A new campaign has emerged in Malaysia targeting predominately children displaying homosexual “symptoms.” The Teachers’ Foundation of Malaysia, along with the support of the nation’s Department of Education, have planned ten seminars for teachers and parents on spotting potentially homosexual children. In addition to this, so-called “guidelines” have been published to assist the public in spotting the early supposed signs of homosexuality, which include light-colored or tight-fitting clothes, V-necks, and large handbags for boys, and a desire to be around other females for girls.
According to Mashitah Ibrahim, the Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, the government is working with NGOs to control the increasing LBGT “social problem” in the country through various mechanisms, such as anti-gay campaigns and volunteer training programs to deal with the LGBT community. As justification for these actions, Ibrahim stated that the LGBT lifestyle leads to an array of “social problems such as prostitution, drugs, the risk of HIV/AIDS, as well as psychological and mental disorders.”
Malaysia’s campaign on homosexuality is not a recent phenomenon. Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition leader, has battled allegations of sodomy since 1998. He has been convicted of sodomy twice, which led him to spend six years in jail. Despite all the allegations, Ibrahim continues to assert that the charges are baseless and deems them as “political conspiracies.”
Regardless, the country does not have the proper infrastructure to protect members of the LGBT community due in part to the country’s constitution and the existence of Sharia law. The Malaysian constitution explicitly states in Article 10 that the rights to freedom of speech and expression, assembly and association are not inalienable. Instead, these rights are subject to restrictions and limitation as the government sees fit. Furthermore, Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution protects freedom of religion and personal belief as long as the religion in question is Islam. This essentially means that religious freedom is in jeopardy for those who do not adhere to a narrow, rather conservative view of Islam. Since traditional Islamic viewpoints are the only ones legally protected by the Malaysian constitution explicitly, it is very difficult for people to speak up and fight for LGBT rights. Another legal document posing an obstacle to LGBT advances is Malaysia’s national principles, the Rukun Negara. This document deems “good behavior and morality” as one of the country’s guiding principles.
In addition to not having the proper framework to protect LGBT individuals under the country’s constitution, the existence of Sharia law makes the likelihood of reform a little more difficult. The religious dimension to this issue intensifies the situation, making it more complex and less amenable to debate, as opposed to if it were strictly a political issue.
This practice propagates stereotypes and promotes discrimination, particularly against the youngest members of society. Even though the Malaysian government has been pursuing an anti-gay agenda, it seems that much of the Malaysian public generally is not whole-heartedly supporting it. It is evident in the backlash of several grassroots campaigns, particularly present in social media. For example, on twitter the hash tag #gayguidelines has gone viral. Numerous posts have used humor and sarcasm to combat the government’s persecution and intolerance. Similarly, on Facebook, an event has been set up called National Wear V-neck Day, taking place this October 1 in Kuala Lumpur. The event is intended to show that there are groups of Malaysians that do not “ tolerate bullies and stereotyping” and do not support seeing their fellow Malaysians “being treated like criminals.” The aim of the group, as stated on the Facebook event, is to “show people that we could actually accept each other’s differences and not prosecute.”
This opposition is not limited to social media. Steps have been taken to send a message of support to Malaysians targeted by the government’s actions. As an example, restaurants that offer free meals to those who defy the “gay guidelines.” One of the owners of this restaurant spoke up about the guidelines: “When [they] came out, we thought it was ridiculous.” He went on asserting: “instead of joining in the fray to condemn it, we thought it would be an interesting concept to give out free biryani meals to the first fifteen men who walk in with a V-neck and a man-bag.” Clearly this is a contentious issue, with the government and a large part of the population at odds. As has been demonstrated, this anti-gay campaign will be fought over in public campaigns and new media platforms.
As a result, what can be seen from the Malaysian example is essentially a case of institutionalized homophobia. This anti-gay campaign fosters a climate of discrimination and intolerance, as well as legitimizes faulty stereotypes. The government of Malaysia, by attempting to persecute a growing part of Malaysian society, now finds itself in a difficult situation. The public is not as committed and enthusiastic as the government is in pursuing an anti-gay agenda. Additionally, this situation demonstrates how governments, by overreaching their bounds, can run up against new technologies and beliefs that challenge their authority and present an added strain on their rule. Social media outlets, like Facebook and Twitter in particular, have enabled populations to have an added leverage over their governments.