Hounded minister tells of the pain of her persecution

Elizabeth Wong was a star of Malaysia's bravest political party until a bitter ex-boyfriend betrayed her. Now she's back and still defiant, she tells Robert Verkaik

The Independent

Four months ago nude pictures forced Elizabeth Wong into hiding. The feminist civil rights campaigner and prominent politician in Malaysia was betrayed by an ex-boyfriend who used his mobile phone to take pictures of her while she slept semi-naked and then gave them to the media.

In the harshly conservative climate of Malaysian politics, pictures of a half naked female member of the State Assembly were seized upon to hound her from office.

The 37-year-old fought back, saying that she was a single woman who had no need to be ashamed of her sexuality. IBut in doing so she underestimated the twisted values of Malaysian politics where the fact that she had been photographed while asleep was taken as proof of "sexual misconduct". One critic even branded her a "high-class prostitute", on the grounds that she and her ex-boyfriend were unmarried.

To escape the media storm she fled across the border to Bangkok, but not before tendering her resignation as minister for tourism– which was not accepted.

Despite the "scandal" Ms Wong hung on to her job and has now resumed her place as a rising star of Malaysian politics. And she is taking the fight to her adversaries, demanding the right to keep her private life and political career separate.

"What happened to me was a crime, not a scandal," she said, the trauma still clearly written across her face. "When I saw the coverage all over the world it was shocking. I think even The Economist covered it. I thought, how can they [the media] write these wicked lies about me which then go all around the world?"

The first Ms Wong knew about the pictures was when she saw them published in the tabloid papers. But by then her ex-boyfriend had left the country.

Ms Wong is a respected member of the People's Justice Party winning her seat in the state assembly of Selangor, near Kuala Lumpur, a year ago. Although her treatment in the media was mostly condemned, some political opponents jumped on the incident. Typical of the critical reaction was Mohamad Khir Toyo, the National Front ex-chief minister of Selangor, who was quoted as saying: "She is a single person. How can she allow a man into her room when they are not married? What's the status of the relationship?" But Ms Wong has not taken legal action to put the record straight. "I can't go around suing everyone because it will make them think that they are relevant or important," she explained.

Ms Wong said her private life should remain private.

"I don't want to say which things [about the scandal] are true because the next thing people will start asking me about is what I feed my cat or what kind of knickers I am wearing. I never did that in the past and I am not going to do that now. I can only be responsible for matters of the state assembly."

But the case has also served to highlight the murky world of Malaysian politics. Anwar Ibrahim, the main opposition leader and head of Ms Wong's party, is to go on trial for sodomy. Mr Ibrahim, 61, has repeatedly rejected sodomy allegations levelled by a 23-year-old former aide – the same charge that saw him jailed a decade ago – as a government conspiracy to derail his plan to topple the ruling coalition. Ms Wong says there are similarities with the scandal whipped up over two grainy photographs taken of her sleeping in her own bed.

"I believe this is politically motivated. It was done to humiliate Anwar and it has happened before. I suspect that my problems were politically motivated – you have to ask yourself who benefited?"

Others say that Ms Wong's troubles can be partly attributed to her Western outlook on issues such as women's rights, which she honed while studying in Australia.

Elizabeth Wong was a human rights activist before entering politics last year and has gained a reputation for being a brave and forceful advocate and protester. She has been at the forefront of a number of demonstrations for which she has been arrested and briefly imprisoned by the security forces.

She says that although the prison conditions were "awful" it was important to show commitment for which she says she feels so strongly. "They didn't know what do with me and so I was always released [from custody] quite quickly."

Ms Wong has her own take on feminism. "Human rights and politics in Malaysia… are tough for women because they are male-dominated domains, so it is important that women try to break the glass ceiling. I believe you can't just be part of a feminist organisation, you need to branch out into other things that women should be doing."

Ms Wong's human rights focus has recently turned to Britain where the UK Government is considering opening an inquiry into the killings of 24 unarmed Chinese Malay civilians by Scots Guards three years after the end of the Second World War. Despite two unsatisfactory investigations the truth about what happened remains elusive. The Army has always claimed the villagers were Chinese terrorists who were shot while trying to escape. But witnesses, and even some of the soldiers who took part in the operation, say the men were innocent rubber-tree tappers shot in revenge for terrorist attacks on other British units.

Surviving victims and relatives of the dead, represented by a leading London law firm could mount a high-profile legal challenge in the High Court if the government decides next month not to hold an inquiry.