Sordid politics in Malaysia – Hitting below the belt
Mar 24th 2011
EVER since he ascended the greasy pole, the political career of Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has been mortgaged to his private life. He is currently on trial for sodomising a male aide, which he denies, in what has become a virtual rerun of a similar case in 1998, after he was sacked as deputy prime minister. Then he was sent to jail for six years, until an appeal court ruled that his conviction had been unsound.
Now a new scandal has broken out over a video clip that purports to show Mr Anwar having sex—this time with a woman. Mr Anwar has furiously denied that he is the man in the video. (The footage was screened on March 21st to a group of Malaysian reporters, all of whom were required to surrender phones, laptops and recording devices.) A man who refused to identify himself said that the video was a secret recording made at a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur. He explained that he had discovered the recording device after a “prominent politician” asked him to search the hotel room for a missing watch. He said he wanted to show that the “prominent politician”—guess who?—was immoral and “not fit to be a leader”. The man of mystery has since revealed his identity, and that of an accomplice: surprise, surprise, they’re longtime political enemies of Mr Anwar’s.
A media storm erupted on cue, as Malaysian media splashed the allegations everywhere, if not the video itself. As in previous sex-tape scandals in Asia, though, it is probably only a matter of time before that too leaks out. This was the case in 2008, when compromising photos of Hong Kong actor, Edison Chen, and his female friends circulated widely online. Mr Chen claimed initially that the photos were faked. His defence crumbled before an onslaught of fury in the Chinese media and then some overzealous policework. A computer technician was later convicted for copying the photos from Mr Chen’s laptop during repairs.
In January, an Indonesian pop star, Nazril “Ariel” Irham, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail for making and distributing sex tapes of himself and two women. The conviction was an odd sort of success for Indonesia’s strict anti-pornography law passed in 2008 and sponsored by Muslim politicians. Mr Nazril’s heavily pixelated videos, which spread via social-networking sites, were a huge hit. Even national news channels ran some of the clips, earning a rebuke from the broadcasting regulator.
In Malaysia, smut videos tend to be more about politics and less about show business per se. In 2008, a cabinet minister resigned after a hidden camera in another hotel room caught him in a romp with a young woman who was not his wife. The minister, Chua Soi Lek, blamed his enemies in the Malaysian Chinese Association, a party in the ruling coalition, of orchestrating the video release. What was unusual was that Mr Chua was a case of a non-Muslim politician being hung out to dry. For Malay-Muslims in Malaysian politics, which is always riven by ethnicity, the stakes are much higher. Muslim voters are presumed to be less forgiving of personal foibles.
This is why attacks against Mr Anwar are so frequently aimed below the belt. Policy debates lack the sizzle of sex. Sodomy presses all sorts of buttons. Even a heterosexual affair can come in handy to his detractors. The story of the mystery tape appears to have exactly the mix of transgression, betrayal (yet another turncoat aide?) and technology that Malaysian politics thrives on. It marks “a new depth of character assassination”, lamented Lim Kit Siang, a veteran politician allied to Mr Anwar.
The timing is fortuitous. Mr Anwar’s opposition movement is preparing for a crucial state election in Sarawak. Some pundits believe that a solid win for the ruling coalition will tee up national elections this year. As when the sodomy trial was announced, Mr Anwar has accused the prime minister, Najib Razak, of conspiring with the police and ruling-party bigwigs to destroy his reputation (Mr Najib has denied all involvement). On March 22nd, Mr Anwar filed a police report over the screening of the video, which he said was defamatory and illegal under Malaysian obscenity laws.
Not so, according to Nazri Aziz, a cabinet minister and close advisor to the prime minister. Asked by Malaysian reporters if the screening of the steamy video had broken any laws, he pointed out that the exhibitors had not demanded any money from the invited reporters. Thus it was not a commercial release of a “blue movie”. Fair enough. So commercial porn is off-limits, but political porn is just fine? Mr Aziz contends that the porn-y dimension of this case is merely a distraction. “They wanted to show proof that Anwar had sex with this woman, not to make a pornographic video,” he said. But it can be hard to do one without the other.