The last time I wrote about Malaysia, in 2009, a sharia court there had decided that yes, the law did indeed allow the authorities to beat a woman for the heinous offense of drinking a beer. Last week, the equally pleasant Malaysian police said they had arrested a man for “sedition” because he allegedly set up a Facebook page that made fun of former king and sultan Mahmud Iskandar.
Iskandar is a “former” king because in addition to ruling certain states, Malaysian sultans take turns being the country’s king for five years each, and he was king for a while in the 1980s. (He is a “former” sultan because he’s dead.) According to the report, the now-deleted Facebook page “criticized the late sultan’s spending and other activities, saying its aim was ‘to expose the treachery of the sultan against his race and religion.'” The only “other activity” mentioned was a 1992 incident in which he assaulted a hockey coach. That didn’t strike me as very sultan-like behavior, and so I suspected other past shenanigans too.
I was right. For one thing, Iskandar was apparently known for forcing other drivers who irritated him to pull over and then spraying them with Mace. (I admit that has a certain appeal to it, but it’s not fair for only a leader to have that power.) According to the Wikipedia article on the Sultan, he also “chained up two policemen in a dog kennel for a day after [they] angered him,” shot someone near his private helicopter “whom he took to be a smuggler,” and killed a golf caddy “following an incident in which the golf caddy laughed when the Sultan missed a hole.” But he escaped punishment for all of these because, at the time, sultans were immune from prosecution. (Note to self: do not golf with anyone who is immune from prosecution.)
Then came the Gomez Incident.
The Sultan and his sons were all big field-hockey fans, with such a passion for the game that they tended to beat up players and coaches who irritated them. In 1992, the Sultan summoned to his palace and then personally beat up a coach, Douglas Gomez, who had expressed displeasure about his meddling in the sport. What came to be known as the “Gomez Incident” finally resulted in an investigation and public outcry that led to all the sultans being stripped of their traditional immunity, which is a good thing but also probably goes to show the relative status of golf caddies and field-hockey coaches in Malaysian society.
The sultan died last January, but the page apparently stayed up and someone eventually complained about it to the police. The suspect could get up to three years in prison for the mockery, which I guess is better than having your fingers cut off for using a keyboard but is still fairly outrageous. But it may be that the arrest is intended to send a message rather than to lead to a prosecution. The beer-drinker’s sentence was eventually commuted to community service (although three other women were reportedly caned last February for the equally heinous crime of having had sex with their future husbands). So hopefully the Facebook Incident will lead to reforms rather than punishment.
Yes, I have also posted this on my Facebook page (and at Forbes.com) and no, I am not planning any trips to Malaysia.