Friday, July 4, 2008

Sex and the Malaysian Politician

A Malaysian police officer walks in front of the Turkish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on June 29
A Malaysian police officer walks in front of the Turkish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on June 29
Lai Seng Sin / AP

Accusations of sodomy, potential DNA tests of semen, a pre-dawn run to the Turkish embassy. Hollywood, even in its most fanciful moments, couldn't have done it better. On June 28, a police report was filed against Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim by a 23-year-old male political volunteer, who accused the opposition leader of sodomizing him. Sodomy is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia punishable by up to 20 years in jail. Anwar, a married father of six, denies the charges, and sought sanctuary for more than 36 hours at the Turkish embassy. He released a statement calling the legal action political retribution for the opposition's breakthrough victories in March elections. "I have been told that my assassination has not been ruled out," claimed Anwar, "as a means to subvert the people's will and bring an end to the transformational changes taking place in Malaysia."

If all this sounds familiar to those following Malaysian politics, consider what happened a decade ago. Then the country's Deputy Prime Minister and a star in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysia's largest political party, Anwar launched a challenge against the long rule of former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. Anwar was quickly sacked and charged with sodomy and abuse of power. Although the sex charge was overturned in 2004, the man once presumed to become Malaysia's next Prime Minister languished in prison for six years.

But jail time didn't diminish Anwar's political fervor. In March, he helped orchestrate an electoral embarrassment of the ruling National Front coalition by an unwieldy, multiracial opposition consisting of, among others, Muslim Malays who believe Shari'a law could wipe out social ills and Chinese who advocate a secular Malaysia. In typically bold fashion, Anwar has vowed that the opposition will topple the National Front government by mid-September. If he succeeds, the 60-year-old former Muslim youth leader could become the first opposition Prime Minister in Malaysia's history.

"When I found out about these charges, I thought, 'Not again,' " Anwar told TIME in a phone interview from the Turkish embassy. "But this shows how desperate the government is. The economy is in a bad state, [parliamentarians] are crossing over to our side, there's turmoil within UMNO."

Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Sunday denied any link between the sodomy charge and Anwar's political comeback. But there's no question Abdullah's government is increasingly under fire. In recent weeks, cuts in fuel subsidies have sent usually quiescent Malaysians to the streets in protest and more citizens are criticizing the government's race-based affirmative-action system, which gives Malays privileges in everything from university places to government contracts. The ruling coalition has lost its usual cohesion. The Sabah Progressive Party, a tiny member of the coalition, called in mid-June for a parliamentary motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister. Abdullah, who is being blamed for the governing alliance's drubbing in the March elections, is under so much pressure to resign that he recently promised to eventually hand over the reins to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

But Razak is also under a cloud from another Malaysian sex scandal involving members of the political élite. In 2006, Abdul Razak Baginda, a political think-tank head and former adviser to Najib, was charged with abetting the murder of his Mongolian ex-lover. The aide is now standing trial, along with two government security agents who are accused of having killed the woman and blowing up her body with military-grade explosives in a jungle clearing near Kuala Lumpur. Najib has denied any knowledge of or involvement in the murder.

The Anwar scandal could divert attention from the trial of Najib's ex-aide, at the same time weakening the campaign against Abdullah. Anwar recently said the opposition needs only 28 members of parliament to defect from the ruling coalition in order for the opposition to take power. He has been aggressively courting crossovers among political representatives from the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, which are among Malaysia's poorest despite plentiful natural resources.

But the latest sex charges are sure to take Anwar's time away from wooing potential defectors. Anwar is now launching a defamation suit against his accuser and has planned a speech to supporters, presumably one of many he will need to give if he is to convince the public of his innocence. So far, it's not clear how parliamentarians who might be tempted to join the opposition will react to the sodomy accusation. "For the general Malaysian public, especially Muslims, this is the worst charge they could come up with to soil my character," says Anwar. "But I don't think the public will be so gullible to believe this accusation. I've had senior politicians tell me that people are angry, that the government has lost all credibility by doing this." Even Hollywood can't predict how this story will end.