The new government has indicated that tolerance for diversity is still a long way off
A government minister in Malaysia has ordered the removal of portraits of LGBT activists from a cultural show at Penang’s George Town Festival. The decision reflects the predominant ultra-conservative view among policymakers in the mainly Muslim nation. While no one expected the election of Mahathir Mohamad in May to overnight replace the conservative mindset with a more progressive worldview, we are still waiting for any evidence that Malaysia is ready to mature.
It would have required a certain advanced state of mind for viewers of the LGBT portraits in the photo exhibition “Stripes and Strokes” to see them with admiring eyes. But visitors to the George Town Festival, one of the country’s largest annual cultural events, won’t get the chance now to look on with admiration or condemnation. The opportunity to judge for themselves has simply been taken away.
The portraits depict well-known LGBT activists Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik. The order that the pictures be removed from the show came from Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office. The underlying message is that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have no rights and don’t deserve rights, and there’s no use complaining about it.
Homosexuality is of course illegal in Malaysia, a holdover from colonial days under the British, to which modern fundamentalist Muslim clerics happily cling. There is no protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Sodomy remains a crime on the books – as Anwar Ibrahim can amply attest. Once a leading contender to become premier, he was jailed for years on that charge without any actual proof he was “guilty” of it.
By contrast, the Supreme Court of India, the world’s largest democracy, has just thrown out a similar discriminatory law. In the groundbreaking victory for LBGT rights, the court also ordered that gays be accorded every protection under the constitution.
Malaysia in the past went so far as to force “conversion therapy” on citizens convicted of homosexual “crimes”. The ridiculous notion that gays can somehow be converted to heterosexuality has tellingly gained traction in Trump’s America too. But then came the surprising rebirth of Mahathir Mohamad, sweeping aside corruption scandals with a promise of progressive change. Hope rose among LGBT people and supporters of human rights.
With the appalling setback in Penang, hope has now been diminished, with the exception of Marina Mahathir – daughter of the prime minister – showing solidarity with the assailed activists by demanding that her portrait be removed from the exhibition as well. A month earlier, citing harassment, Numan Afifi, an openly gay activist, resigned from his post as press officer for the country’s youth and sports minister. Two women were convicted in an Islamic court in northern Terengganu state of attempting to engage in lesbian sex and publicly caned. And a trans woman was attacked and beaten so badly that her spleen ruptured.
Thailand has no reason to feel superior. Though LGBT activism is permitted here, there are many people in the religious, military, political and educational establishment who engage in or condone discrimination. Thai society as a whole can be fairly said to tolerate the LGBT presence, but respect is largely withheld. We in Thailand also still have a long way to go in embracing the concepts of pluralism and diversity.