by Arveent Kathirtchelvan, Co-Authored by Aziff Azuddin
The reader is advised that the following is a collection of not-so in-depth analyses on one part of the social structure of Malaysia and is written from the perspective of the main author, with the co-author utilised as a source of information. It is also considerably longer than usual Liberasi articles.
The talk on LGBTQ rights in Malaysia cannot be done ignoring the feelings and sensitivities of Malays, and more generally Muslims. In light of that, this article will attempt to explore what the Malay-Muslim worldview is regarding the acceptance of sexual minorities in Malaysia. To do this properly would require skills I do not possess, however I have taken a stab at the topic, coming at it from a few perspectives. Firstly, we will look at what Malay-Muslims feel is their personal identity, then we shall have a think on what they feel is their place in Malaysia and finally, we shall tie it back around to what all of this means for the LGBTQ community. Before I begin, it must be said that the task to be accomplished is so nuanced and complex, any factual error is regretted and is requested to be corrected.
What does it mean to be Malay? It is an observable fact that the mainstream narrative seems to indicate that the concept of being a Malay person is interchangeable with a Muslim. In the Federal Constitution, a Malay individual is defined as one who speaks Malay, practices Malay customs and is a Muslim.1 It is too far an allegation to suggest the former two are being slowly eradicated in favour of the latter, but it does feel like it. Malay words are often replaced with Arabic ones, where syurga becomes jannah and aidilfitri is spelled as eid ul-fitr though both are not in their original script (the Malay language was once only written in the Jawi script, which has caused some loss in pronunciation through Romanization). Bersanding, or the sitting together of the bride and the bridegroom on the bridal dais, is an integral part of Malay wedding customs yet has been recently criticised as being un-Islamic.2 The notion of being good Muslims is often said to be more important than preservations of culture that does not fall in line with Islam.
According to Dina Zaman of IMAN Research, young Malay Muslims feel like being Malay brings with it the connotation of being bad, lazy and corrupt, reinforced by being told all their life that they were hated for being Malay.3 No matter what they do, to them it will never be good enough to dispel this negative view of their race. Moreover, a perceived slim future in the country due to unemployment makes them feel disempowered. Islam, on the other hand, is seen as an ideal, where corruption and political malaise may be overcome if Malays acted and believed in Islamic principles. This being said, revolutionary zeal a la ISIS is largely absent with violence being abhorred, though even then, the feeling of a need to support their religious brethren is still present. The need to own a positive identity, one that is hopeful and promises a better future, makes Islam so desirable. So, while for most other peoples a religious identity is a part of their life, for Malay-Muslims, it seems it can’t be apart from their lives. And then we have the political motivations, nationalist academics and prevalent civil societies that power this notion of the interchangeability of Malay and Muslim, which we will leave for now.
Moving on to the Malay-Muslim view on their place in Malaysia, one is inclined to think it is seen as a country owned by them with people of other races and faiths being thought of as pendatang, or foreigners. This is an overgeneralisation and like all overgeneralisations, probably untrue. Fa Abdul once wrote on how her Muslim parents, who were once very sensitive in the protection of their religious sensibilities, going so far as even scoffing at having to see pork being sold, softened their stance as they lived in a Chinese village where day-to-day interactions with their neighbours showed understanding of their sensitivities and real, sincere effort to make sure everyone lived amicably.4 This kind of organic, real integration is possible and the played-up notion of Bumiputra-hood is less about belief in ownership than a fear of losing one’s way of life. This is hijacked by certain groups with a lot of influence over society either for their own personal agendas or because they still believe in outdated social constructs (where Liberasi comes in). Calling a spade what it is, 60 years of Bumiputra rights at the forefront of social and political conversations is bound to rub off on a country’s socioeconomic fabric. Now, the environment is such that relatively small issues can be taken advantage of to paint a skewed narrative that could shift public perception and, with it, power towards those who want it. In a time where sensationalism is king, this is even more relevant.
