Sex, Lies and Malaysian Politics

By John Berthelsen, Asia Sentinel

Prurient and puritanical, the country gags, goes gaga for naughty tales

Malaysia fancies itself a conservative society, with plenty of restrictions on racy movies and activities that might lead its majority Muslim population astray. But get inside a courtroom and anything goes, with details that would make a New Yorker blush, published in the mainstream media.

In the latest trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose sex life has been an 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, the titillations are 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 the opposition-held Penang state. The youth was the subject of bloggers accusing him of fondling a girl and getting kicked out of his school, with his father supposedly having to pay bribes to hush up the matter. Unfortunately, it transpired that the girl whose photo was distributed as the victim was 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 Democratic Action Party assemblywoman who was the victim of a former boyfriend who posted nude pictures of her on the Internet and who 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.” 

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 similar attention to 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, gay Brit 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 kuching (cat).” 

Going back to at least the middle 1980s, otherwise tame newspapers have often been filled with graphic sexual details. At one point the daily tabloid Malay Mail got its hands on the 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 cops – conservative Muslim patrolmen – patrol assiduously to ensure there is no “excessive closeness” between people of opposite sexes, busting 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 website 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.