In Depth

Malaysia’s sodomy scandal set to derail succession plans

Government minister embroiled in sex tape row that may see country’s 93-year-old PM hold on to power

A leaked sex tape purporting to show a Malaysian cabinet minister having sex with another man is threatening hopes of a smooth handover of power when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad leaves office.

The footage, which allegedly shows Minister of Economic Affairs Azmin Ali and one of his aides, was widely distributed to journalists and politicians via WhatsApp last week. 

Both men are members of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), part of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, which won a “historic election last year to topple former leader Najib Razak and end the 60-year rule of the Barisan Nasional coalition”, says ABC News

Mahathir has said he is to be succeeded by Anwar Ibrahim, the head of the PKR, who was previously jailed for 11 years on charges of sodomy and corruption.

But the emergence of another sexual scandal has “deepened rifts within the ruling coalition” and “sharpened focus” on whether the 93-year-old PM will stick to his promise to hand power to Anwar, says Reuters.

What happened?

A series of videos depicting a man resembling Azmin having sexual relations with a younger male politician went viral in Malaysia on 12 June. 

Azmin immediately rejected claims that he was one of the men in the clip, and vowed to expose those behind the “abominable” allegations.

“I categorically deny this vicious libel upon me,” he said in a statement last week. “This is nothing but a nefarious plot to assassinate my reputation and character in an attempt to destroy my political career.”

However, the aide in the video - Muhammad Haziq Abdul Aziz - has insisted that the footage is genuine. In a video posted on Facebook this week, he claimed that the sex tape had been filmed, without his knowledge, at the Hotel Four Points in the city of Sandakan in May, where PKR politicians were campaigning during a local by-election.

ABC News reports that Haziq also used the opportunity to call upon Malaysia's Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to investigate Azmin, whom he described as “not an individual qualified to be a leader”.

The scandal is “taking the country down an all-too familiar route”, as “comparisons were immediately drawn with the sodomy rumours that hounded democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim for years”, says the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Homosexual Malaysians face “significant discrimination” from much of the population, which is more than 60% Muslim, adds ABC News. Sodomy is considered a serious crime, punishable by up to 20 years in prison under a British colonial-era law. 

What are the wider implications?

The consequences of the scandal could be wide-ranging, depending on the government’s response.

As many commentators have noted, the case is similar to that of Anwar, who was fired as Mahathir’s deputy PM in 1998 and then “slapped with sodomy and corruption charges, souring their relationship until they formed an unlikely alliance ahead of a shock victory in last year’s election”, says Reuters.

ABC says the sodomy charges were “widely thought to have been politically motivated”.

With Anwar back in pole position and set to take Mahathir’s place, senior sources within the ruling coalition told Reuters this week that Economics Minister Azmin had been targeted because he is seen as a rival to Anwar, and that the leak of the tapes was an attempt to discredit him.

But if the goal was to facilitate a smooth transition from Mahathir to Anwar, the alleged perpetrators of the scandal may be left disappointed.

“The infighting and the attacks against Azmin could potentially strengthen the case for Mahathir to delay the transition or serve out a full government term,” said Adib Zalkalpi, director at political risk consultancy Bower Group Asia. Mahathir has already raised eyebrows by pushing back his retirement from two years, the period initially agreed, to three.

Meanwhile, politicians across the Malaysian spectrum have condemned the latest outbreak of “gutter politics” - in public, at least - and urged Malaysians to refrain from viewing or sharing the video, reports SCMP.

In a statement, PKR secretary general Saifuddin Nasution said the party firmly rejected “any form of dirty political games”. Anwar has also come forward in his colleague’s defence, saying it was “slander” to suggest Azmin was the man in the sex tape footage.

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