2 notorious cases challenge Malaysia's modesty
Saturday, 02 August 2008

KUALA LUMPUR: Government censors in this majority Muslim nation uphold an ethos of modesty by snipping sex scenes from films and ordering entertainers to avoid 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 read past news reports about their own leaders. Top politicians are embroiled in two scandals involving accusations of sodomy and the gruesome murder of a Mongolian mistress.

Reports on the finer points of a rectal examination and revelations about the sexual preferences of the dead mistress make other sex scandals that once shocked people here - such as Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress - seem almost Victorian.

This is not the first time that sex and politics have publicly collided in Malaysia. The trial of Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, for sodomy in the 1990s featured, among other highlights, a blood-stained 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 mainstream news media tightly controlled by the government.

The two scandals encompass much more than just sex. They are part of a broader clash between two men vying for power: Anwar is facing new allegations of sodomy at a time when he is vowing to unseat the governing party, while the other scandal involves Anwar's principal political rival, Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister and anointed heir to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

What is worrying for many Malaysians is that the gloves appear to have come off in the high-stakes fight between Anwar and Najib.

Testimony in the murder trial revealed that immigration records of the Mongolian woman and her friend had been deleted.

Malaysia's political opposition says the case highlights the impunity of the police and high officials in government as well as a lack of independence in the judiciary. A police officer took the stand and said she was tortured by police investigators - her own colleagues.

Witnesses in both cases have dropped from sight, including a private investigator, Balasubramaniam Perumal, who alleged in a sworn statement issued shortly before disappearing that the dead Mongolian woman was Najib's mistress.

The statement by Balasubramaniam, which has been widely circulated online, directly contradicted Najib's repeated assertions that he never met the Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu.

Balasubramaniam spent two months writing and revising a 16-page declaration about the case, based on conversations he had with the murdered woman and Abdul Razak Baginda, an aide to Najib. Balasubramaniam retracted the allegations in a hastily convened press conference and then disappeared.

"It's obvious what has happened here. You don't need to be a rocket scientist," said Americk Sidhu, the private investigator's lawyer. "Somebody needed him to shut up."

Balasubramaniam's wife and three children are also missing. The family's two Rottweilers were left behind in their cages.

"A lot of very dark things are happening now," said Raja Petra Kamarudin, one of the most influential and prolific Malaysian bloggers. Raja Petra was formerly a political associate of Anwar's wife, Azizah Ismail, in her National Justice Party.

Although a number of gruesome facts in the Mongolian case have emerged in court over the past year - Altantuya, for example, was shot and her body obliterated with explosives in the jungle outside Kuala Lumpur - Raja Petra asserts that only a fraction of what happened is being admitted into court.

Citing sources in military intelligence, he issued a sworn declaration in June alleging that Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, was present at Altantuya's killing. Government prosecutors say Altantuya was killed by two commandos who also served as bodyguards to Malaysia's top leaders.

"I don't think Malaysia can afford to have a prime minister who has a huge question mark hanging over his head: Is he, or not, involved in the murder of this girl?" Raja Petra said in an interview.

The government's response to Raja Petra's allegations was to charge him with criminal libel, a law that lawyers say has not been used in recent memory in Malaysia and which, unlike civil defamation, can carry a two-year prison term. Separately, Raja Petra has been charged with sedition and his house has been raided several times.

Raja Petra was also responsible for leaking a medical report last week relating to the sodomy case. Anwar's accuser, Mohamed Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a 23-year-old former campaign volunteer, went to a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur hours before lodging a police report charging that Anwar had sodomized him.

But the medical report, which also circulated widely on the Internet, says 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, Osman also has disappeared, although the hospital says he will be back Monday.

Anwar, who on Thursday announced that he would run for Parliament in his quest to unseat the government and become prime minister, said in an interview that he expected to be arrested soon.

He has refused to give a DNA sample because he believes it will be used against him. "There's nothing stopping them from fabricating evidence again," 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 Reverend Wong Kim Kong, executive adviser of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, an umbrella organization of protestant churches. A narrow majority of Malaysians are Muslim but the country has sizeable Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh minorities.

Wong said the constant barrage of allegations made by bloggers, paired with the government's steady denials, have left Malaysians pining for  clarity.

"People just cannot trust the word of any of these people," Wong said. "They cannot distinguish who is telling the truth."

The scandals come at a time of great political uncertainty in Malaysia. The governing party of Abdullah and Najib and the ethnic-based system of politics that it represents is in disarray. There is simmering resentment between the majority Malays and the minority Chinese and Indians, and corruption within government is rampant, despite promises by Abdullah to clean up the system.

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 Anwar 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 head 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."

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