MASS hypocrisy season comes and goes in Malaysia with the regularity of the monsoon or the haze. While we entertain the polite fiction of being a semi-civilised nation with a few shopping malls, we conveniently forget that ours is a political culture mired in the mores and norms of hypocrisy.
The public display of normative religiosity on the part of our politicians is pedestrian at best. Often this gets reduced to the level of amateur theatrics, where dressing up in the role of a person of God is good enough to get you elected.
Yet, look at how we deal with the issues that touch upon the most intimate and private aspects of our lives, and we will see this hypocrisy laid bare.
Despite the efforts of the country’s liberal intellectuals, activists and non-governmental organisations, it cannot be denied that the private sphere is slowly but surely shrinking. Issues that should otherwise remain private — be they citizens’ dietary habits or their private sex lives — have been brought into the public domain to be discussed, monitored and ultimately policed.
As we all know, we are about to witness a second round of sordid revelations, speculation, gossip and disinformation about one particular politician, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Thanks to the allegations of sodomy that have been made against him yet again, we need to brace ourselves for the tide of unsolicited information and private details that would otherwise be dismissed as trivia and nonsense in many other countries.
It has been argued by some that the Malaysian public ought to be spared yet another spectacle of public enquiry and tabloid humiliation that would further compromise the standards of public decency in the country. (To which I would add, what standards of public decency do we have left?)
AnwarThose of us who remember the details of Anwar’s first sodomy-related trial may recall the embarrassing and lurid details. It was also a case of unsolicited sexual education for many young Malaysians then who perhaps learnt of words like “liwat” and “sodomy” for the first time. Those who have since forgotten what sodomy is will soon be given a refresher course. No doubt by the end of this second spectacle, our public knowledge of the details of anal intercourse would have improved tremendously.
What irks me, though, is that in the midst of this hullabaloo, the very subject that is to be discussed in excruciating detail remains stigmatised and cast in terms of liminality. It is as if it is so repulsive that it can only be referred to in the most oblique of terms.
The real problem
The politicians have, understandably, their own stated ambitions and agendas, and that is clear for all to see. A man has been accused (maliciously, some maintain) of committing an act that is deemed unnatural and illegal, for the sake of crippling his political career and removing him from the political landscape. The aim, therefore, is to save him from these accusations and rescue his political career.
Whatever the outcome of the trial that is now set to be heard in the High Court, it would seem that most parties involved are primarily concerned about Anwar’s political fate, rather than the act itself and its standing vis-à-vis the law.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Anwar will be found innocent and let off the hook, however likely or unlikely that may be. What would happen immediately after the final judgment has been passed? A victory celebration and a sigh of collective relief? By whom and on what grounds?
Political necessity dictates that a politician who has been framed must be helped, and given all the support he or she needs to extricate himself or herself from such a situation. But ethical consistency also dictates that we look beyond the particularities of such a singular case, and understand the full impact of a law that affects the lives and loves of thousands of other citizens, too.
Contest the law
Apart from civil society groups that have struggled for gender equality, hardly any of the country’s mainstream political parties have ever bothered to highlight that some laws in Malaysia governing sexual difference and activities are antiquated. They do not, and perhaps never did, reflect the reality of sexual life in Malaysia.
(Pic by hisks / sxc.hu) It was not too long ago that another politician — this time from the Barisan Nasional — was not only scandalised through videos of his private sex life, but also threatened with laws and regulations that see oral sex as being unnatural.
Then again, the politicians among us were more inclined to help their friend get off the hook rather than to state the obvious: that the laws against oral sex date back to the British colonial era. Similar laws have been discarded in many of the former colonies. And where they are still kept, they are used only when it serves the interests of certain political party groups.
So, while Anwar supporters come to his defence, no politician of note has had the courage to state bluntly that Malaysia has outdated laws in a country where a healthy degree of oral and anal sex is taking place, and has always taken place.
Are we to accept this prevalent attitude among our politicians who can cry “sodomy!” only when it suits their interests, but who would otherwise be quite content to allow the prevailing status quo to remain unchallenged?
And if the thrust of the campaign in Anwar’s second sodomy trial is merely to save the reputation of one politician, then what of the thousands of gays and other sexual minorities? Will our fellow citizens have to forever live with the constant threat of such laws being brought to bear upon them in their private lives?
As a political historian, I understand the vicissitudes of politics and why politicians behave the way they do out of necessity and survival. But let us not forget that saving the career of one politician should not distract us from the equally pressing need to highlight the weakness and redundancy of laws that have rendered the lives of others miserable, too. And that includes the closet gay members of Umno, PAS, Parti Keadilan Rakyat et. al. who should know better than to keep silent now.
The two struggles are not mutually exclusive, but instead complementary. Saving someone from an accusation of sodomy should never mean relegating the act of sodomy to a negative register.
Dr Farish A Noor is a school teacher who realises that reason has its limits in Malaysia.