Categorised | Columns, Commentary

Let’s talk about sex


(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.

Not alone

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

Enter sodomy

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.

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20 Responses to “Let’s talk about sex”

  1. Justitia says:

    It’s very problematic that the government continues to position morality within a religious discourse. At the recent universal periodic review by the UN Human Rights Council of the state of human rights in Malaysia, the attorney-general was recorded as saying that oral and anal sex was criminalised in the Penal Code as “[s]uch sexual conduct was not only against the tenets of Islam, which was Malaysia’s official religion, but also the other major religions in Malaysia such as the Christian and Buddhist religions.”

    Religion and morality – concepts that we may want to de-couple as sometimes, there is the perception that people who do not subscribe to any religion are without morals.

    P.S. That photo of the crab and tortoise is very cute – I like the suggestion of erotic asphyxiation.

  2. kl says:

    Well written. Have to keep in mind what is takes to be really democratic.

  3. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear People,

    Malaysia is a Muslim country. As such, sex is taboo. Woe betide the person who is exposed. Can you change this? No – not until Islamic laws are changed. And that will not happen in the near future. My advice ? Forget sexuality in Muslim countries.

    Best regards,
    Dr Syed Alwi

  4. jefri says:

    What is it that has made some of Malaysia’s Muslims become so simple-minded, shallow, and weakened where they consequently have to be untrue to themselves? The answer lies in Malaysia’s all intrusive and downright uncivilized version of the syariah penal system, administered by people who are about as far removed and out of touch with the real world of today as a saber-toothed tiger from the pre-historic era!

  5. Banlas says:

    Dear Syed Alwi,

    Sex is taboo, no doubt. But only in Malaysia is the culprit in the sex scandal selectively prosecuted. Those Muslims in power should be ashamed to be called Muslim.

  6. Farouq Omaro says:

    Sex is a natural desire that is to be cherished, not condemned. Unfortunately, those who are against so-called sexual taboos are the very ones who indulge in sexual immorality most of the time. Just look at the Zouk nightclub episode!

  7. David Anthony says:

    May I call on those “holier than thou” people to cast the first stone?

  8. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear People,

    The situation regarding sexuality in Muslim countries – is the same throughout the Muslim world. It’s how Islam views sexuality. Yes – politicians take advantage of Islamic Syariah Laws – and that happens throughout the Muslim world. Think of Pakistan, Middle East and so on. Ultimately it’s Islam itself. It’s the way Islam views sexuality that opens the door to political abuse.

    Again I say – you better forget about sexual issues in Muslim countries in general (not just Malaysia). Bad idea. If you cannot handle that – then may I suggest that you migrate to a more liberal, cosmopolitan country? By the way – I am a Singaporean!

    From my observations – Chinese Malaysians prefer a more liberal, Western-oriented society. On the other hand, Muslim Malaysians aspire towards a conservative Muslim society. This is a divergence of aspirations that tears the fabric of Malaysian society.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  9. Steven Ong says:

    Why is it that whenever there is a case of morality, religions are always linked to it? You are right, atheists too have moral conscience. All humans are born with a sense of right and wrong, it is just that some choose to commit a sin for whatever reason that only they know best. But the sad thing is that nowadays morality is neither right or wrong but it depends on which side you belong to. For example: fornication. It’s no secret that many youth nowadays have sexual relationships well before marriage and many parents just close an eye or regard it as harmless. And also many others like cheating in business, income-tax, bribery, pornography and so on. Have we the right to judge others when we ourselves are just as guilty of those sins?

  10. hyperX says:

    Can’t they stop all this nonsense and think about a solution for saving the economy?

  11. kd says:

    This is yet another one of the many reflections of the unjust constitution of which we are subject to live by in this country. Because voicing your opinion of the contrary would automatically deem you a fiend.

  12. Rey Buono says:

    Dr Salwi’s comments strike me as simplistic. Islam has a rich history of sexuality ranging from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to the sexual imagery in Sufi poetry. Homosexuality has been rife in male-dominated Muslim societies from Morocco to Afghanistan to Indonesia. Both Malaysia and Indonesia had a relaxed attitude toward sex — witness the P Ramlee movies of the 1950s and 60s. So things do change. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s attitudes toward sex became more intolerant as some Malaysian Muslims took their cue from the harsh brand of Islam practiced in the Middle East. The laws that have persecuted sexual behaviour in Malaysia stem as much from the British Raj as from these harsh readings of the Quran.

  13. The Lord says:

    I think that crab has too many legs.

  14. Daniel says:

    Okay Malaysia, lets talk about sex. Really.

    Maybe being a sexually repressive and puritanical society isn’t such a bad thing. Isn’t it more thrilling in bed when you have so many rules to break when you get dirty? It’s like when you’re a boy and even an unmarked cleavage from Cosmopolitan could thrill you to bits.

