Connect to share and comment

News analysis: Malaysian model drinks beer, asks to be caned

The wacky story of the week comes from, where else, Asia?

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno pauses during an interview at her father's house in Sungei Siput, about 186 miles north of Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 21, 2009. Shukarno, who will be caned next week for drinking beer, is insisting her punishment be carried out in public as a lesson to all Muslims. (Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters)

BOSTON — It's a sordid tale with the goods to placate the gods of news.

A model. Booze. Religion. Caning (yes, being beaten repeatedly by a rattan stick). An impassioned appeal by human rights advocates. A willing sacrifice. 

Here's the skinny:

Last year Malaysian model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was drinking a beer in a hotel nightclub in the eastern Malaysian state of Pahang. Police raided the club and charged the 32-year-old mother of two with drinking alcohol — a transgression under Sharia law in Malaysia. An Islamic court then fined Kartika $1,400 and sentenced her to six lashes with a cane, due to be carried out next weekend.

This week, Amnesty International put out a statement decrying the punishment:

"Caning is a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and is prohibited under international human rights law." Amnesty International urged Malaysian authorities to "immediately revoke the sentence to cane her and abolish the practice of caning altogether."

But Kartika resisted. Not only does she want to be caned, but she's asking that the punishment be given in public to help spread the word to other Muslims about the evils of drinking (right now the caning is scheduled to happen inside a women's prison). "I want to respect the law," Kartika said Friday. "Who am I to question the Islamic authorities' laws? That is beyond me."

So, what do we make of all of this, aside from the fact that the world is an endlessly fascinating place filled with complex and interesting stories?

First, expect the TV talking heads to rev their bloviating engines (my inbox has already been hit with emails from "experts" who are eager to discuss these important matters).

That's because this story has just the script the Larry King-types drool over: a damsel in distress (better yet, a real live model). An authortarian villain (in this case, two: a distant, capricious foreign government and Islamic law). A looming deadline. An alcoholic whiff of scandal. The titillating threat of violence. And to top it off a heroine who, Christ-like, views her punishment as possible salvation for an entire religion.

That's a lot of sound bite juice, and don't be surprised when this story takes off this week, particularly if the caning goes on as planned. (I'm especially looking forward to the Stephen Colbert/Jon Stewart take on things.)

You can be sure that guest bookers across the cable TV spectrum are right now poring over Wikipedia's Malaysia page, while Googling "caning" and simultaneously scouring their Rolodexes for religious experts, Sharia law scholars or anyone else to help catapult this personal saga into a media circus.

It's late August, after all, and the news is slow. A little blast of crazy from Asia might make a nice diversion from the dull complexities of heath care reform.

But if this story does explode into the global media meme with the crack of a rattan cane, be careful. Or, at least, be thoughtful.