not arise.

On 22 March, criminal investigation department director Shuhaily, in announcing that the investigation papers had been submitted to the Attorney-General’s Chambers, added a word of caution.

“We have conducted investigations. We have taken action within the law. Let the authorities handle it. If you take action on your own, it will not alleviate the situation but worsen it.”

Sound advice. And true too.

On 23 March, Akmal stood his ground in answering a call by Mydin Mohamed Holdings Berhad (Mydin) managing director Ameer Ali Mydin to stop exploiting the socks issue for political mileage as it could divide Malaysians.

Why is Akmal kicking up a fuss?

“Why is he still kicking up a fuss? Political parties should distance themselves from 3R (race, religion and royalty) issues and we should not pour oil on the flames,” FMT quoted Ameer as saying.

Akmal’s campaign for a public boycott of KK Mart, despite the chain having issued an apology, would affect investor confidence and the livelihoods of the workers, a majority of whom were Malay-Muslims, Ameer noted.

“Both KK Mart and the vendor (who supplied the products) have apologised. What else do you expect them to do?” Ameer, who is the president of the Bumiputera Retailers Association, asked.

Again, this is logical. And practical advice too.

Akmal replied: “This issue isn’t about KK Mart being Chinese (owned) or not. The issue is that KK Mart has insulted Muslims, so stern action must be taken by Muslims in this country.

“I want to tell Ameer this too: If this had happened in Mydin hypermarkets, we would be doing the same thing to Mydin.”

Akmal’s bravado was probably fuelled by the backing he had received from his party. For UMNO secretary-general Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki had told a press conference a day earlier that the UMNO supreme council fully supported Akmal’s stand.

More calls for UMNO Youth to let things be

Mydin is not the only level-headed person to call on UMNO Youth to refrain from going overboard. Some others, such as former trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz, have done so too.

Malaysia, she said, did not need rabble-rousers like Akmal as they would only divide the people.

“There are already so many pressing issues to address and manage without being distracted by such unwarranted problems like the socks. Action is already being taken and no one should be allowed to politically capitalise on it. Enough already,” she said.

Again, sound advice.

The Malaysian Chinese Association, UMNO's partner in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, has also criticised UMNO Youth's stand. Senator Ti Lian Ker of the MCA said Akmal's tendency to play “judge, jury and executioner” would irk the public and result in BN being viewed with contempt.

“Such arrogance will only see the people getting fed up with UMNO and BN,” he said during the debate on the King’s address in the upper house of Parliament, the Dewan Negara, on 21 March.

Several DAP leaders too have chastised Akmal.

On 23 March, 21 academics, ex-civil servants and activists issued a statement slamming Akmal and UMNO’s stand. They accused UMNO of almost taking advantage of the socks issue to score political points.

The message has been sent, why prolong the matter?

Calling on everyone to await the outcome of police investigations into the matter and for the authorities to decide the appropriate punishment, they urged Malaysians to ignore Akmal’s boycott call.

It remains to be seen if Akmal will back down or if some face-saving solution will be found. Or even if his boycott call will work.

Some people have, in fact, called on Anwar to censure Akmal for going overboard. Will the prime minister tick off Akmal and UMNO, a partner in his ruling coalition of parties?

I think UMNO Youth has made its point. I think everyone should now just let the police and the attorney-general handle the matter professionally and move on.

The nation will benefit more if everyone were to expend energy and time on shoring up the economy, especially at a time when many Malaysians are struggling to cope with rising prices of goods and services.

And Malaysians should take note of and heed the King's words: “We have been living in a pluralistic country for so long. Such mistakes regarding religion and race cannot be accepted and should not happen again.”

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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