A Photo Scandal Roils Malaysian Politics

With intra-party elections scheduled for March in Malaysia's United Malays National Organization, there seems to be no stopping the deluge of political crises in Malaysia. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has made it his mission to claw back as many opposition seats as he can in the effort to gain primacy for his faction within the party, which has been riven for months by interparty squabbling that has put many of his lieutenants at risk.

In rapid fire over recent weeks, the Perak state government, like Selangor led by the Pakatan Rakyat, was toppled via a coup-de-tat in which three state legislators crossed the floor although the state assembly was not in session to hold a no confidence vote. At about the same time, Pakatan in Kedah lost another state legislator who was forced to resign when it became known that he had two wives, illegal for non-Muslims.

The latest, but probably not the last, occurred with the humiliation of Elizabeth Wong, an unmarried 37-year-old Selangor state assemblywoman and councilor for Pakatan Rakyat, the national opposition party. As the world knows, Wong's jilted boyfriend sent photos of the woman sleeping nude to the media and the blogosphere. Although Wong had not posed for the photos, they kicked off a huge fuss in the conservative country and resulted in her offering her resignation. If it is accepted, it would mean there would be three by-elections.

The aggressive tactics, most of them credited to Najib, have included the filing of scores of police complaints against Karpal Singh, the veteran lawyer and national chairman of the Democratic Action Party, one of the three component parties of Pakatan Rakyat. Karpal Singh offered to sue Sultan Raja Azlan Shah, the titular head of Perak, after Azlan Shah named an UMNO chief minister to head the Perak assembly when the body was still in a 28-28 tie. The opposition speaker, from the Democratic Action Party, has refused to seat the new chief minister or the executive councillors, however, continuing the constitutional crisis.

The accusations against Karpal and other Pakatan members are meant to attempt to whip up ethnic Malay resentment against the opposition although UMNO leaders have, when they found it necessary, attacked the sultans themselves. In particular, Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister, accused them of giving the country away to the British colonialists and a long list of other sins. His son, Mukhriz, was one of those who filed a complaint against Karpal Singh.

UMNO and the rest of the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition, had been perceived as fumbling and unable to slow the march of the opposition, led by onetime Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, since March 8, 2008 national elections in which the coalition lost its historic two-thirds majority in parliament and five state legislatures. Since the start of the year, however, the opposition coalition has been under unceasing attack on all fronts.

The contest is especially lethal in Selangor, the most developed state and a national jewel, contributing about 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Shortly after the general elections, the UMNO-controlled Malay media singled out Teresa Kok, a four-term Member of Parliament and Selangor senior councilor. The former Selangor chief minister, Mohd Khir Toyo, accused her of trying to abolish the azan, the Muslim call to prayer. At the height of the assault, Utusan Malaysia, a Malay newspaper owned by UMNO, published a short story in which a narcissistic woman politician who appeared to share some of Kok's attributes was assassinated. Kok has claimed that the character refers to her and has sued Utusan, Khir and the writer of the short story.

The current episode is probably a new low in Malaysian politics, observers say. Politicians have called it "gutter politics", while Wong herself said, "The distribution and publication of these photos/video is a malicious attack on my personality. This constitutes a gross outrage on my modesty, a gross invasion of my privacy, and in particular the sanctity of my personal life. It is being done by unscrupulous persons to embarrass and discredit me."

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The pictures sent to Asia Sentinel clearly show that the woman was sound asleep when they were taken. Their publication has stirred outrage among women's groups and, according to local polls, raised a groundswell of sympathy for her, although Pakatan support appeared to be less than enthusiastic. One observer pointed out that Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar's wife and the titular head of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Anwar's party, had not bothered to issue a statement of support.

While Pakatan politicians charged that the Barisan Nasional was behind the scandal, some Barisan supporters have suggested that it was probably a personal problem between the couple that exploded into the public sphere. Jeff Ooi, a prominent political blogger and Pakatan lawmaker, wrote that "I believe there is a dire need for all Pakatan Rakyat leaders and elected representatives to beware of Ttrojan horses – (无间道 in Cantonese) in our earnest deeds to recruit new blood and party cadres. That is the floodgate for infiltrators to wreak havoc in fledgling political parties."

The other front is the press. Increasingly, the government hints at signs of a greater crackdown on the vibrant social-political blogosphere. Last year, a series of criminal and civil suits were filed against Raja Petra Kamarudin, the country's leading blogger. Next Monday, he may be sent back into jail under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a colonial-era law which allows for indefinite detention without trial. Raja Petra, in a posting to his blog Malaysia Today, said he would starve himself to death in detention.

The dust certainly isn't settling. More fireworks are on the way as Anwar's sodomy trial begins proper. A 24-year-old onetime aide, Saiful Bukhari, accused the 62-year-old politician of rape last year. The charge has since been reduced to consensual "unnatural" sex, prompting Anwar to ask why Saiful hadn't been charged as well. Raja Petra Kamaruddin in particular has pointed out a wide range of discrepancies in the charges, printing an affidavit by the physician who examined Saiful and found no evidence of anal penetration. Raja Petra has printed other allegations that Najib had met with Saiful prior to the filing of the charges, which have been condemned as suspicious by human rights organizations.

As the UMNO elections come to a peak in March, more casualties may emerge. Already rumors are spiraling that the luckless Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was driven out as UMNO president after what was perceived as indecisiveness and inattention, might not resign from the country's top job. Former premier Mahathir, Badawi's leading critic, wrote in his blog: "They say it is not necessary that the party president is prime minister. That is not a requirement in the country's constitution. It's only a practice with no written provision. The one who decides everything is the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister does not resign, that is his right, just like how choosing ministers and deputy ministers is also his right."

One high-ranking UMNO source , however, told Asia Sentinel that Badawi has no intention of staying on. Nontheless, the blogosphere has been filled with requests that he do so, out of general lack of enthusiasm for Najib, who has been connected to huge commissions paid to cronies for defense contracts for submarines, patrol boats and aircraft when he was defense minister. He and his wife, Rosmah, are also widely believed in Malaysia to have been connected, however peripherally, to the 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator who was allegedly killed by two of his bodyguards. One of the bodyguards broke down on the witness stand while reading his final statement in the trial, saing he was being made a scapegoat for people who could not be named.

Some party officials are also concerned that UMNO tactics believed to be behind the ouster of Wong and the Perak and Kedah officials will rebound back on the party in the form of increasing antagonism on the part of the country's sizeable minority populations and reform-minded Malays. But in the meantime, the aggressive tactics against Pakatan Rakyat have revitalized his standing within the party and ensured his victory.