“New Malaysia is not so new in 2018.”

Li Yan Yap, Malaysia
APMA 2018

*This piece was written in 2018

Sometime in 2012, I went to watch The Hunger Games at the cinema. There was a scene where the protagonist and her love interest shared a kiss, but all Malaysian audiences saw was the heterosexual couple sitting on a bed, their faces getting really close, followed by an awkward cut to them sitting elsewhere. When the film ended, I couldn’t help but laugh–in a film about political revolution, the Malaysian government decided that for the young audience, the censorship of a kiss was more important. The omnipresent powers that be in Malaysia had decided that love is the threat here, not the political uprising.

Six years and a new government later, I am still reminded of that missing censored scene when I think of the Malaysian government. Just a month ago, portraits in Penang of prolific LGBTQ+ activists Pang Khee Teik and Nisha Ayub had been taken down from an exhibition. The oldest gay bar in Malaysia was raided by police and religious authorities, with 20 Malay-Muslim bar-goers subjected to religious counselling. Not a few weeks later, two women in Terengganu were fined and publicly caned for allegedly having same-sex relations. The new Pakatan Harapan government’s promises of progressivism and hope for a ‘New Malaysia’ ring hollow in light of recent events.

Just before the 14th Grand Elections in May this year, the Pakatan Harapan party had been greatly threatened by the Undi Rosak campaign where youths demanded to be heard in politics, or they would spoil their votes in protest. It started out as a Twitter hashtag and snowballed into an event that garnered attention and ridicule from mainstream media. The bulk of dissent surrounding the Undi Rosak campaign had stemmed from Pakatan Harapan believing they would have the support of the urban youth who wanted Barisan Nasional gone, and so failed to do enough for youths who still face issues such as unemployment, low starting salaries, and unattainable property costs.

On top of that, there were the LGBTQ+ whose rights have been sidestepped by Pakatan Harapan as it is still a highly contentious topic in Malaysia. Racial-religious rhetoric still runs deep in Malaysia since former and current Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir’s time, and it made sense that Pakatan Harapan, led by Mahathir, was not about to undo that. Should Pakatan Harapan have championed LGBTQ+ rights at that critical hour, they would have stood to lose support from the Malay-Muslim majority. So while the abolishment of archaic, oppressive laws such as the Sedition Act had been central to their campaign promise, curiously, other equally archaic laws such as Section 377 (law against homosexual acts) by which Anwar Ibrahim had been arrested under, was not. The 14th Grand Elections was a numbers game, and the minorities lost.

For the LGBTQ+ in Malaysia, it was an impossible choice during the elections. Clearly, the former corrupt Prime Minister had to go. But was there a point in voting at all, for a new government that would not take up LGBTQ+ issues? Pakatan Harapan’s faux-progressive politics is a façade that is just modern enough to fit into the international narrative, but they have been content to allow fundamentalists to flex their muscles at the expense of the LGBTQ+. Following a brutal attack on a transgender woman last month, Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Wan Azizah had the following condolences to offer: “LGBTs have the right to practise whatever [it is] they do in private,” and “Homosexuality, there are laws [against it]”. The latter statement was made despite the fact that Wan Azizah is the spouse to Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed twice under Section 377.

The clever ethnocentric politics designed by Mahathir worked well in the 90’s, but in 2018, it has only become synonymous with bigotry and discrimination among urban populations. I feel that the next Malaysian election would no longer be a battle of numbers; instead it would be a battle of ideology and values. Maybe one day we would see a Malaysia that would not censor love from public eyes and instead, heed the warnings of a potential uprising. Until then, at least for the next five years, it seems that Pakatan Harapan is content maintaining the status quo in the continued denial of LGBTQ+ rights in Malaysia.

Photo: World of Buzz

This piece was written in academic year 2018-2019.

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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