The problem with Malaysia’s LGBT+ laws (and what you can do to make a difference)
“Keranamu kami mendakap tuah
Keranamu kami bangsa berjaya
Keranamu kami hidup selesa
Limpah budi kemakmuran negara”
You may be familiar with these patriotic lyrics, sang by Malaysians from childhood to adolescence. Loosely translated, the last two lines mean “Because of you we live comfortably, because of you we have an abundance of national prosperity”. How is it then acceptable in this nation to resort to medieval forms of punishment toward a marginalised group within society?
Being a gay man in Malaysia isn’t ideal. I can’t speak on behalf of my other queer brothers and sisters on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum but in many regards, I believe I have it easy. Easy for the simple fact that I am not Muslim and Muslims are governed by Sharia law.
On the 19th of January 2021, the Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Ahmad Marzuk Shaary said the government may intend to deliver heavier punishments against the LGBT community by increasing the sentencing limits in the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (Act 355). Currently, under Act 355, Syariah courts are allowed to impose a maximum jail sentence of three years, a fine of RM5,000, and six strokes of the rotan (cane).
This was met with overwhelming criticism but also delivered a clear insight into how members of the LGBT community are treated and judged by policy makers within the government. Do you remember an article released by Sinar Harian that was published in early 2018? The article made international headlines from the BBC to The Guardian and it reflected Malaysians as having a backward mentality.
Similarly to this Sinar Harian excerpt, how you dress is how you are discriminated against. On the authority of Shaary, action will be taken against those who do not dress as required of their gender. Thankfully not all Malaysians agree. According to Free Malaysia Today, human rights organisation Lawyers for Liberty has urged the authorities to stop using the LGBT community as a “convenient punching bag” and warned that the vilification of the community “serves to help no one and will only harm the very citizens the law is supposed to protect.” They aren't alone. The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) is the only political party in Malaysia that has openly supported the rights of the LGBT community alongside other minority rights.
There is still a long way to go. According to The Noeo Project, a poll in 2016 stated that almost half of Malaysians do not believe in the legality of same-sex marriage. The poll further notes that 24 per cent of Malaysians stoutly believe that being gay, lesbian, transgender and other non-heteronormative notions of sexuality should be a crime. As it stands, Shariah law cannot prosecute you based on something you post online. For example, a picture of a man dressing up in drag cannot necessarily be used as evidence against them but as we have come to know, democracy can be more fragile than we realise.
Malaysia is a conservative nation, and so all Malaysians should be respectful of Malaysia's values and it's societal norms. I get it, holding hands and walking down the street is something that I probably won't be able to do during my generation. Much less properly date (forget Valentine's).
Here is the irony though: Malaysia (like the rest of the world) is still battling a serious pandemic. The number of cases is rising daily. Efforts should be put towards handling Covid-19 and helping the lives of Malaysians most affected during this time. It is not the time to be picking at one faction of society when there's a bigger problem at hand.
That isn't all. Laws governing Muslims and indigenous people still allow Malaysian children as young as 12 to get legally married. According to the South China Morning Post, more than 150,000 Malaysians between the ages of 15 and 19 are married. So why is it, in certain instances, authorities close their eyes to a marriage where one partner isn't allowed to give consent and at the same time, hunt and punish two consenting adults?
Here is how social media responded to Shaary's proposal:
Here's what you can do to make a difference:
First, have an open mind when it comes to LGBT+ issues. You don't necessarily have to support it if it goes against your personal values but respect that, to someone else, that is who they are. Someone living their life as a queer individual does not infringe on your rights to get married and be happy. Next, research. You don't have to know someone personally to be against LGBT+ discrimination. A gay individual is not a stereotype regardless of how they may be portrayed onscreen. There is no way to "spot" a gay man. Show kindness to those who confide in you and have respect for people who aren't ready to be open about their sexuality. Thirdly, you can make a change. There are multiple organisations out there that support marginalised groups within the LGBT+ umbrella. Justice For Sisters and the Seed Foundation are two groups in Malaysia that have been instrumental in supporting trans women.
Lastly, you can sign the change.org petition to repeal section 377A and 377B of Malaysia's penal code and help make a step toward legalising LGBT+ rights in Malaysia. At the end of the day, remember that being gay is never a choice. No one would "choose" a life where they are discriminated against on a daily basis.