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Tuesday, December 1, 1998 Published at 10:58 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Sex, lies and videotape in Malaysia

A Malaysian policeman keeps an eye on a group of journalists

By South East Asia Correspondent Simon Ingram

Bill Clinton might have flinched at revealing the most intimate details of his liaisons with Monica Lewinsky, but Malaysia's feisty Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammed, is not a man known for his inhibitions.

The relish with which he recounted at a news conference graphic details of the homosexual dalliances his erstwhile deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, had allegedly been involved in was hard to miss - a tone that was in distinct contrast to Dr Mahathir's rather perfunctory expressions of regret about the downfall of the man he had regarded until just weeks ago as his political heir.

The local press has been just as salacious in its treatment of Malaysia's biggest political upheaval in years.

Banner headlines

Curiously perhaps, given that this is a country where beauty queens have been arrested for appearing in swimsuits and body building contests banned on grounds of indecency.

'Two jailed for sodomy' was the banner headline in the tabloid Sunday Star on the morning prior to Mr Anwar's arrest, over a story about how his adopted brother and a former speech writer had been found guilty of allowing Mr Anwar to have sex with them.

The fact that Mr Anwar, the alleged perpetrator of the deed, had not even been charged in the affair was a point the newspapers somehow overlooked.

Later that Sunday I found myself being swept along by a crowd tens of thousands strong, surging through the centre of Kuala Lumpur.

We had just left the city's main mosque, where Mr Anwar had delivered what turned out to be his last public address.

With his wife, Wan Azizah, wearing the white headscarf of a devout Muslim at his side, Mr Anwar ridiculed the allegations made against him and delivered an impassioned attack on his accusers.

The throng around him erupted with cries of "Mahathir resign".

As we headed off towards Merdeka Square, I looked at the people around me. Many were young people, the sort you might expect to be caught up in the excitement of a campaign for political change. But there were couples with children and elderly people too.

Plainly they had not swallowed the lurid allegations about Mr Anwar which had been filling their newspapers.

Mahathir 'paranoid'

There is a long standing tradition of smear and innuendo in Malaysian public life.

Politicians circulate so called flying letters, anonymous poison pen tracts designed to destroy the reputation of their rivals.

Mr Anwar had been the target of a vicious whispering campaign for months. By the time of what turned out to be a fateful meeting of the ruling party, UMNO, last June, the rumours had been translated into a booklet entitled Fifty Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister which mysteriously found its way into the conference materials handed out to each delegate.

Mr Anwar got a court injunction against the book, but that did not stop it becoming the subject of frenzied discussion among Malaysia's chattering classes.

Could any of it really be true?

It was a question, I found, going through my mind when I met Mr Anwar on the day after his dismissal from the government at the beginning of September.

His quiet, but confident manner, together with a goatee beard and large rimless spectacles, reinforced the image of the earnest Muslim intellectual he has long portrayed himself as being.

That night the term "paranoid" was as far as he would go in criticising Dr Mahathir.

But on the last occasion he faced the camera, in a final videotaped message recorded hours before armed police wearing ski masks broke in his front door, the hatred was undisguised.

"This dictatorship has to end," he said, adding that the only reason his career was being destroyed was because he knew too much about Dr Mahathir's years of misrule.

A few hours later, Dr Mahathir had a ready response to his rival's accusations. He cited the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels' assertion, that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will end up believing it.

"That's what you foreign media do," he said, with a nod in our direction. It was vintage Mahathir, but whether it was the truth, we, like many baffled Malaysians, were in no position to tell.

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