Questions asked as new local beer goes on sale in Malaysia

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am

A new, locally brewed beer has suddenly appeared on Malaysian shelves, a surprising development in a nation where Islamic-influenced policies have been holding increasing sway.

The Royal Malaysian Customs, which oversees production and taxation of alcoholic beverages confirmed yesterday that Napex Corporation, a small company owned by two Chinese businessmen, had a valid licence to manufacture and market the beer.

'We ourselves are surprised,' said a senior finance ministry official who declined to be named. 'This decision must have come from the very top.'

The new beer, called Jaz, is about 20 per cent cheaper than locally brewed brands sold by the two other brewers in the country, Carlsberg and Guinness Anchor.

The department said the licence was issued in 2004. This only added to the mystery because Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi came into power in 2004 and in 2005 announced that no new brewery licences would be issued, delighting Muslim conservatives. No mention was made at the time of any pending licences.

Although the mainstream media failed to note the appearance of Jaz, Muslim websites and blogs are asking awkward questions about how a new licence was issued.

'I hope the government does not give the same old answers ... this is clearly haram [forbidden] in Islam,' said Mahfuz Omar, a senior leader with the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS).

The party has banned gaming and alcohol consumption in Kelantan, the only state it rules.

Previously, the ruling National Front coalition had argued that brewing licences had to be maintained for the satisfaction of non-Muslims, who make up 40 per cent of the population of 26 million.

'They are citizens and consumption is a private matter,' the government said in 2003.

Napex is operating a small brewery in Port Klang about 30km west of the capital. The owners, Kiew Yong Seang and Ng Siew Cheng, are two previously unknown businessmen from northern Perak state.

Neither could be reached for comment, but a plant official said 60,000 cases of Jaz beer had gone on sale since October 1.

'We are targeting the small man who can't afford the big brands,' he said, adding that annual tariff rises on beer since 2004 had pushed prices up by 30 per cent.

The tariff increases have affected Carlsberg and Guinness Anchor with both reporting lower profits in recent years.

Non-Muslim leaders have criticised the secrecy surrounding the issue. 'This is yet another example of double dealing by the government,' said Tian Chua, an opposition party leader. 'It is better to be honest and transparent about it.'

But consumers have been cheering the arrival of Jaz. 'At last, cheap beer! Just right when we can't afford premium [beer] anymore,' said one internet posting on the subject.