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The politics of decency

(Pic by striatic / Flickr)

LET’S get something straight. What has happened to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Selangor state assemblyperson for Bukit Lanjan, Elizabeth Wong, is nothing unprecedented or unimaginable.

All you need to do to potentially get your nude pictures circulated is to share your private life with a person who could one day betray you carelessly or heartlessly. The person may do so to stop you from leaving him or her, to blackmail you, or merely to see your life ruined.

We read such news, which could happen in any country where cameras or mobile phones are widely used, every now and then.

Different people deal with such outrageous invasions of privacy differently. The trauma may perhaps be compared to that of rape.

Should society find fault in the lifestyle of the intended target and blame him or her for the exposure of these photos? The question is similar to whether society should blame rape victims for their suffering. Some societies do blame and punish victims of rape, but most societies opt to punish the rapists and protect the victims. How a society deals with this reflects its civility.

Private vs public interests

The likely reasons Wong’s misfortune made the front page of the newspapers is that she is an able state exco member, and she is a woman.

Active in civil society for years before joining party politics, this first-time executive councillor of Selangor has been an advocate for the environment, freedom of information, and inclusion for socially marginalised groups. She has opposed hillside development, and was one of the few politicians who organised and coordinated aid and support to the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide victims.

If Wong’s offer to resign is accepted by the Sultan of Selangor, many shelved hillside development projects will gleefully await resurrection.

Landslide in Bukit Antarabangsa (Pic courtesy of Raj Kumar)

At greater stake is the stability or even the sustainability of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) state government. If Wong’s resignation is accepted, it means the public would have been manipulated to see the victim as the culprit. In other words, by insinuating that Wong is a woman of “low morality”, question marks will be cast on the morality of her PR colleagues.

Such public pressure could provide the incentive for some state assemblypersons in the PR camp to declare themselves “independent”. With a PR:BN ratio of 36:20 in the state legislative assembly, a coup à la Perak would need the conjuring of nine “independents” — not an easy task.

However, if the PR’s legislative majority is eroded, some PR component party warlords may be tempted to ask for renegotiation of portfolios in the executive council. This may eventually lead to the collapse of the Selangor state government.

If after Perak, Selangor falls, Kedah can hardly survive. Then, more than half of the PR state governments would likely be gone. If enough leaders in PAS and the DAP feel that regime change by the next election is not possible, they might choose to abandon the middle ground and return to their communal strongholds. The PR coalition may then be at real risk of disintegration.

Furthermore, attacks on Wong’s private life — which now may affect the pace of Malaysia’s democratisation — are comparable to the sodomy allegations against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. Back then, the police believed that Anwar threatened the nation’s security and detained not only him but also his alleged victims under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

The political repercussions are thus huge. If you believe that the political changes post-March 2008 must not be reversed by below-the-belt politics, Wong’s case is critical. If you believe that it is your right that your house should not collapse in a landslide after a downpour, Wong’s case is equally crucial.

Public honesty

Khir Toyo (Pic by johnleemk, source:
No politician — good or bad, clean or dirty — should be forced to resign because of their private life, unless public interests are directly involved.

This applies not only to politicians with good public service records like Wong. Hypothetically, this standard also applies to politicians such as former Selangor Menteri Besar (MB) Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo, who faces pending complaints of corruption and who, while serving as MB, approved 99 hillslope projects.

Khir is now leading the call for Wong’s resignation on moral grounds. Citing the PR’s calls for the MCA’s Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek to resign when his sex video scandal hit the news, Khir has asked the opposition not to practise double standards now.

For the record, Wong herself did not bay for Chua’s blood. In fact, she wrote in her blog: “But is it anyone’s business what one does and who one does it with in the bedroom?”

And for pragmatic reasons, I personally would not ask politicians to resign over every double standard. Otherwise our Parliament and state legislative assemblies would be three-quarters empty.

Hypothetically, if intimate photos of Khir were exposed to the public tomorrow, should we ask him to resign? My answer is still no. Why? Because it’s not about his private life, it’s about whether he can carry out his job description.

