(Dmytro Konstantynov / Dreamstime)
PRESS reports that intimate photos of Elizabeth Wong have been exposed and are circulating have opened up a new can of worms.
The discussions so far on the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) politician’s case have revolved around our public leaders’ right to privacy. But if it was merely Wong’s privacy that was at stake, why did she feel compelled to resign in tears?
Indeed, there is a dimension to the issue that is larger than the right to privacy, and that would be the dominant perceptions of sexual morality in Malaysia.
Certainly, messages of support for Wong, who is Bukit Lanjan assemblyperson and Selangor executive councilor (exco) have been pouring in. There is no doubt that people, including Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders, feel outrage at how these private photos have been publicly distributed.
Wong is, however, not alone in her predicament.
In addition to police investigations into the circulation of Wong’s intimate images, the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) now wants to investigate her ex-boyfriend under Islamic law.
And out of nowhere, a new police report was made about a DVD allegedly containing footage of MCA’s Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek having oral sex with a woman. As ludicrous as it may be, oral sex is a crime under Malaysia’s Penal Code.
The Malay-language press is also now badgering Malay Malaysian actor Zafrul Nadzarine Nordin of TV3’s Spa Q fame over pictures of him hugging actress Azizah Mahzan. Zafrul, a married father of two, has gone on record to say: “I know my limits.”
Norman Hakim (Source: hiburan.info)Short history of Malaysian morality
The larger environment in which discussions on sex are framed in Malaysia is sprawling and complex. The case the media is trying to make against Zafrul demonstrates that sexual morality is imputed not only when it comes to politicians’ lives.
Among public entertainers, khalwat is the weapon most often used to target individuals. Recent khalwat accusations against Gerak Khas‘s Norman Hakim and rising star Ako Mustapha have been making their rounds in the Malay-language blogosphere and press.
This is not a new phenomenon. As early as the 1980s, the Malay-language press’s entertainment pages were filled with stories of artists who had been “caught in the act” by religious authorities, the police, or snoop squads.
The policing of sexual morality has also long been extended to works produced by entertainers and artists. Witness the public and official outcry when Ramona Rahman kissed Andrew Leci on stage during their performance of Tennessee William’s celebrated play, A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1994.
Even ordinary Malaysian students have been targeted by the discourse on sexual morality. Back in the 1970s, the education minister suggested Malaysian students being sent abroad should be taught how to use condoms in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases. The minister was attacked by Islamist students, led by none other than Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
(Zts / Dreamstime)Citizens are affected at other levels, too. In 2005, the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) made the headlines when it raided Zouk nightclub in Kuala Lumpur and detained all the Muslim patrons. What was more astounding was that the moral police themselves were accused of sexual misconduct during the raid.
The same year, a Muslim transsexual, Mumtaz, was arrested and humiliated by police officers; she was clearly targeted because she was a transsexual. In 2007, another transsexual, Ayu, was allegedly assaulted by Islamic religious affairs officials in Melaka. In 2008, Islamic religious affairs officials raided a transsexual beauty pageant in Kelantan and detained 16 participants.
Muslims and non-Muslims
And speaking of beauty pageants, it was probably in 1997 that the Malaysian public discovered the Syariah Criminal Offences Act‘s wide jurisdiction. Despite the country previously crowning Yasmin Yusoff and Erra Fazira as Miss Malaysia, three Muslim, Malay Malaysian women were arrested under the Act for participating in the Miss Malaysia Petite pageant.
The boundaries of morality are clearly different for Muslim Malaysians who have to contend not just with the Penal Code but also a wider array of syariah laws on sexual morality.
The boundaries around sexual morality in this country have thus been drawn not only around what citizens do with each other, regardless of whether the acts are among consenting adults. Our moral guardians also obsess over who they do it with and how the rest of us discuss it, and over other seemingly unrelated instances in which sexuality is implicated.
Gasp! The scandal
In 1998, the first round of sodomy charges against Anwar was made. Through these sodomy allegations, Anwar’s entire sexual identity was assaulted in terms of what he did, how he did it and who he did it with. True, if Anwar did indeed sodomise, he would have technically committed a crime.
But compare Anwar’s case to that of former Umno vice-president Tan Sri Rahim Thamby Chik. When Rahim was accused of statutory rape, it was the underaged girl and current Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng who were targeted by the state instead.
Rahim Thamby Chik (Public
domain; source: Wikipedia)And as with Wong this time, when Anwar was first accused of sodomy, the responses by his supporters hardly touched on the issue of freedom of sexuality.
For the BN, Anwar was a criminal and unfit to run the country because he was allegedly gay. For Anwar’s supporters, he was innocent not because a majority upheld the individual’s freedom of sexuality, but because he could not possibly be gay.
The madness during that period was such that a vigilante group, the People’s Voluntary Anti-Homosexual Movement (Pasrah) was born. Hardly any reformasi spokespersons came out to condemn the movement on the basis of principle. Their condemnations were rather that Pasrah was a political ploy by the BN to further discredit Anwar.
Ironically, it was Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, daughter of Anwar’s nemesis, Mahathir, and then head of the Malaysian AIDS Council who publicly condemned Pasrah on the grounds of civil rights.
Principles of morality
Similarly, PKR and PR supporters soundly dismissed the second round of sodomy allegations against Anwar as entirely fabricated by the BN. But this ignores the principle of the matter — Anwar’s sexuality, heterosexual or otherwise, is private and should be respected as his to choose.
In Sodomy Part Two, Anwar should only have been investigated if his alleged sexual relations with his then aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan involved an abuse of power, coercion, or misuse of public funds.
Thus, in light of the repercussions of these accusations against Anwar and Wong, more critical questions need to be asked, and more rigorous responses demanded. True, Wong’s case needs to be defended from a right-to-privacy perspective. But many questions remain unanswered.
Should anyone expose pictures that are entirely private in nature?
Two women in love (Public domain) Some BN leaders, particularly from Umno, gleefully capitalised on the photos, but should Wong’s party have supported her more strongly on a principled basis?
Would the public and PKR be as supportive of Wong if it turned out that the photos were not merely of her in intimate positions, but having sex as well? Would they still be supportive if it could be proven that Wong posed for these photos and videos?
And what if Wong were a Muslim Malaysian woman? Or if she were lesbian?
Would our standards for Wong be the same for every other person living in Malaysia, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, party affiliation, class or physical ability?
A truly democratic Malaysia would respect that Malaysians have diverse values and preferences, including on the issue of sexuality.
To get there, a democratising Malaysia must start being at ease in discussing sexuality issues openly, frankly and without judgment. There is no better time to begin this than the immediate present.