Written by Janice Ooi
A sense of déjà vu filled me when I came across a Reddit post on “Ciri-ciri seorang gay” (Characteristics of a gay). It reminded me about the infographics were circulated in newspapers and schools in 2001 on “symptoms” of gay people, oddly targeting gay men in particular – including wearing V-necks and tight clothing, carrying big handbags, being unusually close to members of the same sex – recreated in the Indonesian article. “Symptoms” for lesbians seem less pronounced somehow – talking about “distancing themselves from women other than their girlfriends”, “absence of feelings for men” and “a preference for hanging out, sleeping and dining with women”.
Indonesian article on “Characteristics of a gay”
The perception of LGBTQ in Malaysia has never been favourable. From publishing “symptoms” of gay men to sending “effeminate young boys” to anti-gay camps in Terrenganu to undergo a four-day “self-development course” with intensive religious and physical sessions to dissuade them from their “unnatural” tendencies, Malaysian authorities have always been hostile to any deviation of stereotypical gender norms.
Legality of same-sex sexual acts in Malaysia
The main statutory instrument punishing same-sex sexual acts, Section 377 of the Penal Code, is a colonial relic, its existence mainly motivated politically. The section speaks about “unnatural offences” committed via “carnal intercourse against the order or nature” or oral and anal sex – which, in fact, does not make a distinction between homosexual and heterosexual partners – which is punishable for up to 20 years’ imprisonment with possible whipping. In a research done by Women’s Candidacy Initiative, they have found that there have only been seven charges from 1938 to 2009 – four of the charges connected to Anwar Ibrahim, a political leader.
The parallel Sharia Law system in Malaysia also introduces many other offences under the state-level syariah laws – ranging from improper conduct in public spaces to sexual relations between persons of the same gender. Each state has a similar Sharia laws governing acts of “liwat” (anal sex between homosexual men or heterosexual couples) and “musahaqah” (homosexual sex between women). These laws raise the prospect of punishing gay Muslims twice under the two parallel legal systems – the federal legal system and the state syariah law – an unfortunate situation that is as arbitrary as the person you were born as.
Main issues surrounding LGBTQ talk in Malaysia
If the number of members in the Seksualiti Merdeka FB group is anything to go by, it appears that acceptance is growing – at least within the urban youth community – for the LGBTQ community in Malaysia. From merely 500 people in attendance for the inaugural Seksualiti Merdeka (“Sexuality independence”) festival in 2008, to 4319 members on the FB group – and an unknown number outside of that – the LGBTQ community is gaining presence in Malaysian society – yet what prevents public legislation from reform?
One of the greatest inhibitors of positive change, it is said, is the fear of the unknown. In a rather aloof, yet serious response typical to how Malaysians approach social change, social media was flooded with an unofficial National V-Neck Day on the 1st of October 2012. Deputy Education Minister at the time, Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi commented on National V-Neck Day, stating that it “should not be a joking matter” – a statement that no LGBTQ ally would disagree with, although both sides would come to drastically different conclusions. In a seminar “Parents Handling LGBT Issues”, organised by the Yayasan Guru Malaysia Berhad and Putrajaya Consultative Council of Parent-Teacher Association, he admitted that the ministry does not have any data on how prevalent the phenomenon is in schools – “… we don’t have the facts, we don’t have the data to show how serious it is”, going on to cite that these actions – initiating a “spotting game” to identify gay people, having educational seminars on the “dangers of LGBT lifestyle” – are necessary because of two reasons, “[the LGBT lifestyle] is the biggest cause of HIV after drugs, and also causes a lot of social problems such as broken marriages”. Although the Ministry of Education distances themselves from the arbitrariness of such actions – citing that their reasons are grounded on logic, not opinion – it is not difficult to see that a lot of public policy, and consequently, reflected in public perception of the LGBTQ community, hinges on nothing more than the use of power to impose certain opinions on others.