What do we need people in public office for? To serve our public needs, or to satisfy us with their flawless private lives? Everyone has their own standards of private morality.

The most restrictive private morality standards should apply only to three types of public office holders.

First, the holders of public offices directly related to personal morality such as leaders in charge of religious affairs. If their private morality does not meet public expectations, they are simply not a good fit for their public duties.

Clinton dummy (Pic by cliff1066
/ Flickr)
Second, other public office holders who make conservative private morality their main election appeal. If they have portrayed themselves as puritan, then they should resign for cheating their electorate if they are proven to be anything less than puritan. This is a question of their public honesty, not private morality.

The test of public honesty is crucial. US President Bill Clinton was impeached not for his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but for lying about it. The private morality of his affair was his wife Hillary Clinton’s business, not the American public’s.

The third category of public office holders who should adhere to stringent morality standards are the holders of hereditary public positions. These leaders inherit their public positions and do not win them by any kind of popular mandate, and their job function is to be dignified and loved by all. It would thus be reasonable to hold them to higher standards of personal conduct.

How low must we go?

I would also object to calls for Wong, or hypothetically Khir, to resign on grounds of public morality, because of how politics should be conducted. As much as politicians would like to end their opponent’s political lives, they must do it only by legitimate means.

Seat-buying is wrong. Undermining our constitutional monarchy is wrong. Manufacturing an opponent’s sex scandals — whether through public or private means — is also wrong.

We’ve seen scandals targeting Anwar, Chua, PAS’s Mohd Sabu, PAS’s Halimah Ali, V Arumugam, and now Wong. Who’s next?

Should we let more private pictures and videos occupy our public discourse when we are facing a possibly colossal economic crisis?

It is Wong’s misfortune to have trusted her private life to someone who has now chosen to expose it to shame her. It would be a greater misfortune for Malaysians if our politicians were to adopt this kind of shaming as normal political strategy.

Remember how the world laughed at the mattress dragged into court during Anwar’s 1998 sodomy trial? That was and should remain the lowest point in Malaysian politics. Malaysians must defend decency in politics against the return of this invasion-of-bedrooms authoritarianism.

(© Tyler Olson / Dreamstime)

Wong Chin Huat believes a line must be drawn between pragmatism and Machiavellianism in politics. The country will go to the dogs if unethical means are allowed to bring down democratically-elected representatives and governments. A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by profession, he is based in Monash University Sunway Campus.

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11 Responses to “The politics of decency”

  1. Shane says:

    Well written and well said, this article is.

    If the people of Selangor and especially Bukit Lanjan think that she did a good job and should stay, then she should stayed on. If otherwise, then she should leave. Her record on her job description should speak loud for Eli.

    After all, politics is dirty … filthy dirty.

  2. Mei Kuan says:

    Elizabeth Wong’s case tests the dignity and morality of Malaysian politicians in particular and Malaysian in general. It is not the time for partisan politics but bi-partisanship. All women and public office bearers regardless of their political parties and affiliations should feel indignant at what happened to Elizabeth. It could well happen to any of them and if we allow gutter politics to take root and fester, truly, God have mercy on Malaysia!

  3. Andrew I says:

    A relationship exists until something better comes along. If it is true that the source of the pictures is a spurned lover, I feel more sorry for him … and it’s not because he was dumped.

  4. Eric Loius says:

    What’s done cannot be undone. What happened to Eli Wong though came like a thunder bolt; but it was never too shocking or unexpected, given the present situation of politics in this country! The rakyat has come to a conclusion that should anyone who dares speak against certain known groups of ‘politikus” nowadays, chances are he/she will face what Eli Wong has just experienced. The tactics used might be different from time to time (it could be murder, disappearance, money, sex scandal etc.) but the ultimate motive remains malicious, and that is to destroy the good reputation and assassinate the character of the political opponent, thus tarnishing the good image that the latter is enjoying among the electorate and the rakyat as a whole.

