(By BRIDGET WELSH/ MySinchew) 2009-02-18 16:55
No question – the vicious attack on the integrity of the popular and
dedicated state assemblywoman Elizabeth Wong – is an example of how women
politicians are maliciously victimised.
The attack on her personal life illustrates the challenges that women face
when entering the public arena and the dirty tactics that are used to
discredit them. Few are drawing attention to the gender bias of the invasion
of Wong’s public space and the double standards that are being imposed on
her as a successful single woman.
Make no bones about it, the unlawful distribution of intimate
photographs/videotapes and hypocritical criticism of her sexuality
represents a classic case of political rape, where the perpetrators – the
photographer and her public critics, such as the discredited ousted Selangor
mentri besar Dr Mohd Khir Toyo – should face legal prosecution and public
condemnation for their involvement in this attack.
For those who study gender, the distinction between the private and public
sphere is often identified as one of the key distinguishing features.
Women activists have drawn attention to problems faced within the home –
domestic violence, divorce law, child custody and sadly sexual violence.
Ironically, few know that in her role as a human rights activist, Wong
played an important part in the struggles to address sexual harassment and
domestic violence in Malaysia.
She joined an impressive group of Malaysian women activists to have brought
about broader legal protection for Malaysian women, making the laws for
women’s rights in the country one of the most forward looking in Asia.
In this drive to blur the public and private spheres, there has been a
consistent effort to respect the rights of the individual to privacy. As
long as what is occurring in the privacy of a person’s home is not causing
harm to others or is not violating the law – as clearly is the case of the
photographs of Wong – human rights activists have rightly argued that
privacy should be protected for men and women alike.
This case is part of a worrying trend of personal political attacks that
cross the line of what should remain private.
The list is long and includes politicians across the spectrum, from Ghafar
Baba and Najib Razak to Anwar Ibrahim. The unhealthy attention to what is
occurring in the bedroom rather than in the boardroom or the exco or state
assembly points to an unwillingness to engage in substantive political
Since Wong’s critics were unable to fault her professionalism as a state
representative, they have opted to attack her personally in her private
arena, ignoring the issues of environmental degradation and multi-ethnic
inclusiveness that have been the hallmark of Wong’s political work.
Gender politics also teaches us that women disproportionately face issues
involving their person – what they wear, their physical image or the body.
It is useful to recall the attacks on other women politicians, such a Fong
Po Kuan, for their clothing in Parliament or rude distasteful references to
The attack on Wong is more of the same. Her physical image is being used to
discredit her unfairly. Sadly men – even those with videotapes of their
indiscretions – do not face the same level of physical intrusiveness.
Not just an attack on one woman
Part of this case involves another key dimension of gender issues – female
Studies have shown that with women’s economic and political empowerment,
there has been a parallel process of female sexual enlightenment. At the
core is the recognition that women have the right to enjoy sex as much as
men. The criticism of Wong implicitly implies otherwise.
As her critics move to identify her alleged sexual partners and further
violate her privacy, they are making a judgment that a woman should not make
her own choices in her sexuality.
The implication of this agenda is frightening in that it contains a
righteous extremism that moves Malaysia back to the dark ages where women
were seen as sexual objects rather than sensual and sexual beings. It
suggests that women should not have the choices over their own lives.
This attack is not just an attack on single woman, but all women who have
confidence in themselves and their own sexuality. Part of this reflects
insecurities on the part of some men, notably Wong’s critics, who cannot
accept growing women’s equality and empowerment.
Let’s look at the behaviour in more detail.
There is nothing wrong with a person in the privacy of their own home
involved in intimate acts. On the surface it appears that Wong trusted the
wrong person. That person who violated her was a man who to date has escaped
punishment for his actions. The pain of a broken relationship is always
difficult, but the acid poured into the wound from betrayal burns even
We unfortunately live in a world where social and personal trust is often
violated. In love, people can be blind to the faults of others. Did Wong
make a mistake in trusting and loving her partner? I think not.
If we don’t take the personal risk of loving and trusting others, we lose
our humanity. Rather than blaming her for her life choices, we should be
looking for ways to protect victims – male and female – who have their trust
Wong’s case points to the inherit vulnerability that women face in
relationships. Despite the progress that has been made, women face
inequalities in partnerships. From inheritance and social security, to the
rights of divorce and child support, the rights of women in partnerships are
far from equal. Women, more often than not, face greater obstacles and
simultaneously absorb greater risk.
Wong faces what many rape victims face
This inequality points to the long standing issue of double standards. It is
alright for a man to illustrate their sexual prowess, but wrong for a woman
to do so. What is acceptable for a goose is not appropriate for a gander.
In sexual scandals historically in Malaysia, rarely is the man scathed. Look
at Malaysia’s first sexual scandal – the affair of Tunku Abdul Rahman in
London that led to a public divorce of his British lover. This did little to
damage his reputation as he went on to lead Malaysia impressively.
The case of Chua Soi Lek was an exception, rather than the norm. It is
clearly the product of sexual political targeting that is used to replace
real policy discussions and remove good politicians.
The same political targeting appears to be occurring now. In the case of
Wong, browbeating critics have forced her to resign, effectively victimising
her again as she has been forced to give up her livelihood. For what? For
being a successful sexual woman.
My mother taught me that people in glass houses should not throw stones.
Those that are calling out on issues of “moral character” have their own
skeletons that have yet to be addressed. Corruption, abuse of power, and
ethnic intolerance are some that come to mind, and one cannot think about
the hypocrisy involved. People should assess their own moral behaviour
before attacking others.
When stripped of the discourse of morality and immorality, the case of
Elizabeth Wong should be seen for exactly what it is – a vengeful political
attack meant to discredit a woman through the use of her personal life.
She is facing what many rape victims face – the trauma of the violation
itself and the trauma of reliving the pain in public. Rape in any form –
political or otherwise – should not be tolerated.
Dr Welsh is associate professor in Southeast Asian studies at John Hopkins
University-SAIS, Washington DC.