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You might think of South Africa as a rainbow country and you’d be right! Nevertheless, there is also an Asian country which deserves to be described as such: Malaysia, not only because of its ethnic and cultural diversity, but because of the rainbows you find in so many different places, including the rainbow umbrellas sold in many shops or displayed by passers-by when it rains. Some landmarks are even dedicated to rainbows: go explore the Rainbow Bridge in Shah Alam or the Link, a mall in Kuala Lumpur (colloquially referred to as KL) where you will see rainbow-coloured stairs and rainbow paper cranes.

 So it came as a shock last May when the police seized 172 rainbow watches from 11 Swatch shops across the country. Why was this persecution directed towards apparently innocuous watches? Why watches and not umbrellas? Ahmed*, a member of the gay community in KL, has an explanation: "The Swatch watches were seized because they belong to the Pride collection which is clearly in support of gays, not because of the rainbow colour. The rainbow is very common in Malaysia. Here it's a tropical county, so it's quite common to see rainbows, which may explain why the rainbow colours are so frequently displayed.” For Swatch, the rainbow was not just meant to be taken as a symbol of gayness.  "It's a symbol of joy", a saleswoman in Geneva told Prachatai.  And for Martin Issing, the company's country director and manager, the collection refers to an "international human rights movement to promote equality and respect.” The point of view is not shared by the Malaysian Home Minister who feels that the watches "are detrimental to morality as well as to public and national interest by promoting, supporting and normalising the LGBT movement.” The minister didn't stop there; he threatened anyone caught wearing this LGBT symbol with a $4,300 fine and/or 3 years in jail.

Swatch's Pride collection are on sale in Bangkok, but not in Kuala Lampur. Wear this watch and go to jail, said the Malaysian Home Minister last year (Photo by Patrice Victor)

Swatch rainbow watches were banned under Section 7 of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) which gives the Home Affairs Ministry “absolute discretion” to prohibit the publication of any material “likely to be prejudicial to public order, morality, security … to alarm public opinion  … [or harm the] national interest.”  Being quite vague, the act could easily lead to arbitrary rulings that infringe upon international human rights. Swatch Malaysia filed a complaint against the Home Minister and the government to challenge the seizure. Swatch anticipates a trial soon. Observers believe the authorities will do their best to delay it.

The seizure was probably illegal. It took place in May, months before the August 10 gazetting of the ban by the Ministry of Home Affairs. It also appears to have been politically motivated. It took place two days before elections were staged in 6 states. The elections were considered a test for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim whose coalition is in a shaky position, with a slim majority in the Dewan Rakyat, the lower house of the federal Parliament. The ban could easily be construed as an appeal for the votes of Malay Muslim conservatives. While the elections didn't change the balance of power, they reinforced the political influence of the main opposition party, PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), which promotes a strict interpretation of sharia law and opposes LGBT rights. Since the national elections staged in November 2022 it has been the leading party in terms of parliamentary seats. It’s popularity has grown to the point where some observers openly talk about  "green wave" support for religious fundamentalism.

As for sex and the law, same-sex acts are illegal, but convictions are rare. Malaysia has a dual legal system in which federal laws apply to everybody and but states can adopt their own strictures on matters related to family, morality and religious practices. State religious law criminalises transgender and gender non-conforming men and women. Among other sexual offences, section 377 of the Federal Penal Code prohibits "buggery with an animal, carnal intercourse against the order of nature, sexual connection by object, and outrages on indecency.” Punishments for these offences include a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and whipping. For a country which prides itself on being independent, it is ironic that these laws were introduced in the 19th century by British colonisers.

Enforcement of the law sometimes creates legal conflicts. On 9 February 2024, 16 Sharia-based statutes (prohibiting incest, sodomy, cross-dressing and other activities) in Kelantan were canceled by the Federal Court of Malaysia. As Kelantan is under the control of Islamic fundamentalists, and the state’s Islam-based laws are generally more repressive than federal laws, it was considered to be a positive development by the LGBT community.

