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PKR’s moment of truth

PARTI Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) will face its moment of truth tomorrow, 15 April 2009. The party will decide whether it will accept Selangor executive councillor (exco) Elizabeth Wong‘s offer of resignation following the distribution of intimate photos of her.

Wong has done the honourable thing by offering her party a choice about whether to retain her services or not. PKR’s choice would not only signal its electoral strategy; more importantly, it would indicate the party’s political belief on two important questions.

Wong announcing her resignation at a press conference on 17 Feb

Big Brother watches

The first question is whether PKR respects that there should be a line between the public and the private sphere.

In totalitarian societies like China during the Cultural Revolution, there was no such thing as privacy. Every aspect of everyone’s life was everyone else’s business.

There was also no such thing as private relationships. And so spouses would report to the party and the masses what was said by partners in intimacy. So would parents and children and siblings.

George Orwell painted us such a picture of totalitarian life in his masterpiece 1984, from which we learnt the phrase “Big Brother”.

Most of us would denounce living in such societies or the reality show Big Brother, where there is always a camera hovering over you. We would feel betrayed and angry if someone we love revealed intimate details of our private life to society. We would feel even more betrayed and angry if society rewards such acts by buying our unauthorised memoirs or simply spreading gossip about us.

To accept Wong’s offer to resign would be doing that exactly. If PKR accepted Wong’s resignation, it would be sending the message, loud and clear, that while ordinary citizens are entitled to privacy, public figures, especially public office bearers, are not. They are condemned to live with Big Brother or in Truman‘s world if they cannot avoid the camera or afford the protection of police and intelligence services.

Big Brother’s face looms on giant screens in the 1984 movie adaptation of Orwell’s 1984

No, this is not about being congruent or imposing a higher standard on politicians. Wong is not comparable to the likes of former Penang Deputy Chief Minister Mohd Fairus Khairuddin, the Behrang and Changkat Jering state assemblypersons, or the possible high-profile witnesses to a high-profile murder who were spared from a court appearance. Wong’s candidacy in the March 2008 elections is not a testimony to a dearth of high quality and capable young leaders in PKR or the Pakatan Rakyat.

Wong has proven her worthiness not only to Bukit Lanjan as its state assemblyperson, but also to many more bukits within Selangor as the exco in charge of environment. She is not a mediocre politician.

Neither has she been implicated in any corruption cases. Instead, she might have frustrated many who hoped that corruption would help in the approval process for some hillside projects. And of course, she does not have an aide or bodyguard implicated in a murder case or for stealing C4 explosives.

The insistence on comparing Wong with other politicians who are charged with or implicated in corruption and power abuse is akin to comparing rape survivors with criminals.

(Pic by c-louise /
Unfortunately, in some societies, being raped is a crime. In these societies, many would find it perfectly reasonable to point fingers at the rape survivor and ask, “Why, of all women, are you targeted?” In these societies, whipping or stoning the “bad woman” is even acceptable.

If PKR accepts Wong’s resignation, what PKR will be saying is this. Firstly, while the party does not believe in moral policing, this does not apply to public office bearers. Hence, if you run under the PKR ticket, your privacy is at your own risk.

Even a PAS Member of Parliament can appreciate that being a model of morality is not part of the job description of an elected representative. So, does PKR plan on becoming the new guardian of public morality?

Secondly, if PKR accepts Wong’s resignation in a bid to showcase its moral purity, the party is in fact welcoming attempts by just about anyone to expose their representatives’ private lives.

The last time I counted, PKR has 71 elected representatives — 31 in parliament and 40 in the state assemblies. If PKR “rewards” what was done to Wong by accepting her resignation, the party is effectively inviting detractors to target all 71 PKR representatives whose private lives will be up for grabs. Can the party be certain that none of its representatives will be the next “weak link”?

Ketuanan rakyat or parti?

The other political belief PKR would be displaying over its decision on Wong’s resignation is an old one in political theory on democracy. Who do elected representatives owe their primary loyalty to? Their own conscience, their party, or the electorate (the people)?

Wong has made clear that she has not done wrong. Indeed, it is not a crime for a consenting adult to be sexually involved with another, especially since Wong is a single woman who is also not bound by syariah laws in this country. She, however, offered her resignation to protect the party as there were concerns that her exposed private life would hurt PKR, especially in the 7 April 2009 triple by-elections.

True enough, the issue was played up for political gains in the by-elections, but the party that resorted to this tactic was heavily punished by voters.  

Wong’s supporters at her service centre in Bandar Utama on 12 April, part of the Walk with Eli 2 campaign.
A lion dance troupe and the release of birds were part of the festivities. However, Wong wasn’t able
to make an appearance (Pic by Wong Chin Huat)

Wong’s constituents in Bukit Lanjan have made clear that they want her service. Mind you, they are of different ages, gender, and economic and sociocultural backgrounds. So far, we have not heard anyone calling for her to quit.

And so, the people have spoken, if you like.

Now that Wong has put her party before her own conscience, will her party put the people before itself, or more precisely, before the vested interests of certain quarters in the party?

Malaysians have no doubt that PKR believes in Ketuanan Rakyat over Ketuanan Melayu.

It will be a real test now whether Ketuanan Rakyat will also prevail over Ketuanan Parti.

See also:
Bedroom antics and public outrage
Let’s talk about sex
Naked cyber-voyeurism
The politics of decency

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes good politics can only be preserved if political parties and voters do not send the wrong signal, whether it is approving a coup or rewarding gutter politics.

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6 Responses to “PKR’s moment of truth”

  1. Singam says:

    If the “up-skirt” pictures of Eli Wong taken while she was asleep are all there is of the “lurid” photographs, Eli did nothing wrong. We all need to let down our guard every now and then. Eli should not be punished for trusting the wrong guy.

