Sex and politics in Malaysia – By Anil Netto

Asia Times Online, Hong Kong | PENANG, 04-Aug-2008 – Opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim upped the ante of his campaign to topple the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO)-led government through plans to run in a by-election expected to be held later this month and formally re-enter politics. But with new criminal sodomy charges hanging over his head, it is unclear that Anwar, previously jailed on similar charges, will remain a free man long enough to contest in person the bellwether poll.

Some 15,000 people on Sunday welcomed Anwar back to the Permatang Pauh constituency where his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail recently resigned her parliamentary seat to pave the way for his democratic comeback. The constituency lies on mainland Penang, which was one of five in the 13 state federations to fall into opposition hands during a watershed election in March, which saw the ruling coalition lose significant electoral ground.

By throwing down the electoral gauntlet, Anwar clearly hopes that his bid to re-enter parliament will act as a catalyst to encourage defections from the ruling coalition. He has recently claimed the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) is still on track to secure the parliamentary numbers it needs to seize power by September 16, coinciding with Malaysia’s national day.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition currently holds a 140-81 seat majority over the People’s Alliance in parliament, with the remaining member being an independent. Wan Azizah is president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the cornerstone of the Pakatan Rakyat, which also comprises the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic Party (PAS), and is currently parliament’s opposition leader, the first woman ever to hold that high post.

However, there are heavier sexual overtones in Malaysian politics. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar revealed last week that police had completed their investigations into a complaint lodged by a former PKR aide, 23-year-old Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, that Anwar sodomized him.

The relevant papers are now with the attorney-general awaiting further action and many fear the opposition leader’s arrest could be imminent. The aide had gone to see a general practitioner at a private hospital soon after that, but the doctor found that there was no trace of sodomy, according to a hospital medical report leaked on the Internet and posted on several blogs.

Hospital authorities later told the media that a “sodomy check-up has to be done by a specialist, not a medical officer”. They said such an examination had to be done by a “gut specialist”, which the hospital did not have. The aide subsequently claimed he underwent a second examination at a government-run hospital hours after the first check-up. The second alleged report has not been made public.

In any case, Malaysians are being thoroughly enlightened in the media and on the Internet about the intricacies of a sodomy detection medical examination. It is also proving to be the butt of many jokes, with not a few asking if there are any sodomy medical specialists in the country. More gravely, PKR aides fear that Anwar could be arrested before the by-election is held.

If the attorney-general decides to press charges, as many suspect, then Anwar may be arrested and brought to court to be charged, said human-rights lawyer Charles Hector in his blog. “Note that Anwar can also be informed that he should attend court to be charged – that is, without there being any necessity to arrest him with masked police personnel”, as authorities have done in the past.

Either way, after he is charged, Anwar is expected to plead “not guilty” and file a bail application. “Even if Anwar is denied bail – and has to be in remand prison – he can still contest,” wrote Hector . “Even if they use the Internal Security Act and detain him [without trial], he can still contest.”

Statistical edge

Anwar has made clear, most recently to a huge crowd on Sunday night, his intention to contest the poll even if while in lock-up. He has already forewarned of “massive” vote-rigging by the government to keep him from winning the seat.

Yet he apparently has public opinion on his side. Only 11% of Malaysians believe the sodomy allegation against Anwar, with 55% saying they disbelieve the allegation, according to a recent opinion poll conducted by the Merdeka Center. In contrast, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s approval rating has plunged to 42%, his worst rating since taking power in 2003.

A majority of poll respondents – 59% – said that economic problems, including spiraling inflation, were the most pressing issue facing the country now. With those numbers in his favor and his back against the wall, Anwar is clearly going for broke, hoping to convince disillusioned ruling coalition parliamentarians that the time is right for them to defect.

Anwar, a former finance minister, had earlier gone up and down the west coast of the peninsula, hammering at the government’s 41% petrol price hike on June 5, which he claimed was hurting the economy and causing unnecessary hardship among many Malaysians. Consumer spending has dampened and manufacturers are worried as they struggle to cope with higher input prices.

Anwar has said he would reduce the domestic petrol price to just slightly over the pre-June 5 level “the very next day” after the Pakatan Rakyat comes to power. For its part, Abdullah’s government has just announced a new move to “streamline” domestic oil prices to reflect global prices every month, beginning on September 1.

Given the high stakes, the by-election in Permatang Pauh, which is just next door to Abdullah’s constituent seat at Penang’s Kepala Batas, will assume national importance. The DAP, which now rules Penang, has promised to campaign hard for Anwar while the entire weight of the ruling coalition’s election campaign machinery, money and media resources is expected to be concentrated against his bid in the run-up to the by-election.

Political observers are already viewing the poll as a head-to-head battle between two potential prime ministers in waiting: deputy Premier Najib Razak, who is expected to lead UMNO’s local campaign, and the man many already view as prime minister in waiting, Anwar. Abdullah and Najib recently agreed to a political succession plan, in which Najib is scheduled to take over power in 2010.

Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, won the seat handily at the March polls, winning 30,338 votes and outpacing her UMNO opponent by 13,388. In view of that result, a senior UMNO politician has already called for a party boycott of the by-election, claiming the poll so soon after general elections was irresponsible and a waste of public funds.

For their part, PKR strategists hope that Anwar will reach a 20,000-vote majority and that a stronger democratic mandate will convince ruling coalition parliamentarians to jump ship to the opposition. Given that most Malaysians believe the new sodomy charges against Anwar are trumped up, and in an opposition heartland, the ruling coalition faces an uphill battle. Analysts say it would be content to reduce PKR’s winning majority and try to spin that as evidence that the tide is turning against Anwar and the PKR.

Attention will also be focused on the opposition PAS party’s role in the campaign, particularly in light of the Islamic party’s recent flirtation with UMNO in “Muslim unity” talks. A recent report in Harakah Daily, the PAS news website, indicated that the party’s growing discontent with the opposition coalition stems from the power-sharing arrangements in the richest and most industrialized state of Selangor, which is now led by the PKR.

The report also expressed concern over what it viewed as unreasonable demands from non-Muslims for renovations and expansions of their places of worship in areas where they were only a small proportion of the population. PAS’ talks with UMNO have gone down poorly among many DAP and PKR supporters, and PAS leaders have since pivoted, vowing not to leave the opposition alliance and to go all-out in campaigning for Anwar.

Depending on what sort of deal UMNO may be offering PAS, that may or may not happen. With all eyes now on the Permatang Pauh campaign, signs of defections from UMNO to the opposition, and the sodomy allegations against Anwar, Malaysia’s political future depends on who will and who may have already jumped into bed with whom.

Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.