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Sex scandals obsess Malaysia: the country with a one-track mind

Some days its media can talk of little else

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's opposition leader, tomorrow faces the resumption of one of the less edifying cases to have been heard amid the colonnaded formality of the Kuala Lumpur High Court: his trial for allegedly sodomising a 25-year-old aide named Saiful Bukhari.

It is not the only scandal with which the former deputy prime minister, whose dismissal and first trial for sodomy made world headlines more than a decade ago, is dealing.

The man once feted as Newsweek's "Asian of the Year", whose supporters include Al Gore, the former US vice-president, and Paul Wolfowitz, a former World Bank president, is also accused of being the star of a 21-minute sex tape featuring a Chinese prostitute (by way of variation, female), a clip of which was briefly posted on YouTube.

But these are only two instances of the sexually related incidents that fill the country's papers and gossip sites every day. So numerous are stories of physical misdemeanours in this conservative, Muslim-majority but essentially easygoing country that the question is being asked: are Malaysians obsessed with sex?

Within the past few days, it has emerged that the education department in the eastern state of Terengganu has set up a boot camp to which it has sent 66 schoolboys to deal with their "effeminate tendencies".

"The severity of the symptoms vary. We understand that some people end up as homosexual," said the department's director, Razali Daud, "but we will do our best to limit the number. If left unchecked, it could become a problem for them, their families and society."

Earlier this month, a well-known MP, Ibrahim Ali, the leader of the Malay rights group Perkasa, asked in parliament if wives truly "understand their roles". "Husbands driving home after work see things that are sexually arousing and seek their wives to satisfy their urges," he said, complaining that sometimes women pretend to be busy with other matters. "They will say, 'wait, I'm cooking,' or 'wait, I'm getting ready to visit relatives'." They evidently required a "proper explanation" that "in Islam, wives are supposed to stop everything to fulfil their husbands' demands."

Although now an independent, Ibrahim was once a luminary in the governing Barisan Nasional alliance, which cannot appear too overbearing in matters of personal morality given that it includes non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and indigenous components as well as Muslim Malays.

The Islamist opposition party PAS, however, is less constrained, as its youth leader, Nasrudin Tantawi, made clear in February. "We have identified favourite spots where lovebirds mingle," he said, warning that his organisation would be helping to check "immoral activities" in the run-up to Valentine's Day. "We are deploying our members to preach and distribute pamphlets promoting sin-free lifestyles."

The action was certainly necessary, he said. "Last year there was a campaign to promote a no-panties day."

Such remarks do not go without comment. The country's Women, Family and Community Minister, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, has already condemned the Terengganu state government's boot camp, and Ibrahim's antediluvian views have provoked widespread condemnation.

"Ibrahim must apologise and submit himself for gender sensitivity training," said Teresa Kok, of the opposition Democratic Action Party. Nasrudin's Valentine's Day campaign, meanwhile, led to PAS's youth leader being slapped down by more senior members of his own party.

Anwar's sodomy trial, which has been dragging on since February 2010, is widely thought to be politically motivated. So is the sex tape, which was produced by a trio collectively known as "Datuk T" (Datuk being a Malaysian honorific all three bear), one of whom is a former Barisan state governor with a personal axe to grind against the opposition leader.

But while many dismiss the allegations, what Ziauddin Sardar calls "the seeds of doubt" have been planted in the minds of others. Sardar, a prominent scholar of Islam and cultural critic in this country, was an adviser to Anwar when he was deputy prime minister in the 1990s and warned him then that his enemies would seek to destroy him through manufacturing allegations of homosexuality.

"One can always fudge the evidence," he told me. "And in Malaysia it carries a heavy penalty" – both a prison sentence (Anwar's initial conviction for sodomy was later quashed) and, even before any verdict, the suspicion of the rural and religious Malays that he had been up to something "abhorrent and unnatural".

Why, however, the torrent of other stories, whether they be the Chief Minister of Malacca urging council workers to look out for couples indulging al fresco at heritage sites, police raiding hotels to uncover Muslims committing khalwat (close proximity), or international pop singers being warned to cut back on risqué moves and outfits if they want to appear in the country?

"This phenomenon isn't limited to Malaysia," said Nik Nazmi, the communications director of Anwar's party PKR, on the Malaysian Insider website recently. "But Malaysians seem to be possessed by an insatiable curiosity about what happens in other people's bedrooms."