    Somehow, I’ve recently come to the opinion that bedroom action is way more awesome when one is crying “Oh God” repeatedly instead of just natural cries, profanities, love declarations, etc.

    Alas, I’m just an agnostic prude so it would really be silly for my partner were I to keep screaming “Oh God? Oh gods? Oh gods and goddesses?…”

    All these sexual fiascos are just so funny in a pathetic and miserable sort of way. But hey, look into history and we see that maidens like Helen of Troy or the sultan’s harems used to be just booty to be fought over. Now sex can topple male and female leaders alike.

    Looking at all this from beyond the lens of national politics, I think that it is probably a good thing that humans, even the most pious and holy of them, and sadly, even the good and just, are no better than tiny birds and bees in controlling such powerful desires. If we did, then humankind would really be the exceptional creation that can claim ownership of nature and [do whatever we want with] it till kingdom come, all in the name of God.

    Such an option to control sex is coming close though but it is because of technology, not religion or the law that such choices can now be made more definitively and affect a large population. Since new media had a role to play in this Eli Wong scandal, I think it will be interesting for another Nut Graph article to explore this aspect of the sexual dilemmas we are facing.

    Can you imagine what will happen when the day comes where sophisticated brain scanners can record and distributed your secret fantasies on the web? Might I get rich from mentally producing porn or could I be charged for imagining oral sex or be imprisoned for sodomising a virtual transgender avatar?

    The future is going to be such a messy bed and I am seriously thrilled to bits about it. Aren’t you?

  15. pure_bull says:

    We don’t talk sex, we do sex. We are Muslims. World population: 1.5 billion.

  16. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Rey Buono,

    Islamic syariah laws through the ages and over the many continents – have been consistent on the issue of sexuality. True – there have been some people who have not observed the syariah code – but that does not alter Islamic laws.

    Muslims in Southeast Asia have not been left out of the great Islamic resurgence seen world-wide. With this growing consciousness regarding Islamic teachings – comes greater awareness of Islamic laws and morality.

    To me – it is very clear that Chinese Malaysians aspire towards a Western-style, liberal democratic society. However – the majority of Muslim Malaysians prefer Islamic orthodoxy and the conservative Islamic state. Witness the rise of PAS.

    My sincere advice is simple. If one cannot stomach Islamic morality, one ought to consider migration to a non-Muslim country.

    Best regards,
    Dr Syed Alwi

  17. OrangRojak says:

    I don’t see why a state that decrees one-man-one-woman, missionary-style only under lifelong contract shouldn’t be considered a bastion of democracy. The state telling us how, when and who we should have sex with has nothing to do with democracy, if the majority of the people voted for that. Even if it’s a nasty, prudish, misogynistic, oppressive society, it’s still a democracy.

    When the majority of voters decide that they don’t mind their neighbours enjoying a bit of variety with their who, when and how, then democracy will ensure your neighbours can get plenty of what they fancy. Until then, they’ll just have to conform to the status quo. I’ve often thought that in less prescriptive societies, the next restriction on civil unions to be relaxed would be the number of people involved – are Muslim men permitted four wives in Malaysia? Polygamy was good enough for Clint Eastwood in “Paint Your Wagon”!

    I think the crab has the right number of legs. One should always do one’s best, where sex is concerned, to avoid crabs.

  18. lee wee tak says:

    Malaysians are hypocrites. If you are so concerned about something that all of us do anyway, why are sales of pirated porn VCDs and rate of surfing porn websites so high?

    If our politicians serve the people right and look after our money and future well, I don’t give a damn about what they do with their sex life since most of us would do the same or even worse stuff anyway.

    Funny people are less miffed about corruption/abuse of funds/medical negligence which in consequence, is much more serious.

  19. Rey Buono says:

    Dear Dr Syed Alwi:

    According to you, Chinese Malaysians, and others who cannot stomach the intolerance of syariah have no place in Malaysia and should leave the country.

    Perhaps it is the Muslims who think along the same lines as you who should leave the country, since Malaysia is governed by a non-Islamic constitution and is, by its own definition a “multi-racial society”.

    There are plenty of countries in which these Muslims would be comfortable — may I suggest Saudi Arabia or certain parts of Afghanistan?

    Whatever they do, they’d better stay away from Turkey and Indonesia. Even many of the Gulf States would offend their sensibilities.

    Cordially,
    Rey Buono

  20. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Rey Buono,

    1) I am a Singaporean and not a Malaysian

    2) I take offence when you describe the syariah of Islam as intolerant.

    3) Malaysia is a Muslim country. If a non-Muslim cannot accept Muslim morality – then why be a hypocrite and continue to stay in a Muslim country ?

    4) If you cannot accept the rise of Islamism in Muslim countries – then please do not stay in one.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi


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