On this day in 2012, the Malaysian daily New Straits Times issued a hasty clarification: “We hereby retract all the statements contained in the article against Mr Xenophon and unreservedly and unconditionally apologise to him for any distress or embarrassment caused by the article.” It was an unedifying end to a week in which the South Australian senator had been teargassed, accused of insulting Islam and subjected to death threats.
Adelaide, home in sickness and in health to the last superannuated holdouts of Australia’s bunyip aristocracy, is also the spiritual home of liberalism’s disaffected moderates. Steele Hall left the Liberal Party after his tenure as South Australian Premier, founded the Liberal Movement and went to Canberra, voting in support of the beleaguered Whitlam government’s supply bills during the 1975 constitutional showdown. The remnants of the Liberal Movement formed the nucleus of the Australian Democrats—lifelong South Australian Janine Haines was the first party member to gain a parliamentary seat upon Hall’s resignation from the Senate.
Nick Xenophon, the current custodian of this tradition and an eminently more likeable media tart than many of his contemporaries, deflects questions of his past political associations by pleading a wayward youth. “Some people do drugs when they are young, I was in the Young Liberals,” he told The Advertiser; my encounters with student politicians suggests that the two are rarely mutually exclusive, even if the double-barrelled surnames didn’t get their gurn on quite so hard as the lefties.
He ditched the boat-shoe brigade after they rigged the student union’s elections, which inter alia made him at 17 the youngest ever editor of On Dit. After a spell as a workers’ compensation barrister, Xenophon wound up in state parliament in 1997 on the back of a gimmicky campaign to oppose poker machines, introduced earlier in the decade as state governments across the country broadened the legalisation of gambling to combat revenue shortfalls during the recession. A decade later he was in the Senate, re-elected in 2013 with the largest first preference vote out of any independent since Pauline Hanson in 1996.
Xenophon might well have been content to remain the ambassador of liberal Adelaide parochialism, had a 2010 meeting with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim not led the senator to make a decisive break with the politics of his Athenian forebear. A one-time Deputy Prime Minister, the power struggle between Anwar and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis led to a coordinated campaign to discredit Anwar on allegations of sodomy, a practice punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment and a deeply inflammatory accusation under the country’s prevailing cultural mores. His supposed sexual partners recanted after the subsequent trial, saying they had been coerced into giving false statements; Anwar spent six years in solitary confinement before his verdict was partially overturned.
At Anwar’s invitation, Xenophon travelled to Malaysia in April 2012 as part of an international fact-finding mission into the country’s electoral system. The study tour’s conclusions mirrored those documented by international rights groups and the local opposition: postal vote fraud, discrepancies in the voter roll, an overwhelming predominance of pro-government opinion in the media, and gerrymandering by the Election Commission at the behest of the incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, which had controlled the federal government since the country’s independence in 1957.
Towards the end of the scheduled activities, the delegation attended a mass demonstration in Kuala Lumpur held by Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections), a civil society coalition backed by the opposition, international democracy endowments and many of the organisations the group had met with in the previous days. As in previous Bersih mobilisations, the response was violent: the Malaysian Bar Council’s report into the crackdown claimed that the demonstration was peaceful until mid-afternoon, when police began an arbitrary attack on the procession. Xenophon’s faceful of tear gas was captured on video.
Facing a PR debacle, Barisan Nasional went on the offensive. After smearing Beriseh, its constituent organisations and the protesters, it fell to a young ethnic-Chinese reporter by the name of Roy See Wei Zhi to smear the delegation. Roy was a staff writer for the New Straits Times—a paper owned by the UMNO, Barisan Nasional’s senior coalition partner. On May 2, the paper carried an article by Roy which questioned Xenophon’s credentials as an observer to the rally and purported to quote the senator during a parliamentary speech: “Islam is not a religious organisation. It is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs.”