    But if, as has been suggested, there are more pictures and even videos posed for by a willing Eli Wong, the question of personal moral standards needs to be examined. As a single Chinese [Malaysian] woman, Eli may be entitled by law to do whatever she did. But is she still qualified to represent a mixed constituency of voters including some very conservative ones?

    This question, only she can answer. If there is any risk of later embarrassing her party, the honourable thing to do is to resign and pursue another path to serve the people.

  2. Siew Eng says:

    You’re right, Chin Huat. But PKR won’t pick up the gauntlet; it is still too tied down by traditional views of morality (especially when it involves women) to do the right thing as the Bukit Lanjan people have done in their unequivocal support for Eli.

    Green constituents will lose out and grow disenchanted with PKR. So much for “new politics”.

  3. jac says:

    Thanks for outlining what’s at stake so lucidly, once again.

    I agree that this would be a testament to the principles that PKR holds in terms of the people’s right to privacy, to sexuality, and to a functioning democracy that does not trade its moral low grounds over women’s bodies.

    The character of an individual can be judged on many platforms, and for a public official, it should be her/his public conduct, or decision-making on behalf of the public for the public good. Morality can just be as easily mapped out through corruption and power-based judgments. Everyone has a right to private and personal rights. This has to include politicians.

    As Malaysians who are already so familiar with living life under surveillance, we would be fools to let this right to privacy go so easily.

  4. While Wong Chin Huat speaks of the political standpoint of the effects of accepting Eli’s resignation, I just want to point out that even PAS is thinking that if Hilmi is involved it shall then be classified as a case of khalwat.

    Not that I’m one to care for such things.

    I honestly don’t care who politicians sleep with. I do care about where they get the money to visit their son in Melbourne, Australia, though.

  5. Fikri Roslan says:

    Well, Eli Wong is back. Yes, nothing wrong for her to be naked, and more so in her own house. Yes, nothing wrong if you want to sleep with anyone of your choice, as long as you don’t disturb other people.
    Well, what has happened to the high moral standard of Anwar Ibrahim, or Lim Kit Siang? Or Uztaz Hadi and Tuan Guru Nik? I am disappointed.

  6. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    There was a tinge of hypocrisy in Elizabeth Wong’s tear-jerker press conference so contrived and affected as it was. In it she makes an admission about an allegation only at that point, where no admission was yet necessary. No one had as yet convincingly demonstrated or led any evidence to conclusively prove the existence of nude photos of Elizabeth had been in circulation. In admitting to it by her conduct, she accepts the truth of the allegations against her. At least that’s the inference she now compels us to draw by her actions or inaction on the matter.

    It is also evident that the purpose of her whole press conference and her failure to deny or to assert the substance of the allegations about her personal life supposedly immortalised in electronic or celulloid form was, to elicit sympathy and the adulation she associates with the office she holds.

    Elizabeth’s contrived grief was also predictable. The euphoria that accompanied her and her party’s novelty election into office quickly degenerated into an internal orgy of bickering by an avaricious group of mudslingers with little or no real political objectives other than wild accusations against an unpopular ruling government, accusations which they failed to substantiate ending in the debacle that is Perak.

    More important is the failure of her group to demonstrate a clear and unequivocal agenda that would be an alternative to the current BN government. There was a well orchestrated chorus of “don’t resign” much like the cursory “encore” at a concert, disingenuous and repeated because it is the expected thing to do.

    Elizabeth Wong took an alternative morality with her into government. Accompanying her was an impressionable permissive generation of youth in tow who expect the party to rage on forever. That’s youth for you. And she failed to read or manage that sentiment better or more responsibly.

    And with the privileges of her office comes responsibility. She failed to discharge that responsibility to a standard expected of an elected member of parliament. But then so too did most of her Pakatan colleagues. Full of rhetoric, empty promises and threats, but little if any of substance other than ‘self help’ and empty cliched political verses.

    This is not an attack on her sexuality if that what she is trying to make of this situation. She simply fell on her own sword. It is of her possibly promiscuous behaviour which she attempts to equate with women’s rights and privacy that she and her supporters also claim is at the core issue at the heart of her situation. And yes there are those who are conservatives in every camp of the political spectrum who will reject what she sees as a right. If it is, then the outcomes are part of that heavy responsibility she eschews.

    This is an issue she cannot simply internalise or localise to suit her own personal situation. As a public figure she is public property. That’s a fact of the life she chose for herself.

    The western model of liberalism that she and Anwar promote has its pitfalls. It may be okay to “let a thousand flowers bloom” as Mao proclaimed during the cultural revolution. A philosophy of harnessing then unleashing unbridled youthful but immature energy against established conservatism. Elizabeth and Anwar exploited it for their powerbase without realising or wanting to realise the nature of the beast which could well turn on them as it did.

    Why should anyone see her misfortune as anything more than something to chat about in coffee shops today and forget about tomorrow?

    This is Malaysia where there are no privacy laws or did Elizabeth just have a rude awakening about privacy laws (or the absence of it in Malaysia?). Remember what happened to the former MCA chief? This scandal will circulate throughout the world and she will only be identified by those mysterious photos of her in the nude (if they do exist).

    Elizabeth Wong has failed to realise that she cannot change a conservative culture that is Asia overnight with a foreign degree, foreign ideas and then seek to impose it on the vulnerable, the youth. Together with freedoms come responsibility.

    Elizabeth has chosen to excise my commentary from her blog just as those other “democrats and champions of freedoms of expression and free speech” Lim Kit Siang, Teresa Kok and Raja Petra Kamaruddin. All of whom have also barred any comment from my IP address choosing instead to brand me an Umno apologist. That’s their idea of diversity of opinion and freedom of expression. This is mine.

    Gopal Raj Kumar

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