For Malaysia’s embattled LGBTQI+ community, the promise of a new era with the change of government last year is yet to materialise.
Jarni Blakkarly reportsfrom Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Shortly after Malaysia’s historic election in May, transgender activist Nisha Ayub and gay rights activist Pang Khee Teik had their portraits displayed at an art gallery in the city of Penang.
The exhibition celebrating 60 years since Malaysia’s independence featured prominent people posing with the country’s flag.
But days after the images provoked a social media debate, the new Minister of Islamic affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa ordered the portraits be taken down, saying the country would not support the promotion of “LGBT culture”.
“I was very hopeful that things would change, that things would get better, but unfortunately nothing changed, it is still the same,” Ms Nisha told SBS News.
Last year, Malaysia’s government changed for the first time in the 61 years since independence.
The shock election result ushered into power the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition for the first time.
Across the country, people celebrated, declaring a ‘new Malaysia’ in anticipation of the wave of institutional reforms and improved human rights promised by the new government.
While the government did not promise anything specific in its election manifesto for the LGBTQI+ community, many had hoped the less conservative political parties and their promises of human rights would bring change.
But almost a year since the election, a series of scandals and comments from senior government ministers have dampened any hope things will improve for the country’s marginalised LGBTQI+ community.
“It’s almost as if they [the government] are begging us not to be too public, they are telling us to stay quiet,” Mr Pang told SBS News.
Mr Pang runs an LGBTQI+ online publication and facilitates an online forum with thousands of followers, where Malaysians can come together to share their stories and discuss issues.
The new government has been accused by the conservative opposition of being ‘pro –LGBT’ and have responded by criticising and attacking the community.
A series of events including the police raiding of a gay nightclub in August and the caning of two women for having a same-sex relationship in September, has highlighted the ongoing problems faced by LGBTQI+ Malaysians.
Sodomy remains illegal in Malaysia and Ms Nisha said the country’s transgender community was still encouraged to go to government-sponsored “conversion therapy” camps.
“Hate crimes are rising in Malaysia against trans people. You have vigilantes going around to basically criminalise trans people. We even have laws specifically for cross-dressing, which applies to transgender people,” she said.
Next door in neighbouring Brunei the country’s king Hassanal Bolkiah has prompted international condemnation following his introduction of new laws which would make gay sex punishable with death by stoning.
Deputy Minister in the Malaysian government Sivarasa Rasiah said he didn’t believe his country was ready for “full legal recognition” of LGBTQI+ rights.
“At this time, given the context of Malaysian society where we are in terms of our consciousness and values, while legal recognition is going to be difficult," he said.
But, he said, the new government was committed to human rights for all.
“I think there is that a sense that a broad majority of people would say that it is wrong to oppress, to victimise a person based on their sexual orientation.
“Those protections from discrimination, oppression, ill-treatment, must apply to everybody across the board, including the LGBT community. My sense of it that broad majority of Malaysian people will agree.”
But activists say they will not settle for being second-class citizens.
“We are not going to settle for hiding in the closet,” Mr Pang said.