Prosecuted twice for sodomy

For an outsider, Malaysian politics is sometimes puzzling. The current Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who took office in November 2022, has been prosecuted twice for sodomy! He was arrested in 1998 for engaging in sodomy with his 19-year-old male chauffeur and his former male speech writer. He was beaten when detained by the Inspector General of Police and appeared in court with a black eye. The charges against him were seemingly politically-motivated and he was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. In 1999, he was nevertheless sentenced to nine years in jail. Eventually the Federal Court overturned his conviction and he was released in 2004. The story repeated itself a decade later, however. In 2015, he was sentenced to five years in prison for another case of sodomy with a former male aide but was pardoned in 2018 by Malaysia's former king, Sultan Muhammad V, on the grounds that his case was a "miscarriage of justice.”

So, is Anwar a beacon for gay rights in Malaysia? No way! He has consistently denied the charges against him and does his best to appear as a pious Muslim. In January 2023, just a few months after becoming Prime Minister he stated that "God willing", under his administration "LGBT rights will not be recognised.” Nevertheless, people anticipated that he would champion progressive reforms as he advocated for change during his 25 years in the opposition. At one point a long time ago, he even stated that while he endorsed the general law against homosexuality, he felt that it ought to be rewritten “to protect private life.”  But as Prime Minister he has done nothing.

Instead, an ultra-conservative opposition has steadily gained political ground since he took office, and he has been obliged to pay greater attention to the views of a conservative Muslim majority. As a consequence, despite Anwar’s earlier promises of liberal reforms, members of the LGBT community have experienced increasing discrimination under his administration.

Repression is on the rise

 On July 21 of last year, Matty Healy, the lead vocalist of the British rock group 1975 criticised homophobic Malaysian laws while on stage at the Good Vibes festival and kissed male bass player Ross MacDonald. The next day, the Ministry of Communications canceled the remaining events of the festival. More recently, however, despite opposition from Islamists, a concert by British pop star Ed Sheeran, an LGBT community supporter, took place on February 24, 2024 at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.

Examples of repression are rife. In 2023, bans were imposed under Section 7(1) of PPPA 1984 on at least five publications and books. On July 29 last year, eight followers of the Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light**, an Islamic splinter group founded in 1999 that has often been accused of heresy, were arrested and detained by the police for a day after they held placards (with messages like “Down Syariah court” and “Gay people are not criminals”) outside the Sogo Kuala Lumpur shopping centre to express solidarity with the LGBT community. In October 2022, 20 cross-dressers were detained for questioning at a gay Halloween party at REXKL, a cultural center in KL.

What a chasm between KL's ultramodern appearance (Merdeka 118 Tower is the second-tallest skyscraper in the world) and the occasional sight of sex ‘criminals’ being publicly whipped. In 2018 in Terengganu, two women were caned 6 times before an audience for “attempting lesbian sex” in violation of Islamic law - apparently the first time the sentence was applied to women. The same year, five men were arrested in Selangor during a 50-man-strong police raid on a private residence. In November 2019 the state’s Sharia court sentenced them to prison for six to seven months, imposed fines, and ordered that each defendant receive six strokes of the cane for “attempted sexual intercourse against the order of nature.”  On 25 February 2021, the Federal Court nullified Selangor’s law on the grounds that the state legislature has no power to enact laws penalising acts that  already criminalised under federal law. It didn’t change the basic fact that, whether by state or federal law, fundamental human rights were being infringed upon, while cruel and degrading punishments were applied. Arguably, state punishments are the only crimes being committed. And at the same time, the courts appear lenient towards the aggressors of persons suspected of belonging to sexual minorities. On 3 October 2023, five men accused of raping and killing one of their classmates, 18-year-old Nhaveen, were acquitted. Prior to the attack, they ridiculed him for being a "sissy".

 As a widely publicised example of repression, consider the case of Nur Sajat, a transgender woman and successful cosmetics entrepreneur. In February 2021 she was charged for “insulting Islam” by dressing as a woman. The religious authorities called in 122 officers to catch her, but to no avail as she fled to Thailand and eventually settled in Australia as a refugee. Human Rights Watch explains: the authorities cannot stand the example of a successful LGBT woman and entrepreneur. They don't want LGBT people and trans women admiring Nur Sajat and saying, "I can also be successful. I can be who I am".

Life is especially difficult for transgenders in Malaysia. Under condition of anonymity, some of them talked to Prachatai. As Laura*, in her forties, tells it: “we face a lot of discrimination, especially because we are quite visible, more than gays. We are used as punching bags. There is considerable violence directed against us; including murder” (at least two murders of transwomen were reported in June and October 2023). In some cases, the police are helpful, but not always. Antony* in his thirties, was born female but now wears a beard.  He explains: “if I apply for a job as a man, when I produce a female ID, I'm rejected. We are not allowed to change gender and there is a lot of hostility against us.  We oppose conversion therapy which can be imposed by the family or the authorities.”

