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March 02, 2009

Sexual Politics, Malaysia Style

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A mosque in Penang. For a majority Muslim country, Malaysia has plenty of sex scandals.

by Dinda Elliott

Malaysians love political gossip, especially when it comes to lurid sex scandals. It didn't take long after my arrival in Kuala Lumpur for me to get an infusion of the latest Malaysian gossip. On my cab ride in from the airport, my Muslim Malay driver covered everything from an ongoing case about the deputy prime minister's alleged mistress, who was blown up by a bomb planted by mysterious attackers ("his wife was probably behind it--she's quite scary--lah"), to the story of a member of parliament getting caught on video having oral sex ("so unlucky to get caught!") and the case of semi-nude photos of another parliamentarian, this time a woman, being circulated publicly ("she was with her boyfriend, and he snapped some photos then spread them around"). And this is supposed to be a conservative, Muslim country!

What does all this sex add up to? Power struggle, my driver explained. This multicultural country is at a political turning point. Split between the majority Muslim Malay population and Chinese and Indian minorities, Malaysia has been ruled for half a century by an increasingly corrupt coalition called the Barisan Nasional. But last year, in an election the Malaysians are calling a "tsunami," the Barisan lost control of five out of 13 state governments--and for the first time, the country's ruling elite are nervously eyeballing the possibility of losing power outright within the next couple of years.

The government is well versed in using sex as a political tactic. Malaysia's most famous erotic episode erupted 11 years ago, when a brilliant young politician named Anwar Ibrahim began challenging his boss, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, who had ruled Malaysia with an iron grip since 1981. Enraged that his protégé would dare cross him, Mahathir sacked Anwar. At which point Anwar launched a campaign of street protests against corruption and nepotism that captured the imagination of the nation's younger generation--and the world's press.

How did Mahathir respond? He accused Anwar of sodomy (illegal in this Muslim country), and what ensued was a lurid--disgraceful, actually--court case involving stained mattresses being carried into the courtroom and a young man alleging to have had sex with the rising politician. In a now-famous political misstep, the thuggish chief of police beat up Anwar in prison, and the ousted politician appeared before the press with a black eye. A hero was born. Nonetheless, Anwar--once considered the future of a democratic, modern Malaysia--was convicted. He spent six years in prison.

But here's the punch line: Anwar is back. Out of jail since September 2004, he is once again a member of parliament. The ruling against him has been overturned.

I was only halfway to my hotel by the time my driver told me the people of Malaysia are sick and tired of the old ruling elite's corrupt ways. No matter how many sex scandals the ruling coalition may cook up this time, he said, this time Anwar may have the last laugh.

Further reading:
* Dinda asks, "Are these perilous times for philanthropy travel?"
* Dispatches: On the road

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