On Saturday the family and I decided to take a break from Kuala Lumpur's heat, so we headed off to a resort in the nearby highlands. On Sunday we opened our hotel room door to find complimentary morning papers with the headline, "We Were Sodomized." I imagine that the thousands of visitors in town for the Commonwealth Games enjoyed the same breakfast reading, including details about one man introducing his penis into a couple of other men's anuses. (While the English word used -- sodomized -- might strike few as shocking, the Malaysian expression main buntut, "playing ass," is a bit cruder.)
And this is the country where Venus di Milo's breasts are blacked out by censors in Time magazine!
Well if my 9-year-old son didn't know about sodomy a week ago, he certainly knows now. The neighbor's foul-mouthed kids are riding their bicycles around yelling, "Fuck you in the asshole!" One mother has complained that her daughter practices piano scales with "So Do My" instead of "Do Re Me." On the television news last night the prime minister said the word "masturbation," and though it was bleeped as per standard broadcast policy, the ever-alert son demanded to know exactly what had been bleeped and what did it mean. It was a teachable moment I could have done without.
As everyone should know by now, anything America can do, Malaysia can do better. While Americans are glued to televisions to hear about the president having a bit of fellatio with a perfectly buxom young lady, we in Malaysia along with our thousands of sports-fan visitors have been regaled with far more lurid affairs involving the recently deposed deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.
So, what have we learned from the Malaysian newspapers about the private activities of Anwar, whom we had always previously seen as a devout Muslim father of six? We've learned that he has sometimes worn a wig for disguise, used a tennis buddy to obtain the services of female prostitutes, propositioned his associates' wives and buggered his driver (15 times), his speechwriter (a middle-aged Islamic scholar) and his adopted brother.
Only, we don't really know. We have only the assertions of the sexual partners, the prime minister's assurance that he believes the charges and the vehement denial of Anwar himself. The driver's account was part of an affidavit presented as evidence in a third-party court case in which Anwar was not directly involved and not present in court. After hearing a defense objection that the information on Anwar's sexual activities was not relevant to the case at hand, the court adjourned without ruling on the objection. Before the court reconvened in the afternoon, the general public had been given all the details in the afternoon newspaper and on local television.
This has prompted the Malaysian Bar Council to issue a statement saying that the publication was "a breach of the rules of natural justice and fair play." The speechwriter and the adopted brother were held by the police for about a week without access to their families or lawyers, before pleading guilty to allowing Anwar to sodomize them. They were represented by court-appointed attorneys. Then, in a dramatic reversal, the speechwriter and adopted brother retracted their guilty pleas, claiming the confessions to being sodomized were not voluntary. After days of bad press, Anwar himself was finally charged with five counts of corruption and four counts of sodomizing the men. (Yes, sodomy is against the law in Malaysia.) Anwar showed up in court with a shocking black eye and arm and neck bruises, claiming he was beaten up while in police custody. (The prime minister counterclaimed that Anwar might have beaten himself up.)
Meanwhile, what -- you might ask -- does a president's (or a deputy prime minister's) sex life have to do with the price of potatoes in Idaho (or of rice in Penang)? Recently, there were serious issues before the electorate here, including a financial crisis, a leadership struggle and the possibility that if Anwar had become prime minister he might have initiated some rather rigorous anti-corruption legislation.
Until Sept. 2, Anwar was finance minister as well as DPM, and he had some significant differences with the prime minister over how to handle Malaysia's growing financial worries; now Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is prime minister, home minister and finance minister. Anwar and 13 other prominent political and business figures are in detention under the draconian Internal Security Act that allows for indefinite detention without charges or trial.
A friend of mine once said that he doesn't ever believe anything until it is officially denied -- a rather sardonic commentary on the tightly controlled Malaysian news media. It has been a particularly difficult year for Malaysia, and one casualty has been the Malaysian press, which has seen the final elimination of whatever little credibility it had. Before the present brouhaha, there were the resignations of two Anwar-leaning editors of two Malay-language dailies, followed by a speech in which the information minister accused the foreign media of a plot to blacken Malaysia's name and called on local journalists working for the foreign media to "repent." Four people who had written or forwarded e-mail warnings of possible riots were arrested under the ISA for spreading malicious lies via the Internet (they were traced by the local Internet service provider).
The dilemma of Malaysian journalists is that they have for too long allowed themselves to be used. While some societies look upon journalists as observers and the media as an arena for the debate of ideas (may the best idea win), I have long seen a different paradigm at work here: the media as a tool for "nation-building," which means inculcating desirable values, spreading "constructive information" and preserving political stability.
The leadership's preoccupation with political stability is understandable given Malaysia's volatile mix of ethnic groups, and thus we have long endured heavy radio and television airplay devoted to patriotic and optimistic jingles. Some of my favorites include: "Proud to Be Malaysian," "United We Succeed," "We Can, Oh Yes We Can," "With a Leader of Great Ability," "Malaysia Is Bullish on Bouncing Back."
Political stability has also been emphasized as a selling point for foreign investment, and the threat of civil unrest weighs doubly heavy now, on top of the financial problems that have seen overseas investors steering clear of these shores. But -- one must ask -- when does preserving political stability become conflated with politicians' personal interests in retaining power? Do the politicians themselves know the distinction?
Naturally the Internet, the BBC on short-wave radio and foreign publications have given a big boost to those of us who live here. Last Monday morning I downloaded hundreds of messages from one discussion group alone, and included among those were forwarded postings from Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, the Guardian, some Australian and Singapore newspapers and several local NGOs. After reading those messages, I visited Web sites that have been established to support Anwar, and then it was on to Amnesty International Online for its statement on the issue. Growing faster than the cow grass in my yard are the connections and networks whereby I can choose my own information sources.
So who needs the newspaper except for prurient interest?