Conversion therapies

Conversion therapies are prescribed more and more frequently. Persons suspected of same sex relationships can be enrolled in state-funded LGBT ‘rehabilitation’ camps called mukhayyam, programs that have been expanded recently. More than 100 people are sent to such camps each year. In July, Johor plans to open its first permanent “rehabilitation center” for people found guilty of same-sex relations and “straying from the right path of Islam.” 

Gays are often considered as misfits. In May 2023, two PAS MPs, Jamaluddin Yahya and Dr Halimah Ali, proposed that members of the LGBT community be classified as people who suffer from mental health problems. They may have been responding to the 15 March 2023 remarks of Ahmad Marzuk Shaary, another PAS member, who said he did not consider the "LGBT lifestyle" human, that the LGBT community's lifestyle was "so perverted that it surpasses animal limits," adding that "bulls do not marry bulls, cows do not marry cows." Marzuk also said that he was confident that "normal people with the right mindset" would not support the group, adding that "if someone says that this is human rights, let me say that this is not human."

Madzim Johan (nicknamed Toqqi), Chief Activist of the Muslim Consumers Association (Photo by Patrice Victor)

The Muslim Consumers Association (PPIM, Persatuan Pengguna Islam Malaysia) is an influential organisation which can pressure the government. PPIM Chief Activist Madzim Johan once characterised gay rights as a "poison in the community." When asked by Prachatai about the rainbow colours, he replied: "The rainbow means children can choose their sex. LGBT is an ideology.  The rainbow should be prohibited.”  And what about rainbow umbrellas? "They should also be prohibited, we will ask the authorities to get a look in this". He elaborates: "The religion here is Islam, it is forbidden to promote another religion. Laws of the country are above human rights".

Hate speech and calls for physical and sexual violence against LGBT people have become more frequent. Gays and transexuals are sometimes the target of violence from authorities and ordinary citizens - some speak of state-sponsored homophobia. According to a 2017 poll of people living in 6 SE Asian countries, Malaysia and Indonesia are the only ones where most people would be unwilling to have gays or lesbians as a neighbour.

Rainbow stairs at The Link, a mall in Kuala Lumpur
(Photo by Patrice Victor)

The situation for gays remains fluid, however. To this day, nobody has been fined or jailed for wearing rainbow colours, be it a watch or a medallion, and you can still see openly gay people wandering in the capital. Despite rampant repression by the state, religious authorities and some segments of the population, the gay scene appears vibrant, thanks to the resilience of its members. You can still find a variety of unofficial gay venues in the capital and in several other places. Some have been there for decades, despite periodic police raids. The supposition among members of the gay community is that such venues survive by bribing authorities.

Regardless, rising Islamic fundamentalism is increasing the pressure on LGBT people. And they are not the only targets of repression; defenders of human rights and freedom of expression are also suffering. Intolerance is fracturing the rainbow country.

* Name has been changed.

**Followers of this group have been harassed and threatened in Thailand, in part because some tenets of their faith are not compatible with the Thai Constitution.

Interview with Dhia Rezki Rohaizad, deputy president of the gay rights group Jejaka
(Jejaka can be translated as young man)

Dhia Rezki Rohaizad, deputy president of gay rights group Jejaka (Photo by Patrice Victor)

What's the legal situation for gays in Malaysia?

The legal landscape is weaponised, especially during election times. LGBT people are used as scapegoats. Nevertheless the gay community is resilient. Although not often applied, the laws are used and this affects people. Gay life doesn't thrive for everybody.

What's your opinion about the current government?

The government is not what we hoped for; its campaign was about reform. We don't see it, we are disappointed. Anwar is worried about keeping power, he does what he thinks the people want.

How is it inside families?

It depends which family, but the attitude is often, "I can tolerate gays, but not in my own family".

Is there a difference between Kuala Lumpur and other places in the country?

In Kuala Lumpur there is less hostility, but I cannot generalise. Outside of Kuala Lumpur, the perception of gays is not at all the same. In Kelantan 20 years ago gay life was more acceptable than it is today. The federal capital and Kelantan (more and more repressive) evolve in different directions.

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