Ramiah et al found in their research that diversity, even if superficially created where a variety of people are around each other for extended periods of time, can lead to favourable attitudes between different groups, as can be seen from the anecdotal evidence given by Fa Abdul above.5 However, homogeneity in ethnic neighbours causes a lack of understanding when it comes to people who are different. A Malay man from a rural Malay village who moves to a mixed neighbourhood might find the prevalence of dogs or the minimal usage of mosque loudspeakers strange, inconveniencing even. This new stress on his beliefs might manifest itself as annoyance towards the other groups ‘forcing’ this tolerance upon him. Now let that physical separation be a conceptual one, with identity politics or even a need to adhere more strongly with religion due to the aforementioned seeking of identity, one that has remained strong for decades, the existence of a disconnect is practically a given. Every day Malay-Muslims might not have a need for laws and general codes of conduct to protect or suit their own personal beliefs, but if the false dilemma placed is either support these laws or be subjected to a loss of identity and be opened to ridicule against their faith and culture, it is clear to see why they would support them. The Malay-Muslim, as a conjecture of mine, is more likely a victim of circumstance than a backwater racist, so should be understood and not arbitrarily placed judgement upon.
Now that we have established what the Malay-Muslim sees himself as and what he sees as his place in Malaysia, let us explore what this means for the LGBTQ community. It is often said that this group is a construct created by the West. One look at the Bugis gender system, with 5 different genders, and prevalence in classical Malay text, such as the Serat Centhini, makes this a weak statement.6 7 What is verifiably true is that the advent of the internet has sped the spread of the idea of open acceptance of the LGBTQ community within Malaysia through a Western perspective. Unsurprisingly, this inorganic growth is difficult to accept by those unfamiliar to it, especially with it being so diametrically opposing one’s religion. It is natural to reject what one finds alien, but it is not true that it should be. In the case of homosexuality, many Malay men are obviously known to be gay, just not explicitly so. They find themselves in a society that accepts them begrudgingly, only asking for a portrayal of heteronormative behaviour when needed, like in traditional kampongs. In urban areas, especially parts of KL, particularly amongst colleagues and friends, behaving as a homosexual is largely tolerated. In contemporary art, there are depictions of effeminate characters, such as Salleh in Upin & Ipin, who are seen as contributing members of society and are well-liked, which seems to be an accurate depiction of the Malay society at large.
This is not denying the obvious discrimination that exists hand-in-hand with this acceptance, though. Even if the individual is liked, it is often seen that they are portrayed as comic relief, a problem not unique to the Malay society alone but can be seen everywhere. Moreover, the acceptance itself is a of a lower form, akin to the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, where gayness is turned a blind eye to so long as it is implicit. We can see similarities with this in Karan Johar’s case, who has alluded to his sexuality as being obvious and that openly identifying it would just lead to prosecution.8 Polls upon polls have shown that Malay-Muslims do not find homosexuality acceptable as well, largely due to Islamic concepts like fitrah and find homosexuality caused by a lack of iman. Couple this with the fear of losing one’s identity and place in the world (ie their home country), it is not difficult to see why the plight of the LGBTQ community is not understood, belittled and ultimately rejected. It is less of a matter of individual bias compared to the hegemony of focused fear-mongering either on racial advantages grounds or religious piety, both having to do with identity. Summing up, the Malay-Muslim is likely uncomfortable with losing himself in the goings on of concepts quite alien to him, especially when presented in a liberal Western way which is seen as immoral.
In the end, the Malay-Muslim is a nuanced individual who is pulled by different facets of life and to whom the concept of finding a worthwhile identity is just as difficult as it is for non-Muslims. In a way, it is clear to see that we are not so different after all. To racial minorities, living in a nation essentially glorifying what they are not marginalises them to such an extent that their place in their home is muddled. To the Malay-Muslim, the very act of glorification by institutions instils a fear of losing out if these are gone, which then opens a vicious cycle where more glorification is demanded. In a substantial fear of being forgotten, all Malaysians find themselves in the same coin but on two opposite sides. This is not to say intelligent discussions and progressivity is forever lacking amongst Malay-Muslims. I myself was surrounded by a group of fiercely intelligent Malays in the student organisation, the Independent School of Thinkers. The open discussions we had were of a high quality where I was left stumped at the depth of philosophical thought, where my resistance to Bumiputra rights and Islamic laws were not only tolerated but discussed openly without vilification. This very article could not have even been started without the monumental help from my co-author who essentially gave me the bulk of my research material and arguments.
