Southeast Asian nations have developed at a rapid pace in the last two decades. The region has become an economic hub that will soon rival China. However, despite developments, it is still a regressive society where civil liberties are often overlooked. The most repressed among them is the LGBTQ community. In most Southeast Asian countries including Singapore, rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and queers (LGBTQ) are mostly non-existent. While many countries are proposing laws to end the discrimination, Malaysia is taking a step back, mulling over stricter punishment for them.
In Malaysia, rights for the LGBTQ+ community does not exist, to put it bluntly. Now, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's department (religious affairs), Ahmad Marzuk Shaary, said the current punishment is not harsh enough. Thus, he believes it is necessary to amend the existing Syariah Courts Act of 1965 or Act 355 to address "wrongdoings" and stricter punishment.
"All state religious agencies and enforcers have been instructed to take action against those LGBT people who do not behave accordingly," Shaary told reporters on Tuesday (January 19).
Malaysia is one of the nations in Southeast Asia where homosexuality is banned by the constitution. Same-sex activities could lead to three-year imprisonment, RM5,000 fine (approximately $1,200) and whipping. Shaary believes the existing discrimination is not enough and has called for stricter rules, urging people to report such "unhealthy activities" by LGBTQ people.
"Communities, including parents, need to be aware of the behavior of their children and stakeholders in education need to be vigilant and make a common agenda for us to prevent," he said, adding that if anyone notices such activities on social media or in person, should immediately report to initiate enforcement measures.
However, amid a pandemic and flailing economy, Shaary's calls for harsher law did not sit well amongst netizens who criticized him, saying it was a technique to divert attention.
LGBTQ+ Discrimination in Malaysia
Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar are three countries in the region that criminalize homosexuality as it is perceived against the order of nature. Although the law is rarely enforced, it has been weaponized by the government to justify discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ+ community.
That's not it though. Malaysia also has an anti-crossdressing law aimed at transgenders. In 2015, nine trans women were fined for crossdressing and they subsequently faced discrimination, extortion and harassment. The country does not allow gender reassignment surgery either.
However, it's not just the government, backed by a religious belief, that is complicit in inciting discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, the local media as well. In 2018, a top-selling Malay language newspaper published an article with bullet points on how to identify a gay and a lesbian. The so-called "tips" to identify gays included "wearing tight and/or branded shirts to show off their six-packs" and keeping facial hair. The article said lesbians are "extremely jealous" and "love hugging and holding hands".
"The Malaysian government is not only complicit with religious conservative groups in portraying LGBT Malaysians as deviant, diseased and dangerous to religion and culture, but since 2011, the government has sponsored and funded public education programs that single out LGBT people," Grace Poore, Asia-Pacific program coordinator for LGBTQ advocacy group OutRight Action International, told NBC News.