Only tourists can kiss, but not passionately

The decision was taken Tuesday by the Federal Court, the country's most important tribunal. As for Malaysians, they risk prison if they merely hold hands.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Scmp) - Following a controversial court decision to charge a local couple on Tuesday, Kuala Lumpur's mayor has assured tourists they will be exempt from indecency charges should they kiss and hold hands.

But the reassurance came with a warning. "We will not harass tourists for kissing in public, but it better not be the passionate kind," Mayor Roslin Hassan said in a television interview on Wednesday.

His comments came after human rights activists criticised a ruling by the Federal Court, the country's highest, that Kuala Lumpur City Hall could prosecute an ethnic Chinese couple for holding hands and kissing in a park in front of the Petronas Towers in 2003.

"In England, those acts are acceptable to the people of that country, but is kissing and hugging acceptable to Malaysian citizens?" Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim said in the ruling.

The couple's trial begins on June 3. S. Selvam, a lawyer for undergraduates Ooi Kean Thong, 24, and Siow Ai Wei, 22, who face a year in jail and a  fine (4,200 dollars) if found guilty, said: "If locals can be prosecuted for kissing, why not foreign tourists?"

While Islamic law prohibits unmarried couples from holding hands or kissing, there is no such restriction on non Muslims. Increasingly, though, officials are using local council by-laws to curb "indecent behaviour" among non-Muslims. Bar president Yeoh Poh San said "indecent behaviour" was a catch-all phrase that had to be carefully defined.

Critics said the ruling ignored the realities of a westernised multi-ethnic society, where such acts were common.

But local councils have taken the court ruling to heart, and at least one is planning to extend the indecency ruling to foul language. "We must take tough action against couples behaving indecently," said Halim Latif, head of the Seremban Local Council, about 60km south of the capital. "People using indecent words will be fined", he told local newspapers.