The reality is this, when it comes to the LGBTQ community in Malaysia, it is about resolving their legitimate claim to civil rights with the worldview of Malay-Muslims. This is a task that is extremely tough due to the implications it has on what it means to be a Malay-Muslim when such a heresy is allowed to be committed. However, one does not think it is impossible, especially when looking at past allowances and contemporary tolerance, though of a lower grade. The openness of Malay-Muslims is comparable to other ethnoreligious groups with diversity necessary for favourable attitudes towards them. There is real need for social and institutional change, but one would worsen the other due to their intertwined nature. Society looks towards institutions to guide them and to legitimise certain views and institutions are dependent on society for relevance and power.
The only people who can make this connection are Malay-Muslims themselves. It is important to make them feel like their voice matters by actually listening to them keeping the overtly racist and discriminatory away from our cognition of Malay-Muslims. It is important that in dialogue with those who do not understand, we try to see things from their perspective and talk as equals, rather than prescribing acceptance as a cure-all. In the end, one must be adamant with their stance of progressivity and open in actualising it through dialogue. But we know all of this already. The plea to Malay-Muslims is this. Consider what is important. Malaysia, I am reliably of the belief, is accepted to be a home to the diverse in the eye of the Malay-Muslim. Many, many practices which are un-Islamic are practised here in peace alongside Muslims. One more would not make such a difference. However, politicisation and paranoia, it seems, form the bedrock of resistance against sexual minorities. The journey to sexual freedom, it seems, must include the self actualisation of the Malay-Muslims in resolving their identity. In future works, this will be discussed in depth. For now though, the rainbow flag requires a Malay-Muslim foundation. Would those reading this, then, be open enough to consider it?
Links to Consider
The Campaign for Equality and Human Rights Initiative, one of the first LGBTQ civil society organizations in Malaysia that advocates for LGBTQ rights in Malaysia through outreach and bringing awareness to the general public as well as mobilizing grassroots action among its community.
This video by the spoken-word poet Dhinesha Karthigesu which provides some much-needed personal feelings of what it’s like to live as a member of the LGBTQ community. Also good for the non-Malays we didn’t cover in this article.
This interview with a gay Muslim in Malaysia which shows what day-to-day life is like for this group.
My co-author’s website here.
- Malaysia. Federal Constitution. Fed. Const. 1–418 (2006).
- Utusan Online. Hukum bersanding. Utusan Online 1 (2009). Available at: http://ww1.utusan.com.my/utusan/info.asp?y=2009&dt=0911&pub=Utusan_Malaysia&sec=Bicara_Agama&pg=ba_02.htm. (Accessed: 11th March 2018)
- Zaman, D. When being Malay is no longer good enough | The Malaysian Insight. The Malaysian Insight 1 (2017). Available at: https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/3534/. (Accessed: 11th March 2018)
- Abdul, F. Much ado about dogs, pigs and Muslims | The Malaysian Insight. The Malaysian Insight 1 (2018). Available at: https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/37888/. (Accessed: 11th March 2018)
- Ramiah, A. Al, Hewstone, M. & Wölfer, R. Attitudes and Ethnoreligious Integration: Meeting the Challenge and Maximizing the Promise of Multicultural Malaysia. (2017).
- Graham, S. It’s like one of those puzzles: Conceptualising gender among Bugis. Journal of Gender Studies 13, 107–116 (2004).
- Nugroho, J. The Hidden Histories of Homosexuality in Asia – Fair Observer. Fair Observer 1 (2016). Available at: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/asia_pacific/hidden-histories-homosexuality-asia-77120/. (Accessed: 11th March 2018)
- TNN. Karan Johar opens up about his sexual orientation for the first time | Hindi Movie News – Times of India. Times of India 1 (2017). Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/out-of-the-closet-karan-johar-gets-candid/articleshow/56398417.cms. (Accessed: 11th March 2018)