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Feb 28, 2008

Sex, murder and corruption: Malaysia's ruling coalition dodges scandals in election campaign

By SEAN YOONG,Associated Press Writer

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - A close associate of the deputy prime minister allegedly orders the murder of a beautiful foreigner. The health minister is filmed having extramarital sex. A politically connected lawyer is accused of brokering top judicial appointments.

A string of scandals features heavily in the opposition's campaign for Malaysia's parliamentary election on March 8.

"It's not that we want to capitalize unnecessarily on these issues, but it's our moral duty to bring them out in our campaign to show that the government is rotten," said Hatta Ramli, an official in the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.

The ruling National Front coalition is widely expected to win, but with a smaller majority than its landslide victory in 2004. The scandals are not the main factor, but they may be adding to voter discontent with the status quo.

"I think everything that has been made public is only the tip of the iceberg," said Voon Chin Joo, a 28-year-old information technology consultant. "My vote will be for the opposition because I want to see all the other scandals exposed."

But, analysts say, most voters are more focused on issues that affect their lives, such as inflation, crime and rising racial and religious tensions.

"Malaysians have a short memory," said Tricia Yeoh, a senior researcher at the Center for Public Policy Studies, a Malaysian think tank. "These scandals may contribute to some people's perception that Malaysia is in a mess, but they wouldn't drastically change voting patterns."

The government's first headache emerged with the slaying of Altantuya Shaariibuu in late 2006. Abdul Razak Baginda, a close associate of Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, was charged with abetting the murder of the Mongolian interpreter, with whom he had had an affair.

Opposition parties worked feverishly to link Najib to the killing, in which two policemen allegedly used explosives to destroy Shaariibuu's remains in a jungle clearing in October 2006. But the opposition failed to come up with evidence to substantiate its claim that Najib had a hand in the killing.

The government has moved quickly to deal with the unusual spate of pre-election scandals.

Last August, opposition leaders criticized the government for providing a low-interest loan to rescue Malaysia's main port authority from debts of US$1 billion (�700 million). Officials deflected the criticism by saying the loan was not a bailout, because it would be repaid.

In October, authorities swiftly arrested eight junior officials on corruption charges after the auditor general revealed that ministries bought defective boats and helicopters and paid grossly inflated prices for screwdrivers and flower pots.

"There has been no attempt to hide things under the carpet, so there shouldn't be a negative impact for us in the polls," Shahrir Samad, a ruling coalition lawmaker, told The Associated Press.

"The public is confident that all these issues have been well tackled," Shahrir said. "Openness, transparency and accountability have been obvious in the government. We have not been riding roughshod over anyone or trying to ignore the public's concerns."

The nation's attention shifted in recent weeks to two video scandals.

In January, Health Minister Chua Soi Lek, married with three children, resigned amid intense public pressure after DVDs _ allegedly made by his political rivals _ began circulating in his hometown showing him having sex with his lover in a hotel room.

No sooner had that scandal faded, when newspaper front pages turned to a government inquiry into another video, which showed a well-known lawyer apparently talking on the phone to Malaysia's former top judge about using their government connections to influence judicial appointments.

The inquiry heard testimony in open court from prominent figures including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. A decision is expected next month _ but not until after the election.


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