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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Truth and Consequence

An opposition MP speaks up and pays the price

By Roger Mitton / Kuala Lumpur


IF LIM GUAN ENG thought his ordeal was over, he was sadly mistaken. The outspoken Malaysian opposition MP was fined last month for disseminating false news and committing sedition. Now he may be going to jail. Lim's crime was to wonder why a political ally of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had avoided a rape charge while the victim was subjected to considerable hardship. Lim, 37, paid a steep price for his public musings; unless overturned on appeal, the fines levied against the MP mean he will be barred from Parliament for up to a decade.

Apparently that is not sufficient punishment. Attorney-General Mohtar Abdullah has appealed Lim's sentence. Since Lim got the maximum fine for sedition, there is speculation that Mohtar wants to see him behind bars. The drama has most of Malaysia talking. Some even compare the Lim case to that of Singapore oppositionist Tang Liang Hong, who was sued by members of the ruling People's Action Party over public comments. "What Lim said was what any MP in a parliamentary system would deem it his duty to raise," says academic Chandra Muzaffar. "We recognize in our political system that no institution is above the law and there is no reason one cannot criticize the administration of law or any other public institution."

The story begins in 1994, when the Malaysian press revealed that then Malacca chief minister Rahim Tamby Chik apparently had been led astray by a 15-year-old schoolgirl. (The accused's rivals in the dominant national party UMNO leaked the tawdry details.) Rahim was subjected to a vicious character assassination by a wide spectrum of society, including his party colleagues and the government-controlled media. He broke down under the attack and stepped aside as the head of UMNO's youth wing and as Malacca chief minister. The girl told the police and later testified in court that she had sex with Rahim -- and with more than a dozen other men.

The other men were punished. But Rahim swore he was innocent, and AG Mohtar did not charge him. Mohtar did, however, admit that there was "strong suspicion" about Rahim's involvement and refused to say whether he thought Rahim was innocent. Rightly, he did not divulge any details about Rahim's prior amorous behavior, but he obliged hungry newsmen with details of the schoolgirl's sex life.

Left pregnant, she was placed in protective custody; Rahim moved about freely. Lim found this reprehensible and helped distribute an opposition party pamphlet, which he did not write, criticizing how the victim was restrained while the alleged criminal was not even charged. Since the girl was not in jail, he was charged with spreading false news. Lim, who admits saying the AG practiced a double-standard, was charged with sedition for allegedly saying this about the judiciary and bringing Malaysian laws into disrepute. He denies it. Says deputy minister in the PM's office Nazri Aziz: "[Lim] should know how far to go. This was too far."

The court case followed. In a vain attempt to put the charges in perspective, Lim called Mahathir's daughter Marina to testify. She had written an article called "Whither Justice?" that was as critical of the handling of Rahim's case as anything Lim had said. "What she said is true," he says. "It is a mockery of justice. But we are asking why am I the only one charged?"

Neither Marina's testimony nor that of the girl appeared to help him. Lim was found guilty on the false news charge and fined $4,000. But the judge accepted as fair comment Lim's assertion that Mohtar had practiced a double-standard. Hence Lim's comments about the AG were not seditious. However, the judge accepted a policeman's unsubstantiated word (no tape or notes were produced), that Lim had maligned the judiciary. Lim was found guilty of sedition and fined $2,000; anyone fined more than $800 cannot hold public office. Says Lim: "I am convicted on a sedition charge based on hearsay."

Mohtar's appeal for a harsher sentence is widely seen as overkill. "It shows the AG's vindictiveness," says Lim in characteristically plain language. Government MPs privately criticize Mohtar. Says Nazri: "The less he goes around making statements and the more he concentrates on his job the better." In her article, Marina Mahathir wrote: "I have always had faith that our legal systems were based on the concept of justice. I must have been naive beyond belief."

Why is Mohtar seemingly making an example of Lim? Chandra believes "a member of the administration of law feels the need to bend over backwards to please the political elite." Mohtar owes his appointment to Mahathir, who was angry at Lim for leading the assault on Rahim. And Mahathir has always had a soft spot for Rahim; after all, he lured investment to Malacca. Last week Mahathir dispatched Rahim to Beijing. Rahim delivered a letter of friendship from the PM to Chinese Premier Li Peng and invited him to visit Malaysia. A beaming Rahim showed up standing beside China's deputy premier Li Lanqing. Oppositionist Lim could only shake his head with frustration. "I am terminated," he says. It's hard to argue.


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