9 Jul 2008

Wouldn't it be easier if Anwar were really gay?

Once again, the word 'sodomy' reverberates through Malaysian politics. Once again, the accusation is widely believed to be a device for cutting opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim down to size.

Naturally, the sexual accusation is denied, but lost in the whole affair is any sensible discussion of why a political leader must necessarily be heterosexual.

Mohd Saiful Bukhari bin Azlan (inset) has accused opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of sexual assault
On Saturday, Jun 28 2008, a 23-year-old university dropout, Mohd Saiful Bukhari bin Azlan, made a police report alleging that he had been sexually assaulted by Anwar on eight separate occasions at an apartment in Desa Damasara Heights condominium.

Immediately, Anwar called it a fabrication, questioning the motives of the younger man. Parti Keadliaan Rakyat (PKR), of which Anwar is the unofficial leader, suggested that Saiful was a plant when he volunteered to help in the lead-up to the March 2008 general election.

Malaysian daily The Star also reported that Saiful had met up with Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak at the latter's home a few days prior to the police report, a fact that Najib confirmed. Najib however said he merely listened to the distraught young man and did not direct him to make the police report.

With a strong counter-attack by Anwar and such revelations by the media, it was unsurprising that a survey finding by the Merdeka Centre showed only six percent of Malays believed the allegations of sodomy. Fifty-nine percent saw them as politically motivated. The Malays form the largest ethnic group in Malaysia, constituting about 60 percent of the population.

Certainly, the timing is suspicious. Anwar had been piling pressure on the government of Abdullah Badawi. The opposition leader had been boasting for some time now that he had enough secret defections from the ruling coalition to bring down the government at a time of his choosing. In any case, Prime Minister Badawi's collapsing support, as seen in the last election, has made his departure from office a matter of time, even if his coalition hangs on to office. In line to succeed him is Najib.

However, in order for Najib to succeed Badawi smoothly, the threat of Anwar has to be neutralised, and this is how many Malaysians are seeing the latest accusations - as a replay of what happened in 1998.

That year, Anwar was sacked from his Deputy Prime Minister's job by then-Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, with accusations of having committed sodomy with two men, Sukma Darmawan Sasmitaat Madja and Munawar Anees. The two were convicted under Malaysia's Penal Code for having "allowed themselves to be sodomised" by Anwar Ibrahim, and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. They later retracted their confessions, saying that they had been made under duress.

Anwar himself was convicted of "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" in the same year and served six years of his sentence before the conviction was overturned by the Federal Court on appeal.

This latest accusation thus reminds everyone of the malice behind sodomy accusations, once again reflecting the no-holds-barred nature of Malaysian politics.

Saiful got himself examined at Kuala Lumpur Hospital soon after making the police report and the New Straits Times quickly reported that doctors at the hospital, "after a battery of tests, found indications that Saiful had engaged in anal sex," though the hospital itself denied speaking to the media about this, saying they would not be so unprofessional as to discuss any individual's case.

This too reminds everybody of how the two young men in the 1998 case had their anuses examined, and how the mattress upon which the alleged sexual act took place was trundled into court for semen stains to be given full play.

The bottom line is this: For sodomy accusations to serve their purpose as tools for character assassination, they have to be made as sordid as possible. Thus anuses, mattresses and semen. In response, Anwar has to deny it as forcefully as he can.

Nowhere in this circus is there any space for a dispassionate examination of the questions: So what if someone engages in anal sex? Why should it be an issue? Why should it be a crime? Both accuser and accused take the same position either explicitly or implicitly - that homosexuality is shameful and a disqualification for high office.

For example, in 1998, Mahathir called Anwar "unfit" for high office because, as the allegations, now overturned by the courts, went, Anwar was allegedly a homosexual. While the latter denied he was one - in the end successfully - the dictum that if someone is homosexual, he must necessarily be unfit has never been rebutted.

Has this also cemented in many people's minds that gay people cannot be entrusted with positions of responsibility, whatever level of public or corporate life?

The fact that a vast majority of Malays disbelieve the allegations so quickly suggest that not only do they think Saiful's claim is political skullduggery, but they just cannot bring themselves to imagine that a leader could be gay.

Indeed, caught between loud denials and ever more sordid imagery are the gay Malaysians. Brave ones among them have written letters to the press, most recently, a certain "Nellson" with his letter to Malaysiakini, published on Jul 3, 2008. Other letters and commentaries have been published before, but the issue never seems to gain any traction. A very uphill task, it appears to be.

And it may not only just be due to the way the country's political dish-throwing has made "sodomy" more a voodoo curse than a human issue, for Islam is Malaysia's official religion. Within this framework, it is no doubt even harder to make the case for decriminalisation.

Then there is the accident of history, where much of gay Malaysians' hopes for community leadership have been channelled through Pink Triangle, which is essentially an HIV-focussed organisation. It does good work against daunting odds and over the years has gained the trust of the government, with financial support as well. From the beginning, it has parlayed its standing into creating safe spaces for LGBTs, but its strengths are also potentially its weaknesses.

In moments like this, when the gay issue is one of rights, with no relation to HIV, what position can it take? Especially as it depends on government subsidies to fund its HIV work, can it afford to speak up for rights, since doing so would almost surely be seen as antagonistic to the government?

Gay Malaysians have their work cut out for them. They are faced with unique challenges - Islam, HIV, and the unenviable position of being the trampled grass as elephants fight. They'll need to be creative in finding their own way, and the latest saga is not helping any.

In a moment of frustration, one might almost wish that Anwar were really gay. Sure, it might destroy his political career, but in the process, it would also allow the issue to be aired with some sympathy.

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of People Like Us in Singapore. Alex is the author of the well-known Yawning Bread web site. He can be contacted at yawning@geocities.com.

Indignation - Singapore's pride season - will feature one
event on Sat, Aug 16 in which gay Malaysians' voices can be heard. Titled Heartbreak Heroes, it will feature 4 Malaysians: Prof. Farish A. Noor (Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University), Jerome Kugan (writer-musician), Jac sm Kee (a feminist writer, activist and poet) and Pang Khee Teik (Arts Programme Director of The Annexe Gallery). Visit the Indignation web site for more info.