Growing Persecution Of LBGTQs In Malaysia: Once-Tolerant Society Turns On Those Who Are Different – Analysis


As western society – and even Taiwan, which in 2018 legalized same-sex marriage – has progressively grown more tolerant of different modes of sexuality, a progressively less liberal Malaysia is driving many of its gays to feel they are trapped within their personal psychic prisons in which they must secretly maintain their sexual orientation clandestinely to avoid reprisals and ridicule.

For instance, in October authorities raided a Halloween party attended by members of the LGBT community, turning them over to Islamic religious authorities to be questioned amid concern on the part of human rights groups and activists over growing intolerance. 

There is great concern within the LBGTQ community that the newly appointed religious affairs minister, Mohd Na’im Mokhtar, intends to extend a Syariah Court measure pushed through in the waning days of Barisan Nasional rule, with crossdressing an offense and criminalizing males passing themselves off as female. 

The issue of gayness – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, or LBGTQ – has particularly come to the fore since the November 19 election that brought the Pakatan Harapan coalition to power along with its leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was imprisoned twice on sexual conservative Islamic community in an attempt to vilify him. 

The prevalence of LBGTQs in Malaysia is unknown although given data from other societies, the population could be as high as five percent, while many keep their sexual orientation to themselves. Not all LBGTQs are members of groups that represent their identities. Those who are members and activists may have strong reasons to join such NGOs due to personality, experiences, peer influence, and a need for group support.

Shifting attitudes

Social attitudes have radically changed over the issue over the past few generations, however. Once, transgenders, or pondans (mak nyah) as they were described at the time in the local language, lived openly within their communities, and even played crucial roles in ceremonies such as weddings. However, an atmosphere of transphobia and homophobia has developed as the country has turned more toward Islam over the last two decades to the point where they feel ostracized even as other societies have liberalized to the point where same-sex marriages are widely accepted. 

A Malaysian survey of 1.300 people found that 60 percent of respondents held negative perceptions of lesbians and gays. Heterosexual prejudices and stereotyping has led to the marginalization and denigration of LBGTQ people.  According to an Ipsos survey in 2021, 65 percent of respondents were against same sex marriage, 65 percent were against same sex couples adopting children, 60.4 percent said they wouldn’t accept homosexuals as neighbors, 56 percent said homosexuality can’t be justified, 86 percent said homosexuality shouldn’t be accepted by society, and 86 percent said their city is not a good place for gay people. 

According to a source within the LBGTQ community who asked to remain nameless, the rising stigma is partly the result of the rise of conservative Islam. Authorities consider the expression of any LBGTQ traits a sin according to Syariah, or conservative Islamic law. That has resulted in a rise in hate within many communities to the point where families have become estranged between parents, children and siblings.

Some Muslim healthcare professionals don’t want to treat and provide patients with the anti-HIV drug PrEP to those who practice ‘free sex’ and homosexual sex because of their religious beliefs. According to the Ministry of Health, 87,000 Malaysians were living with HIV in 2019. 

Systemic discrimination 

Institutional discrimination and even abuse towards LBGTQ individuals and groups is very common. For example;

  • According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious authorities conduct ‘boot camps’ to convert LBGTQ people using guilt and shame as tools. 
  • According to the BBC, two women were caned publicly in the rural, poor eastern seaboard state of Terengganu in 2018 for attempting to have lesbian sex. 
  • Authorities regularly force the cancellation of LBGTQ events on the pretext that no permit was issued to hold such an event. 
  • The government practices strict censorship of LBGTQ content in cinemas. Just recently, the aminated film “Thor: Love and Thunder’ was banned, because the LBGTQ community cannot be portrayed in a positive light.
  • A transgender cosmetics entrepreneur Nor Sajat was charged under Syariah law for insulting Islam, based upon the way she dressed. After the government sought her extradition from Thailand, Nor Sajat fled to Australia.  
  • LBGT activist Numan Afifi Saadan had to step down as former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Rahman’s press officer, due to his support for LBGT causes

Within the civil service, anyone who displays LBGTQ traits will be ostracized and informally punished by peers, who have firm beliefs their LBGTQ colleagues are sinners. 

Within the private sector there is also a great hesitancy to employ anyone from the LGBTQ community. With employment opportunities now limited in Malaysia, those who are able to leave the country to so, and pursue a career and life within countries that are liberal and accept the LGBTQ culture and values.

However, those unable to migrate are persecuted both directly and covertly in society. This bullying and discrimination often leads to depression. Gays become marginalized and disadvantaged, sometimes to the point of becoming suicidal. These tragedies are never reported in the media, and there are no counseling safety nets by people with the skills to deal with these issues. 

Life is little better for those who choose to remain in the closet. Many have been victims of sexual abuse in boarding schools or incest at home from a close relative. When others find out their sexuality is different, and society condemns their orientation, they hide their preferences out of fear. The hurt and anger has been psychologically suppressed, where they are forced to live with these issues in silence. Some enter conventional marriages and have families, keeping their sexual orientations a secret. The inability to openly express their identities leads to loneliness and depression.

The social stigma feeds into a sense that harassment is legitimate towards individuals and groups. According to one person interviewed, some transgenders rounded up by police and religious authorities are forced to perform sexual favors on those holding them in custody. In such situations, they have no one to complain to, out of fear of retribution. 

Hopes for better treatment under new government

Many within the LBGTQ community hope that a prime minister who has been convicted for “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” and imprisoned, would be sympathetic, especially as human rights organizations across the planet branded the trials as bogus and named him a prisoner of conscience. This hope is elevated with Azalina Othman Said, who they consider one of their own, who has been appointed Law and institutional reform minister in Anwar’s cabinet. 

The current brain-drain of young professional LBGTQ people, who see better economic opportunities abroad should be a concern when Malaysia is trying to hold onto its most talented people. The persecution of LBGTQ has economic consequences as well.   

Originally published in the Asia Sentinel.

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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