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Sex, lies and Malaysian politics: A nation's fascination with titillation
Asia Sentinel - October 29, 2011
In the trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose sex life has been the object of prosecutorial attention off and on since 1998, the court – and the press – has been filled with graphic descriptions of the anatomy of Mohamad Saiful Bukhairy Aslan, the 26-year-old former aide who has accused Anwar of sodomy. Outside of court, titillation is also commonplace – especially when an opposition politician or his family is involved.
Take the 16-year-old son of Lim Guan Eng, the chief minister of opposition-held Penang state. The youth was accused by bloggers of fondling a girl and getting kicked out of school. His father supposedly had to pay bribes to hush up the matter. But it transpired that the girl in question, a 21-year-old Hong Kong chess champion who is now attending Wellesley University in the United States, has not been in Malaysia for seven years and has never met Lim's son. She demanded an apology for herself and the youth.
"This is something fairly new. Every month there is something, half of it manufactured, if not most," said Elizabeth Wong, an opposition People's Justice Party (PKR) assemblywoman.
Wong was the victim of a former boyfriend who posted nude pictures of her on the Internet. She considered quitting politics out of embarrassment. "It isn't the way to get people in politics. It just continues. I imagine people are disgusted with politicians regardless of party," she said.
Although the United States set a precedent with the mother of all sex scandals – the 1998 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton for having sex with a White House intern – there are few examples of a similar emphasis on sexual misdoings across Asia.
"I've got no clue why Malaysian politicians are all sex deviants of one kind or another," said a longtime expatriate resident. "I am also not so sure that this isn't going on lots of other places nowadays, given the various sex scandals that have emerged in recent times. Think Berlusconi, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Elliott Spitzer, Arnie the Sperminator, British ministers, etc."
However, he says, the Anwar cases "have been overtly used in a political power struggle here, with all the attendant publicity afforded by a government-controlled mainstream media determined to ensure that the gruesome details reach every Malaysian man, woman, child, dog and cat."
Going back to at least the mid-1980s, otherwise tame newspapers have often been filled with graphic sexual details. At one point, the daily tabloid Malay Mail got its hands on illicit pictures of a romp between an ethnic Indian politician and a beauty queen. The newspaper couldn't run the pictures themselves, but it got its artists to produce amazingly realistic pictures of the beauty queen's various lecherous poses – then showed her the photographs and photographed her humiliated reaction at seeing them.
All of this is despite the fact that the so-called khalwat police – conservative Muslim patrolmen – work assiduously to ensure there is no "excessive closeness" between people of opposite sexes and bust the odd luckless teenage couple caught smooching.
But in the houses of power, the powerful have been going at it like goats nonstop for years, and not just with the four wives they are allowed under Islamic law. In 2002, the Reformasi Web site named top public figures and officials who were having relatively public affairs, including Najib Tun Razak, then the defense minister and now the prime minister, who was caught in a Port Dickson hotel room with the actress and singer Ziana Zain. None have been apprehended by the khalwat police.
"It's in the culture – not that sex is a scandal in itself but that Malays like to cause shame to their enemies," said an ethnic Malay lawyer in Malaysia. "Khalwat is a tool to eliminate or shame your enemy. It's partly rooted in 'perasaan hasad dengki' – good old jealousy to bring down the other guy who has more than you. Islam itself forbids spying, but that's what khalwat is."
Others blame it on former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. "What is going on now is an extreme kind of politics that is very debased by people who have no sense of values," said S. Nagaratnam, acting dean and senior lecturer of Liberal Studies at Wawasan University in Penang.
Nagaratnam cites the United Malays National Organization, Malaysia's dominant political party.
"The UMNO we have now is not the one we had in the 1960s and 1970s, when we had leaders who were legally trained and had respect for the rule of law. Thanks to Dr. Mahathir, there was an erosion in basic values, a corruption of those kinds of boundaries," he said.
Whatever happened, Malaysians have been subjected to a plethora of sex tapes and other transmissions that have gone viral on the Internet. Anwar has featured in three of these public airings, the first in 1999 when he was put on trial for sodomy and corruption in a trial that featured equally graphic revelations. That trial has been universally condemned as rigged to get him out of politics. The second trial, which is just winding down, has featured similar descriptions of sexual activity and similar charges of rigged prosecution.
Then, earlier this year, three men known collectively as "Datuk T" – a datuk is the lowest rank in Malaysia's whimsical list of titles for the privileged – planted four cameras in a love hotel to film either Anwar or a stunt double having sex with a Chinese prostitute. Anwar has insisted the figure in the film wasn't him. Anwar's doctors say a back injury has prevented such athletic goings-on. Whoever it was, the film clip has been circulating widely on the Internet and has been distributed across the country on DVDs.
Ironically, one of the three datuks behind the filming was Abdul Rahim Tamby Chik, the former Malacca chief minister, who was forced to resign his position after allegedly having an affair with a 15-year-old schoolgirl. After the matter became public, the schoolgirl was sentenced to three years of protective custody in a house for "wayward girls." After the girl's grandmother came to him for help, the opposition lawmaker Lim Guan Eng brought up the matter in Parliament. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison for sedition for printing a pamphlet containing the allegations.
The love hotel technique was also used to dethrone Chua Soi Lek, one of Malaysia's top ethnic Chinese politicians, who was forced to resign as minister of health and leave politics altogether after a sexually explicit videotape was widely circulated that showed him getting into bed with an unnamed woman whom he later described as a friend. Political enemies believed to be rivals for power in the Malaysian Chinese Association were thought to be behind the filming, which included four secret cameras in a hotel room. Chua, however, recovered from the scandal and has since assumed the presidency of the MCA.
Likewise, almost immediately after Mohamad Sabu was elected deputy president of Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in June with a mandate to broaden the party's appeal to Malaysia's ethnic Malays, a VCD and flyer titled "Skandal Seks Mat Sabu" (Mat Sabu sex scandal) was mailed across the country. PAS leaders charged UMNO officials with being behind the distribution of the film.
[John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel.]