Xenophon’s quote was actually in reference to the Church of Scientology, during an adjournment debate on the religion’s tax-free status in Australia. Paired with a suggestive quote about the senator’s stance on same-sex marriage, Roy’s piece was clearly a hatchet job designed to discredit Anwar through clumsy innuendo.¹ Xenophon threatened to sue and the paper pulled the article with a full apology the following day; he was undeterred, promising litigation after he was told that the article’s publication constituted a threat to his safety.
Had the senator not been embittered by this experience, he might not have become such an outspoken advocate for democratic reform in Malaysia. As it was, he decided to return to the country the following February, once again at the invitation of Anwar. After passing through immigration and reaching the customs desk at Kuala Lumpur International, he was approached by police and informed that he had been deemed a security risk; he was detained for 16 hours and sent back to Australia on a 2am flight.
“I just find it extraordinary,” he told the ABC from the airport’s immigration detention. “I’ve been here before [and] I’ve made statements about the state of Malaysian democracy previously. But on this occasion clearly someone high up in the Malaysian government doesn’t want me here.”
Three MPs set to join a delegation to observe the run-up to the 2013 general election cancelled their trips in protest.
The biggest shill in Australian journalism, Greg Sheridan, felt compelled to offer his own verdict on the saga. There is so much to loathe in Sheridan’s Wikipedia assessment of Malaysia’s polity,² but some offences against logic and empiricism are egregious enough to render other frustrations irrelevant. The Murdoch stable’s S.O.P. is to charge the advocates of the causes they oppose with hypocrisy for failing to dedicate their passions to causes deemed of greater moral urgency. Sheridan wonders, in the aftermath of his deportation, why Xenophon hadn’t instead campaigned for electoral reform in Cambodia, a more deserving recipient of democratic advocacy. (This, of course, didn’t lead him to withhold his endorsement of Australia’s refugee resettlement deal with Phnom Penh the following year.) The New Straits Times, evidently still smarting from the previous year’s legal threats, gleefully quoted Sheridan’s column at length.
The next Malaysian general election was held less than three months after Xenophon’s last trip to KL. Amid fresh claims of electoral improprieties and continued protests against the Election Commission’s gerrymander, Anwar’s opposition coalition won more than 50 percent of the vote while Barisan Nasional took 60 percent of the seats.
Barred from Malaysia, Xenophon’s case against the Times appears to have stalled. In October 2014, he travelled to Jakarta to meet with Anwar once again. Since his return to parliament in 2008, the opposition leader had been facing fresh sodomy charges. The 61-year-old was accused of overpowering and assaulting an aide 37 years his junior; when this was disproven, the charge was amended to “homosexual conduct by persuasion”.
With a looming court decision all but certain to convict him, Anwar used a joint press conference to criticise Australia for failing to speak out against his politically-motivated prosecution, in spite of private overtures from former foreign ministers Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith. “It’s an incredibly melancholy meeting today because it might be the last time I see him,” Xenophon told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Anwar returned to prison this February to begin his five year sentence. He will be 72 by the time he is released, and 77 before he is permitted to stand for office again. A motion calling on the parliament to convey its concern over the verdict to the Malaysian High Commissioner was tabled by Xenophon and carried unanimously in the Senate. Australia’s diplomatic, trade and defence ties with Malaysia continue unabated.
Far from receiving any official reprimand, Roy See Wei Zhi remained on the Times staff list for another two years, where it appears he was eventually promoted to columnist. His most recent contribution to the public sphere, dated July 2014, was an admonishment of the Road Transport Department’s proposal to introduce automatic transmission drivers’ licences. Laden with incisive prose—”first, let us define a car” is a quote that will resonate with me for some time to come—it seems the free press is enjoying a resurgence in Malaysia.
1. In your endo.
2. For one, his characterisation of PAS, the smallest party in the opposition coalition, as having a decisive influence over its peers and prosecuting a hardline Islamist agenda. Whenever Sheridan needs to pad out his columns, he pretends to be the antipodean Daniel Pipes, possibly the only other neo-con that rivals his own vacuity.