Malaysia’s religious divisions were laid bare this week after a self-service laundromat in Johor attempted to ban non-Muslims, provoking scathing criticism from the state’s monarch.

The launderette’s owner incurred social media outrage for turning away non-Muslims over “hygiene factors”, and leaders from the Malay Muslim-dominated government initially kept quiet on the issue. But that changed when Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor tore into the business.

“I cannot accept this nonsense. This is Johor, which belongs to Bangsa Johor [the citizens of Johor] and it belongs to all races and faiths. This is a progressive, modern and moderate state,” the ruler told local daily The Star. “This is not a Taliban state and as the head of Islam in Johor, I find this action to be totally unacceptable as this is extremist in nature.”

The laundry, in the township of Muar, courted controversy after photographs of its signboard with the words went viral on Facebook. The sign read: “For Muslim customers only. Muslim-friendly. Leave your shoes outside.”

More than 60 per cent of Malaysia’s population are ethnic Malay-Muslims accorded with “Bumiputra” (sons of the soil) privileges under the constitution.

The country is also home to Chinese and Indian communities, roughly 23 per cent and 7 per cent of the population respectively, who are mostly Buddhist, Hindu and Christian.

Despite the multi-racial and multi-religious nature of the country, the Malay community is afforded preferential treatment for education and business amenities in line with the country’s affirmative action initiative, or the New Economic Policy (NEP), adopted in 1971. While the NEP was born out of the need to address the poverty of the majority population, the initiative has remained a divisive issue.

While Prime Minister Najib Razak, the flag-bearer of the 1Malaysia social cohesion concept, remained silent on the matter days after the launderette grabbed headlines, the sultan demanded an apology and ordered the shop to change its Muslims-only policy.

Religion, race, politics: what’s causing Malaysia’s great divide?

“I want the owner to apologise to me and the people of Johor. He has made Johoreans very angry and embarrassed because this is not the Johor we want,” the sultan said.

“The owner has gone against the vision of a united, harmonious, moderate and tolerant Johor. If he still insists on carrying on the Muslim-only practice, he can leave Johor. I suggest he set up shop in Afghanistan. His thinking is sick and goes against everything that Johor stands for.”

The Johor royal family has a reputation for promoting moderate Islamic values and tolerance. Last year, the Sultan’s consort, Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah, said it was unfair for the country’s Muslims to stigmatise all Jews as evil, and expressly stated she did not care if her statements made her unpopular.

“For so long now, most Malaysian Muslims see all Jews as wicked and evil,.” she said. “That is like believing that all Muslims are good when we know some have acted against the very teachings of Islam. Listen to what Rabbi Michael Learner has to say about Muslims, about Israel, about Palestine, about peace, and you will understand that it is wrong to pass judgment on anyone.”

Following the royal rebuke, the launderette owner said the self-service policy was only because he “wanted to be a good Muslim”, and replaced the Muslim-only sign with a “Muslim-friendly” one, the Malaysian Insight reported. But the sultan reiterated his criticism.

“Don’t try to be clever. It’s still the same,” he said. “The owner needs to have his brains cleaned up. I want to put a stop to such extremism. Extremism has no place in my state. We take pride in being Bangsa Johor and I want to know where the owner of this launderette learned his Islam? Islam teaches the faithful to be tolerant and respect other people and faiths.”

Atheism: the latest whipping boy for Malaysia’s pre-election politics?

Days after the sultan expressed his dismay at the launderette, Najib opted for a more diplomatic approach, saying the launderette owner’s apology and retraction of the policy should be well-received.

With elections due next year, Najib is treading a fine line while maintaining a strong Malay support base which will ensure a victory in the polls.

“The government will remain committed to upholding the true Islamic teachings while protecting the interests of the other communities as demanded of Islam,” Najib said.

Najib told national news agency Bernama that Malaysia would remain a moderate Islamic nation, as practised since independence.

“I am confident that Muslims will continue to uphold this struggle because we all want to see Malaysia progress into a successful, respected and exemplary country,” he said.

However, Fahmi Fadzil, the communications director of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), a major component of the opposition, criticised Najib’s remarks.

“I feel that this isn’t the first time an issue of discrimination has come up, and have found that the prime minister’s response was specifically ‘play safe’ in the sense that he only commented after HRH (His Royal Highness) Sultan Johor made known his sentiments towards the issue,” Fahmi told the South China Morning Post. “He should be among the first to speak up, but as always he fails to rise to the occasion.

What’s causing Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese brain drain?

“The government should be playing a more proactive role in encouraging unity, and put in place clearer laws and guidelines that penalises or stops discrimination from happening.”

Racial ties in Malaysia are at an all-time low. Karima Bennoune, a United Nations human rights expert, said the country has much to lose if the authorities do not heed warning signs that the country’s culture of tolerance is under threat.

“Malaysia has over the years risen to the challenge of building a society inclusive of its broad cultural diversity, but this achievement should not be taken for granted and could be at risk if steps are not taken to meet current challenges,” said Bennoune, special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

Bennoune said she was also concerned by the banning of books, including those describing moderate and progressive Islam in the country when the government extolled those very concepts abroad.

“Such moves could lead to a failure to engage in much-needed debate,” she said.