The education narrative in Malaysia is also incredibly problematic. The education narrative, as implied by the anti-gay camp and infographic on how to “spot” gay people, has never been impartial in Malaysia. Motivated religiously, or politically, the fact remains that education authorities in Malaysia have skewed the narrative so heavily into the anti-gay camp that without any real interaction with LGBTQ people or personal motivation to investigate the issue further, young minds would be taught to accept only a certain type of perspective and nothing else – morality dictated by the authorities. In March 2013, a controversial play sponsored by the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture premiered in Kuala Lumpur. The play, named Asmara Songsang (or “Abnormal Desires”) followed the lives of three LGBT people, who were all portrayed to be party animals who led pious young people (in this case, a young, naïve Malay girl) to sinful paths. The play ends with the LGBT people dying – from a lightning strike – if they do not choose repentance. Fuad Hassan, Director General of Information, Communication and Culture at the time, said that the moral of the story is “to warn young people about the perils of being gay”. If the narrative adopted by educational authorities are so drastic, is it any surprise that the LGBTQ community remain vulnerable in the Malaysian society?
The LGBTQ status in Malaysian law is also that of a Catch-22 situation – the government is politically motivated to keep the law as it is, and the opposition, it seems, is afraid that challenging the very law that is making their leader look un-Islamic, would be seen as, well, un-Islamic. The government doesn’t want to be seen as un-Islamic in a country where about 60% of the population are Muslims, nor does the opposition. The matter is further complicated by the possibility of the opposition being viewed in a light which casts them as solely motivated to challenge the law (if they do so) just because the opposition leader is being charged. Perhaps this point is moot now that Anwar Ibrahim has been in prison since 2015 after a failed appeal to the Federal Court, serving a five-year jail sentence. But the tensions of the trial remain today – inaction by political parties on both sides are still fuelled by the same fears.
On the 15th of April 2016, Astro Awani published an article about Hazim Ismail – criticising the Canadian government’s decision to accept him as a refugee, stating that it seems to suggest that “Malaysia is a dangerous and an inhospitable country particularly for [LGBT]”. It seems strange to argue that homosexual relationships are not discriminated against in Malaysia. While “homosexuality” is not defined as a crime in the Penal Code, an essential feature of homosexual relationships – namely, the sex – is criminalised, making such personal and intimate relationships ring hollow in the face of the law.
In October 2016, the Habitat III conference was held in Quito by the United Nations. The assembly was to discuss the New Urban Agenda, a manifesto for better and more inclusive cities to influence global urban policy. Malaysia was part of a group of 17 nations, led by Belarus, to block the inclusion of LGBTQ rights in the agenda.
Just recently (February 2017), JAKIM has suggested that sexual orientation can be changed with extensive training in a recent video produced by the department – effectively endorsing a form of informal conversion therapy which centres around strict religious behaviour.
Malaysia has a long way to go with regards to legality regarding freedom of sexual expression. The situation seems disappointing and hopeless with authorities displaying homophobic tendencies such as above, even going so far to ban peaceful festivals on sexual freedom such as Seksualiti Merdeka, labelling it as creating “disharmony, enmity, and [disturbing] public order” – it is safe to say that the same label extends to LGBT lifestyle as well. However, all hope is not lost – the day the Orlando gay nightclub massacre, my Facebook newsfeed abound with supportive messages and condolences on the incident. The root problem is often not education and exposure – a lot of Malaysians are open enough to accept the LGBTQ community without much trouble – the problem is often the politics and religious sentiments inhibiting progress of such social activism. The problem persists in racist sentiments, feminist activism, the push for democracy – social issues are weaponised as a mechanism to subdue and control the people. The worst problem about Malaysia’s situation in relation to homosexuality is not the lack of legal protection – the problem is more fundamental than that, it lies within the oppression of opinion and discourse – which is a glaring failure as a community, where the people in power are wilfully blind to social issues that affect people’s right to private life, and arguably, their right to live as free, independent people without fear of persecution, simply for being who they are.
Janice is a second year law student at UCL.
Both cynical and idealistic, she is one contradiction away from being the living dead (as all law students are).
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Update: More déjà vu follows the recent announcement that the Beauty and the Beast movie is up for review in Malaysia surrounding controversies with the openly-gay character. LeFou? More like LeSigh-let’s-talk-about-social-progress-in-moderate-Malaysia.