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THE WORLD | THE COPYCAT

A Dress Turns Into a Mattress: Malaysia's Own Monicagate

February 14, 1999|Robert A. Hooper | Robert A. Hooper, a visiting associate professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, was a Fulbright scholar and an Eisenhower fellow in Malaysia

SAN DIEGO — Last December, a stained mattress was entered as evidence in a courtroom in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "On the mattress I found several patches believed to be seminal fluid," testified senior police officer Musa Hassan. Government prosecutors have doggedly attempted to prove through DNA evidence that the stains belong to Malaysia's former deputy prime minister and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who is being tried for corruption and sodomy.

In many ways, the trial of the popular Anwar is a bizarre echo of the Bill Clinton-Monica S. Lewinsky affair and the president's subsequent impeachment and trial on perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges. Which raises a question: Is the resemblance between the mattress and Lewinsky's infamous navy-blue dress purely coincidental?

Anwar got into political trouble when he opposed currency controls and corporate bailouts after Malaysia caught the Asian economic flu. He also refused to blame international financier George Soros, the International Monetary Fund or a vast Jewish conspiracy for his country's economic woes. The former finance minister's "heresy" enraged Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who fingered Soros and the IMF as Malaysia's true enemies. Mahathir engineered Anwar's removal and arrest last September.

Anwar was jailed under Malaysia's Internal Security Act, a relic of colonial rule that permits indefinite detention without trial. While in custody, he was beaten by Malaysia's police, emerging in public with a black eye. The sight of a bruised Anwar shocked and staggered a nation that once prided itself on racial tolerance and economic progress and ignited waves of unrest not seen in Malaysia for more than 20 years. In a precursor to Anwar's dismissal, Foreign Minister Abullah Ahmed Badawi proclaimed in the local media that Malaysia would not tolerate "morally unfit leaders." He was referring to Clinton.

It seems that every tawdry detail of the Clinton-Lewinsky soap opera, with Mahathir cast as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, is being recycled in the bitter power struggle between the prime minister and Anwar. In the words of one U.S. diplomat, "The Mahathir-Starr analogy keeps getting creepier and creepier. Maybe they should form a team."

At Kuala Lumpur's High Court, the daily spectacle of Anwar's trial unfolds in the shadow of the Senate trial of the president. When Anwar's defense lawyers tried to portray a man whom Anwar is accused of sodomizing as "respectable," High Court Judge Augustine Paul surprisingly invoked the U.S. president. "President Clinton is also a respectable man," quipped the judge to a stunned courtroom, "What is happening to him in the United States?"

Last week, Anwar's lawyers even borrowed a page from Hillary Rodham Clinton when they charged that Anwar, like the president, is the victim of a vast political conspiracy. But when lawyers sought to introduce as evidence a Malaysian police report that painstakingly documents a conspiracy by Mahathir's powerful cronies to bring down Anwar, the judge ruled it inadmissible. "Evidence of political conspiracy, if any, is too irrelevant," concluded Judge Paul, "The issue of conspiracy is too remote."

The French may not comprehend what all the fuss in Washington is about, but the Malaysians are paying attention to Clinton's impeachment trial, for the United States has long been seen as a role model by those seeking to democratize their societies. Malaysians, like a majority of Americans, sense that the crisis consuming their government is not really about sex, or lying about sex, or even obstruction of justice (Anwar is also charged with "corrupt practices" for trying to clear his name of the sodomy charges). Rather, the trial of Anwar is a political vendetta against a popular leader.

In Malaysia, among the world's fragile emerging democracies, the suppression of dissidents and opposition leaders has long been carried out in a partisan manner. While Judge Paul last week issued a gag order forbidding the press from reporting parts of Anwar's testimony, details of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair continue to receive prominent coverage in Malaysia's Star and New Straits Times. Consider the caustic public exchange last November between Malaysia's minister of international trade, Rafidah Abdul Aziz, and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. "Maybe perhaps when I go to the States, I'd like to meet Ken Starr," Aziz said in response to Albright's scheduled visit with Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Albright snapped back, "He's not in prison." More broadly, think about the message Clinton's impeachment sends to governments that do not honor a right of privacy or that routinely remove opposition figures through fabricated scandals, often involving sex.

Early last year, months before Anwar's arrest and beating, Malaysian law-enforcement officials were inquiring about the key players in the Monica script. Who were Linda R. Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg? Which party did Starr belong to? Where did Paula Corbin Jones come from and who has been helping her? How did Tripp become involved with Starr?

Mahathir's team may have had their basic script laid out and only needed to flesh out its details. Who better to turn to for inspiration than the United States government and its impeachment mini-series? From there, it probably wasn't much of a stretch to morph Lewinsky's dress into Anwar's mattress, or oral sex into homosexual sex. But it remains, nonetheless, a self-destructive script.*

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