Beyond the World news headlines
Sex education again in Malaysia, thanks to the courts
Gay Austrian fashionista Bruno will not be making an appearance on Malaysia’s screens this summer for fear of corrupting this mostly-Muslim nation’s youth.
But Malaysia’s parents will still not have it easy as the country’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is again on trial for sodomy in a re-run of a 14-month case that in 1998 generated endless sexually explicit headlines and questions from curious children.
Photo: Anwar enters Kuala Lumpur courtoom with wife Wan Aziza Wasn Ismail for his sodomy trial on July 15/ Reuters (Zainal Abd Halim)
I was a teenager then when the former deputy prime minister was first found guilty of
sodomy and corruption in a marathon trial that featured graphic descriptions of anal
penetration, faithfully reported in lurid detail by this country’s government-owned press and on prime-time TV.
(Photo: Anwar arrives in court on July 15, Reuters/
On my way to school, I saw angry protesters take to the streets and heard parents and teachers raging about children getting exposed to gay and straight sex (Anwar was accused of having an affair with a woman as well), accompanied by the kind of graphic descriptions usually reserved for specialist magazines.
A columnist in the normally staid government-run New Straits Times suggested at the time that all Malaysians should study a book to be entitled “An intelligent parent’s guide to sodomy and other painful issues,” based on the explicit testimony of Anwar’s former driver who said he had been assaulted by Anwar and his adopted brother. Needless to say, he lost his column.
These were pre-YouTube days where sexual images were only available on illicit video recordings and imported magazines. At the time, it was impossible to ignore the headlines as pro-government newspapers sought to tarnish Anwar’s image.
One of the many ironies of the case was that Anwar, a pious Muslim, had been an education minister who had fervently opposed sex education in schools on moral grounds. And blushing teachers often skipped or skimmed over the reproductive system in classes.
But with the trial, a generation of school kids were confronted with a court parade of x-rated items from a semen-stained mattress, medical reports on anal tearing to pubic hair samples.
Malay-language newspapers had to invent new words to decribe sex acts and body parts as Arabic loan words were inadequate to explain everything. Slang Bahasa Malaysia words like “pondan”, a derogatory word for homosexual entered the formal lexicon via the courts and media.
The uncovering of Anwar’s alleged sexual crimes in court and in the media was seen by many as a demonisation of a popular Malay politician in a leadership struggle during the Asian financial crisis that rocked Malaysia.
Despite the press palaver, there was no real crackdown on homosexuals during the trial, apart from the Muslim morality police occasionally raiding private gay parties in hotels. They still do that but you can more likely be arrested by the religious police for being in “khalwat” or “close proximity” to a person of the opposite sex.
What 1998 did bring was protest. For the first time in a country that has now been ruled by the same political party for 51 years, many university students and young professionals took part in daily demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands.
It also gave birth to Malaysia’s political alternative media that have grown into the main source of news in a country where the printed press is heavily controlled. Websites like Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com) got their first breath of life. A widely read Reformasi (reform) diary (a precursor to the blog), which detailed the movement started by Anwar, made its rounds in cyberspace and Malaysian gay websites saw their best business in years with chatrooms like GayMalaysia and SayangAbang (darling brother) filled with inquisitive onlookers.
If there were long lines to get into the courthouse to witness the downfall of one of the country’s best-known political figures, there were also long queues of straight patrons trying to get a feel of the drum and bass-thumping gay clubs like Liquid Room and the Blue Boy in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
The clubs, like Anwar, are still around today.
One young gay reporter even told Time Magazine his sex life had sizzled in 1998 as many people wanted to experiment, inspired by the trial.
Will the trial shock as much this time round or are Malaysians just too exposed to sex through MTV, YouTube and MySpace and numerous blogs?
More than 10 years on and two prime ministers later, Malaysia’s conservatism appears to have grown deeper. Its rising political force is an Islamist party, one of Anwar’s staunchest allies.
Will the new trial and publicity damage Anwar or the government? Finally released from imprisonment in 2004 and after a bar on holding office ended, the 61-year old was catapulted back into parliament in 2008 by-election with a huge majority, so it seems not.