    Well Eli, offering to quit shows your integrity and dignity as a selfless and ready-to-sacrifice politician which is most adorable and respectable by the rakyat. But a word of advice though, DO NOT INSIST ON QUITTING! Your party leadership and the rakyat are the best judge on whether you should stay on and continue to serve the people as you have said. Right at the moment you are down, but not out! We still need your service and you to stand up to fight against all the malpractices which are getting more and more rampant in our tanahair nowadays. We cheer you on Eli. Let’s fight together against all odds and evils!

  5. johnny says:

    Dear YB Eli,

    We support you because you had done nothing wrong. Let’s continue to fight and make a better M’sia.

  6. lizzie wong says:

    Thank you Chin Huat for defending Elizabeth, your voice of reason is very comforting. Pakatan and PKR are in a tight spot now, and they need to have a lot of wisdom to read the situation and act in the best interest of the coalition, and in particular, to ensure the national change agenda started in March 2008 is not being derailed.

    It is amazing that in Malaysia, that money politics, corruption and even allegations of involvement in murder do not bring down a politician. Sadly, it is what you do in the privacy of your bed chamber, even though you are a mature single adult, that can cause this kind of ripple.

    It is all very sickening, to say it mildly.

    Even Jesus did not cast a stone at Mary Magdelene. So I call on PAS to do as Jesus did.

  7. ck says:

    Well said.

    The best solution is to ask the people of Bukit Lanjan. Do they acccept Eli now? If they do, then Eli must not resign.

    A person’s private live is none of anyone else’s business. As long as Eli has performed her obligated duties as a state assemblywoman, and I may add beyond the call of her duties, she should not be ostracised by those who claim to hold the moral high ground.

    Bukit Lanjan voters, what do you say?


  8. Kah Seng says:

    Electronic Foot Binder

    Eli Wong must not back down because the problem is bigger than Eli Wong.

    Nude photo extortion will only increase during our daughters’ time. The world must anticipate this and learn to defend the victims.

    If Eli Wong is allowed to fall, PKR will be damaged for failing to defend a sexual harassment victim. It doesn’t matter if PKR will lose votes considering the culprit is now alleged to be a PKR member and former MP’s assistant.

    If we do not successfully defend Eli Wong this time (a popular and conscientious leader), imagine future cases of woman university vice-chancellors, college student leaders, vice-presidents and executives in accounting, advertising, business and government agencies suddenly declining competitive promotions to the top, or mysteriously resigning on “personal reasons.”

    What is already happening, I am sure, is wide-spread financial and sexual extortion at lower-income levels, such as among out-of-town factory workers, by ex-boyfriends with handphones.

    Organised and trained male sexual extortionists will become big syndication.

    Men are generally not subject to this extortion because we can make macho jokes out of it.

    Women cannot because this society still binds woman’s feet with digital cameras.

    Let’s break this pattern now.

  9. susan says:

    So many good reasons why we can ask Khir to resign. Corruption is a crime. Elizabeth is a victim. If the scenario depicted here happened the way you described, it will be doomsday for Malaysia when people can be so easily bought and with no regards to integrity. Our corrupt leaders are so thick-skinned and shameless. I wonder how their family members can take it especially when they who are so morally deprived now want to accuse other people of immorality! What right have they got? I want Eli to stay. She has not done anything wrong. In fact we are proud of her and want her to continue doing her job well. If we have more leaders like her in government, Malaysia will shine and everyone will prosper. Why give in to people who plan your downfall when have done no wrong? Why give them the satisfaction?

  10. Sheila says:

    The writer asks a pertinent question, how low must we go. Right to the bottom of the barrel, it would seem. A lot of ordinary Malaysians are rooting for Elizabeth Wong in what must be a very trying time for her. Our contempt is reserved for the politicians who would assign any blame to her and to the sensationalist mainstream media looking to capitalise on her misfortune. And of course the person who released the pix.

  11. RJ Manecksha says:

    How much was paid to the culprit to take and have the photographs published? A lot,I presume.

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