Political Sex Scandals Rock Modest Malaysia
By THOMAS FULLER
Published: August 4, 2008
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Government censors in this majority Muslim nation have upheld an ethos of modesty by snipping sex scenes from films and banning entertainers from wearing outfits that reveal too much on Malaysian stages; bare belly buttons and figure-hugging outfits are off limits.
But these days Malaysians looking to avoid R-rated content might be advised to steer clear of news reports about their own leaders. Two top politicians are embroiled in scandal, one accused of sodomy and the other of romantic links to a Mongolian woman gruesomely killed in 2006.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia, right, with his deputy, Najib Razak. Mr. Najib’s name has surfaced in connection with the case of a woman who was killed in 2006.
Reports on the finer points of a rectal examination and revelations about the sexual preferences of the dead woman make other sex scandals that once shocked people here — including Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress — seem almost Victorian.
This is not the first time that sex and politics have collided in Malaysia. In the 1990s, the sodomy trial of Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, featured, among other highlights, a bloodstained mattress being hauled into the courtroom.
This time, wider use of the Internet has helped disseminate documents, facts and rumors that would otherwise have been filtered out of the mainstream news media that are tightly controlled by the government.
The scandals encompass much more than sex; each is a potential career-ender for a man vying to become Malaysia’s next prime minister, with control over a political patronage system that dominates the economy.
Mr. Anwar is now facing new accusations of sodomy — a crime punishable here by up to 20 years in prison — at a time when he is making strides toward unseating the governing coalition, which has run Malaysia since its independence from Britain 51 years ago. His principal political rival, Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister and anointed heir to the current prime minister, has been persistently linked to the slain Mongolian woman, despite his insistence that he never even met her. She was shot and her body obliterated with explosives in the jungle outside Kuala Lumpur.
The defendants in that case are a former political adviser to Mr. Najib and two commandos who were bodyguards for Malaysia’s top leaders.
Tampering is suspected in both cases. Testimony revealed that immigration records of the slain woman had been deleted. Witnesses have dropped from sight, including a private investigator, Balasubramaniam Perumal, who said in a sworn statement in early July that the Mongolian woman was Mr. Najib’s mistress. He retracted his allegations the next day in a hastily convened news conference, and then disappeared, along with his wife and three children. The family’s two Rottweilers were left behind in their cages.
“It’s obvious what has happened here,” said Americk Sidhu, the investigator’s lawyer. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist. Somebody needed him to shut up.”
Mr. Balasubramaniam, who worked for the Najib adviser now on trial, Abdul Razak Baginda, spent two months writing and revising a 16-page declaration about the case, based on conversations he had with Mr. Abdul Razak and, before her death, with the woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu.
Many of the most salacious facts and rumors about both cases have been funneled into the public realm by one prolific blogger, Raja Petra Kamarudin, formerly a political associate of Mr. Anwar’s wife.
Citing sources in military intelligence, he issued a sworn declaration in June alleging that Mr. Najib’s wife was present at Ms. Altantuya’s killing. Mr. Najib called it “total lies, fabrication and total garbage” and a “desperate and pathetic attempt to discredit and taint my political image.”
Mr. Raja Petra was also responsible for leaking a medical report relating to the sodomy case against Mr. Anwar. The accuser, a 23-year-old former campaign volunteer, went to a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur hours before lodging a police report charging that Mr. Anwar had sodomized him. The medical report said he complained of a piece of plastic being inserted into his anus. The doctor who wrote the report, Mohamed Osman, said he found no active bleeding, no pus, tear or scar.
Since then, Dr. Osman also has disappeared. The hospital says he will be back on Monday.
The government has charged Mr. Raja Petra with criminal libel, invoking a law that lawyers say has not been used in recent memory in Malaysia and that, unlike civil defamation, can carry a two-year prison term. He has also been charged with sedition, and his house has been raided several times.
Mr. Anwar, who announced Thursday that he would run for Parliament in his quest to become prime minister, said in an interview that he expected to be arrested soon.
He said he had refused to give a DNA sample because he believed that it would be used against him. “There’s nothing stopping them from fabricating evidence again,” Mr. Anwar said.
Although Malaysians enthusiastically share the latest developments in both cases, some have grown tired of the graphic details.
“A good word is disgust — whether it’s sodomy or blowing up the Mongolian lady,” said the Rev. Wong Kim Kong, executive adviser of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, a group of Protestant churches. A narrow majority of Malaysians are Muslim, but the country has sizable Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh minorities.
Mr. Wong said the constant barrage of accusations made by bloggers, paired with the government’s steady denials, had left Malaysians pining for clarity.
“People just cannot trust the word of any of these people,” Mr. Wong said. “They cannot distinguish who is telling the truth.”
The scandals come at a time of great political uncertainty in Malaysia. The governing coalition, and the ethnic-based system of politics that it represents, is in disarray. There is simmering resentment among the majority Malays and the minority Chinese and Indians, and corruption within the government is rampant, despite promises by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to clean up the system.
Mr. Anwar has vowed to remake the country’s politics and revoke the authoritarian laws that, among other things, ban students from protesting, keep the media controlled and allow the government to lock up dissidents without trial. But he remains a polarizing figure who is not trusted by many in the elite.
“I think there will at some point be a crisis of legitimacy,” said Ibrahim Suffian, the director of the Merdeka Center, a polling agency. “The leaders seem to feel that they can get away with a lot of things so long as the masses are satisfied with the economic opportunities given to them.
“But the economy is so bad that people are losing faith. There is a feeling that maybe it’s time for major changes.”