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Tue, Feb 24, 2009
The New Paper
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Rebel MP who loves short skirts
by Tay Shi'an

AS Ms Elizabeth Wong packed her bags and fled from the intense media spotlight on Thursday, she might have asked herself - why me?

The sex life of the 37-year-old member of the Selangor state assembly has been splashed across the pages of Malaysian newspapers in the past week.

It was enough to drive her to tearfully quit all her legislative posts and leave the country.

Some have speculated that she was targeted as a rising star in opposition party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

Others say it was PKR which was the real target, and Ms Wong was simply a casualty of political warfare.

Yet others say it could have started as the actions of a spurned ex-lover seeking revenge. (See report on facing page.)

In any case, the half-naked pictures have abruptly stalled the modern, eloquent politician's career, less than a year into her first term.

From the start, Ms Wong was an atypical candidate for Malaysian politics.

She was a single 30-something woman, whose passions include human rights, philosophy and photography.

The former national swimmer first became actively involved in human rights during her student days in Sydney.

She spent two years with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Nepal, and addressed several international conferences, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

When she returned to Malaysia, she joined groups like Voice of the Malaysian People (Suaram) and the National Human Rights Society (Hakam).

For years, she attended demonstrations on a range of issues, from alleged police brutality against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, to anti-toll hikes in 2007.

Candlelight vigils

She held up placards, snapped photos, attended candlelight vigils, and even got arrested and locked up a few times.

PKR vice-president Sivarasa Rasiah, who is one of Suaram's founders and has known Ms Wong for over 10 years, sees her as a strong, independent person who backed her beliefs with action.

He said: 'Elizabeth would put herself in front of the police line and say, 'Arrest me if you have to', but calmly. She's not into drama.'

Mr Sivarasa recalled one demonstration, where Ms Wong lay on the ground and policewomen had to lift her up to put her into the police van.

She also wrote essays for political websites and on her blog, where readers caught a glimpse of her personality, with her references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the beautiful pictures she took during peacekeeping and holiday trips to Nepal, Aceh and Cambodia.

Then in 2004, Ms Wong made a decision that would change her life. She joined PKR.

Suaram co-founder and PKR supreme council member Dr Irene Fernandez, who has known MsWong for 10 years, said: 'Within the activist circle, we realised we needed to mainstream our work, that's why she joined politics.'

The 'vibrant and articulate' Ms Wong made such an impression that she became the parliamentary aide to PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of opposition leader Mr Anwar Ibrahim.

Meteoric rise

Last March, Ms Wong made her election debut and won the state seat of Bukit Lanjan as PKR and its opposition coalition partners won power in Selangor.

She was appointed state executive councillor in charge of tourism, consumer affairs and the environment, the equivalent of a minister for the state.

There, it was again her pet causes that gave her a high profile, said Mr Sivarasa, who is also MP for Subang in Selangor.

They included her work against hillside developments to protect the environment and prevent landslides, her efforts to preserve Selangor's forests, and upholding the rights of indigenous people.

But Ms Wong's lifestyle, beliefs and contemporary views didn't sit well with mainstream conservative politicians, said Dr Fernandez.

'She's different. She's very colourful. She'll buy short skirts, all kinds of dressing. She was a smoker.'

There were also her widely known feminist views on sexuality - conservatives baulked at her stand that there was nothing wrong with a single woman having pre-marital sex.

Dr Fernandez said that when the scandal broke, she hugged her friend and said: 'We have to be strong. I'll be there for you.'

She said one reason Ms Wong was so devastated was that the nature of the attack was so unexpected.

She said that as human rights activists, there was always a fear that something would happen to them.

'Being arrested, that's something we all anticipate. But to use your private life and hold it against you as a form of repression, that anticipation was not there,' said Dr Fernandez.

As Ms Wong wrote in a statement released on Thursday when she left Malaysia: 'This is the darkest episode in my life. I have never felt so alone, vulnerable and humiliated.'

Another activist friend of over 10 years, Mr Tian Chua, PKR's information chief, still hopes Ms Wong will change her mind about quitting.

He said: 'She was told they will continue to put out more photos and a video of her to destroy her credibility. It was very difficult for her to face it.

'We have said to her, we respect her decision, but she made the decision almost immediately when the issue burst out.'

PKR has yet to accept her resignation.

Dr Fernandez revealed that the party told Ms Wong to take leave for two months.

She didn't know if Ms Wong would spend the entire period overseas, and declined to reveal where she was.

She said: 'What's important is that she is to be protected at all costs, how to support her, and the person who did this to be condemned.'

She also expressed hope that Ms Wong would return to politics.

'She's young, she has a lot of years ahead of her. After a while, people will forget.'

Rising star who's important to opposition

HOW important was Ms Elizabeth Wong to the PKR, and what does it mean now that she's determined to quit her posts?

Political analyst James Wong called her a 'rising star', a prominent figure in the party with ties to the top of the leadership. She was assistant to PKR president Wan Azizah, Mr Anwar Ibrahim's wife, for two years just before the elections.

He also noted that Ms Wong was selected as a candidate in a relatively safe constituency to improve her chances of winning.

'That shows she's important to the core of the leaders,' he said.

But PKR members and Ms Wong herself believe the party is the real target.

They believe the ruling party was behind the attack, though this has been denied.

Said Ms Wong in a statement on Wednesday: 'Although the smear campaign directed towards me has caused me a lot of anguish, I am aware that the real objective is to discredit Parti Keadilan Rakyat.'

Said PKR supreme council member Irene Fernandez: 'They are targeting state assembly representatives and exco members who are doing well in order to weaken the (opposition-held) state government.'

Agreeing, PKR vice-president Sivarasa Rasiah said: 'In her circumstances, an opportunity arose for our political enemy and they took advantage of it.

'They will target other people, but we will fight it.'

Some media reports have questioned if a third potential by-election would strain PKR's resources, with two already scheduled for 7 Apr in the states of Perak and Kedah.

But Mr Sivarasa pointed out that after its performance in last year's general election, PKR would not be stretched by a handful of by-elections, though he admitted they would be challenging.

Ms Wong's ex-boyfriend, MrHilmi Malek, 32, is now wanted by police for questioning over the semi-nude photos.

The former personal assistant to PKR lawmaker Hee Loy Sian is now missing and said to be overseas.

This is the second time in a year that PKR politicians have faced sex scandals because of aides.

The first was Mr Anwar, whose aide, Mr Saiful Bukhari Azlan, accused the opposition leader of sodomising him last June, just three months after joining PKR.

Prominent blogger and opposition MP Jeff Ooi suggested these aides were 'trojan horses' planted to destabilise the opposition.

Mr Sivarasa said: 'Saiful was definitely planted. Whether Hilmi was planted, it's harder to say.

'He and Ms Wong's relationship was so much longer. I don't know him well enough to comment.'

The couple reportedly dated for about three years and broke up recently.

But Mr Sivarasa added: 'Whatever his initial motive, it's academic.

'Hilmi has become a pawn, maybe unwittingly. It's another group of people who got access to what was in his possession. I don't know if this was done with his agreement - it's impossible to speculate on Hilmi's role.'

But the timing of the release of the photos, on the first day of parliament, smacked of an 'organised plan'.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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