By Terence Netto
Because the ballot box is the ultimate arbiter of distempers in a democracy, Malaysian voters must be anticipating the next general election – the 13th in their history as an independent country – with unusual keenness.
The fact that the number 13 is freighted with an ominous significance because it connotes a tragic chapter in Malaysian history – the May 13 riots of 1969 – renders added frisson to the anticipation.
The thunderheads that have boiled up on the political horizon to set voters on edge present an idiosyncratic mix of issues of personal sexual morality and ones of grave national import.
NONEJust now an issue concerning the sexual morals of a contender for the prime ministerial position, Anwar Ibrahim, has taken centre stage, to the exasperation of legions of his supporters, not because they do not think that it matters, but because they view the rules for adjudicating it as hopelessly rigged against him.
Also, it is of little help to their serenity that they see at least one of his accusers, in the case of the video allegedly showing him in a transaction with a sex worker, as tainted with same brush that is now being used to blacken Anwar. Few things are as annoying as the pot calling the kettle black.
Likewise, few things can be more exasperating that attempts to infer an aspirant’s moral credentials to govern from his or her private sexual morals.
One does not have to subscribe to Plato’s dualism of the mind and body to hold that it’s best to keep the spheres of public and private morality separate, especially private sexual morality.
But because to the majority of Malaysians religion is a public matter, these spheres cannot be held to be separate.
No politician has done more in the last four decades in Malaysia to make religion a public matter than Anwar Ibrahim. So there is a rough kind of poetic justice to the travails he has now to endure.
No precedent in modern history
It is hard to find a precedent in modern history for the very public and humiliating trials by innuendo and insinuation he and his family have had to endure – in Sodomy I, Sodomy II and now in the sex video controversy – over the last 13 years.
Perhaps the closest comparison one could find would be the hounding of the American civil rights Martin Luther King Jr by FBI director J Edgar Hoover in the 1960s.
Hoover kept up a steady stream of pressure on King and his wife by circulating aural evidence of the civil rights leader’s sexual misdemeanors. But, in the main, that pressure was applied away from the public gaze. Consequently, the psychic hell that King and Loretta had to endure was private.
In contrast, Anwar and family have had to endure very public tribulation which the ordinarily decent are loath to justify.
The fact that elementary standards of due process have been denied him in this odyssey of public humiliation adds to the repugnance felt by the decent over his and his family’s treatment.
That is why at this juncture the 13th general election is being awaited with mustard-keen anticipation.
There are issues of grave public moment that should compete for the public attention’s but right now the manufactured sensation of Anwar’s private sexual morality has taken centre stage.
It makes you want to believe in the truth of the concept of the wound and the bow, the literary principle that the psychic wounds one suffers on the way up in life become the bow that launches the effort at grand rectification.
One hopes that would be true about Anwar. He has had to endure much; would that eventual vindication and rectification be proportionate to his travails. – Mkini
TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for close on four decades. He likes the occupation because it puts him in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them. It is the ideal occupation for a temperament that finds power fascinating and its exercise abhorrent.