Thursday, September 18, 2008

Malaysians need more from government

By Michael BackmanThe AgeSeptember 10, 2008THE other week, someone in Malaysia emailed me the report of the doctor who examined Saiful Bukhari Azlan — the young Malay man who claimed in June that Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had sodomised him.I, along with heaven knows who else who has also seen the doctor's report, now know that Saiful's anus was pink rather than blue, had signs of good oxygenation, and that his rectum showed no evidence of bleeding or damage.I repeat this somewhat in-your-face description because it encapsulates the direction that political discourse in Malaysia has taken: decency and propriety have been dispensed with — it really is a case now of no holes barred.Indeed, the last decade of Malaysian politics has been dominated by endless debate about what Anwar Ibrahim — who was first charged with sodomy in 1998 — might or might not have done with his penis. Meanwhile, questions such as how the nation's wealth should be divided between the races, or how the Government should distribute contracts, remain unsettled.Malaysia protests that it is a conservative, largely Islamic country, but you wouldn't know it judging from its sex-obsessed politicians. The latest allegation of homosexual rape against Anwar is ridiculous. Not so much the homosexual aspect, but the rape. The idea that a relatively slight 60-year-old with well-known back problems could hold down a tall, healthy 23-year-old man unassisted and rape him is pure rubbish.Indeed, Saiful seemed to change his story after he first claimed to have been sodomised. Perhaps it dawned on him that if the sodomy appeared in any way consensual, then he too would be charged.Saiful's escalation of the allegations is convenient for Anwar too. The claim of rape allows Anwar to honestly deny the claim. The claim of sodomy could be more problematic.Although many of Anwar's supporters worldwide have never countenanced that there might be any truth to any of the sodomy allegations — perhaps due to an element of homophobia on their part — rumours about Anwar have circulated in Malaysia for years.Hanif Omar, Malaysia's well-regarded police chief between 1974 and 1993, has said that he warned then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad about Anwar's alleged homosexual activities — which included involvement with a transvestite and a foreigner just before Hanif retired. He was concerned that Anwar was exposing himself to the threat of blackmail but Mahathir refused to believe the allegations.Anwar spent time in jail for the first set of charges, which eventually were overturned. But they were overturned on a technicality. Two of the three presiding judges said in their judgement that while they believed that sodomy had taken place, the dates could not be pinned down.But should allegations of sodomy disqualify Anwar from office? The risk of blackmail has significantly diminished. After the last 10 years of "did he or didn't he" speculation, Anwar barely has a reputation to protect on this score.In any event, why should sodomy between consenting adults disqualify one from office when allocating millions of dollars in contracts to one's relatives seems almost a prerequisite for high office?By any measure, one is a personal and a religious matter, whereas the other is quite clearly criminal. It really is a case where those living in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, particularly when those houses are worth millions, despite the fact the occupants are only on government salaries.The bigger problem for Anwar is that in 1998 he was also charged and jailed for asking police to heavy witnesses into withdrawing their statements against him. That any deputy prime minister should have done that is unthinkable. Now, it is this that is Anwar's real crime. By comparison, the sodomy allegations barely matter. But of course people are far more titillated by sex than by matters of governance.Now that Anwar is back in parliament, he has targeted September 16 — next Tuesday — as the date on which he will attempt to have the Government fall, as Government members switch sides to his coalition of opposition parties.Malaysia's Government is tired, complacent and out of ideas. It needs some time out. All governments need this, which is why in modern countries, parties take turns at being in government. There is now a quantum gap between the government that Malaysians deserve and need and the government they get. But is Anwar the answer?If he does come out on top, it would be nice if he doesn't award lucrative contracts to his friends, or manoeuvre his supporters into key positions in the national media, like he did last time. He must reduce the Government's role in business and not exchange one set of cronies for another but get rid of cronyism altogether. He must make bold, precise statements that he will allow the judiciary to be completely independent, that he will tightly define corruption and adopt zero tolerance towards it, applying this stance most harshly of all to his friends and colleagues. And he must guarantee media freedom.He might also like to decriminalise sodomy too, not because of all the trouble it's given him, but as part of a push to modernise Malaysia.A worldwide economic downturn is coming and the Malaysian Government really does need to be enthralled by more than the colour of the interior of someone's backside.endsWeb address for column on The Age's website:
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