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Mahathir sacked Anwar over sodomy & corruption allegations in 1998. Why is Azmin Ali different?

Who can tell what Mahathir's thinking?

Sulaiman Daud | June 26, 10:55 am

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For observers of Malaysian politics, June 2019 must have been rife with deja vu.

A Cabinet minister was embroiled in a new lurid gay sex scandal, along with accusations of corruption.

The minister has strongly denied the allegations and said this was a political plot aimed at destroying his career.

In 1998, a politician accused of sodomy was sent packing and prosecuted in a jiffy.

Now in 2019, sexual scandals are brushed off as distracting political theatre.

The allegations of Haziq Aziz

In June 2019, videos circulated over Whatsapp showing two men having sex.

PKR Santubong Youth Chief Haziq Aziz, the former Principal Private Secretary to the Deputy Minister of Primary Industries, then made a public confession on Facebook that he was one of the two men in the video.

The backlash was immediate.

Haziq was fired from his job, arrested, and members of his party have called for his expulsion.

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Haziq alleged that the other man in the video was Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, who denied the allegations.

And that brought back memories of Anwar Ibrahim’s case from more than 20 years ago.

The fall of Anwar Ibrahim

Back in the 90s, Anwar was the high-flying finance minister in Mahathir’s government, as well as deputy prime minister.

He was widely tipped to succeed Mahathir for the top job.

But tensions grew between the two men after Anwar repeatedly called for political reform and an end to cronyism.

They also disagreed on the best way to tackle the Asian Financial Crisis, which hit the region hard in 1997.

Mahathir appointed Daim Zainuddin as an economic advisor, thereby undermining Anwar’s influence.

At the UMNO general assembly in 1998, a book was circulated, titled “50 reasons why Anwar cannot become Prime Minister”.

Among other things, it alleged that Anwar had been having sex with men.

The book was banned, and the police said the claims were false, according to Free Malaysia Today.

But the rumours had already started to spread.

A milestone sacking

On Sept. 2, 1998, Mahathir fired Anwar from his post over the claims of corruption and sodomy, according to Malaysiakini.

Two days later, Anwar was sacked as the deputy president of UMNO, and expelled from the party.

Anwar said:

“I have been given an ultimatum… either to resign or face the consequences of being sacked and the possibility of charges levelled against me… but I made it clear in no uncertain terms that I am not prepared to submit to this political conspiracy to undermine my position and defeat me through nasty schemes.”

Anwar was then convicted of sodomy and corruption charges, and sentenced to jail.

In 2004, his sodomy conviction was quashed by the Malaysian Federal Court but not the corruption charge, which barred him from political activities until 2008.

In 2015, he was jailed again on another sodomy conviction, which barred him from competing in the historic 2018 general election.

But following Pakatan Harapan’s victory, Anwar received a royal pardon and was freed on May 16, 2018.

After more than 20 years, Anwar finds himself once more in a familiar position — waiting to succeed Mahathir as prime minister.

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Gay sex unacceptable in Malaysian society

Back then, Mahathir explained his rationale for firing Anwar on Sept. 8, 1998.

According to Malaysiakini, Mahathir said:

“I was convinced and I consider that he was not qualified to lead the country, not because of his differences with me over politics or economic practice but because his character does not qualify him to become a leader of a country like Malaysia.”

In a 2005 interview, Mahathir said that he sacked Anwar to prevent the spectre of a gay prime minister.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, he said:

“In our society, sodomy is not acceptable. Of course, among some media people even, they are gay. They don’t like my taking action against a person for the kind of things that they indulge in. So I became a bad guy because of that.”

He added:

“But I cannot have a person who is like that in my Cabinet who may succeed and become the prime minister. Imagine having a gay prime minister. Nobody would be safe.”

So Mahathir’s publicly stated reasons for firing Anwar has been consistent.

He did it because of Anwar’s supposed defects of character, and because a gay person in his Cabinet was both unacceptable to him and Malaysian society at the time.

Mahathir’s defence of Azmin

So, where was this Mahathir when the Azmin allegations surfaced?

Within days of the Anwar accusations, Mahathir claimed to have “incontrovertible proof” of Anwar’s sodomy, and therefore, his guilt.

But with Azmin, Mahathir seemed to shrug it off with uncharacteristic light-heartedness.

On June 12, he stated that he did not believe the videos are genuine, and even joked that he could appear in the next sex video, given technological wizardry.

And on June 24, Mahathir went further in his defence of Azmin.

He said there was no need for Azmin to resign, even after a member of Mahathir’s own PPBM party seemed to suggest that a resignation was in order.

He also said that Azmin was not “that stupid”, and that he believed someone was trying to bring him down.

Mahathir Mohamad: No need for Azmin Ali to resign over alleged gay sex scandal

Unpacking the mystery

Perhaps Mahathir genuinely believes that the videos were faked and that Azmin has nothing to do with the scandal.

However, this calls to question what proof he claimed to have in 1998 that made him so adamant that Anwar was guilty, as opposed to his serene reaction in 2019.

But maybe the answer lies in politics.

It’s worth remembering that Mahathir’s government was in a much stronger position in 1998.

Although rocked by the scandal, it could weather the loss of a Cabinet minister.

Mahathir remained PM and UMNO still won the 1999 general election, albeit losing several seats.

Mahathir hung on long enough to hand over power to a successor of his own choosing — Abdullah Badawi — in 2003.

An embattled government

However, he is in a seemingly more precarious position today.

In February 2019, a poll was released that showed nearly 60 percent of Malay respondents were unhappy with the PH government.

Azmin is a prominent member of Mahathir’s government.

Mahathir created the new portfolio of Economic Affairs, and appointed Azmin.

Azmin was also entrusted with the important HSR issue with Singapore, and concluded its suspension.

It could simply be that the loss of such a minister would weaken Mahathir’s authority, and that of the government as a whole.

Factions at odds

But party politics may also be a factor.

Azmin, while a member of Anwar’s PKR party, is speculated to be one of his rivals and a leader of the “anti-Anwar” faction within PKR.

He contested a fierce battle with Rafizi Ramli, thought to be a close ally of Anwar, for the post of PKR deputy president.

Perhaps Mahathir wants a prominent PKR member who may not necessarily be aligned with Anwar to remain as a check, when he finally hands over power.

Or there’s even the slim chance that Mahathir has modified his views on homosexuality in the years since 2005 — which is highly unlikely.

Whatever the reason, Mahathir remains firmly supportive of Azmin for now — something Anwar may have wished for, back in 1998.

Anwar Ibrahim & family made a “painful decision” to forgive Mahathir, but did it to save M’sia

Top image from Anwar Ibrahim’s Facebook page.

About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman believes that we can be heroes, if just for one day. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve and his favourite person is Jürgen Klopp. He also writes about film and pop-culture, which you are very welcome to read here.

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