By Evelyn Dent, January 22, 2013.
Late last year, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. stating that the country should put an end to discriminatory and human-rights-violating government policies that criminalize members of the LGBT community. Under Malaysian law, it is still illegal to engage in homosexual relations with a consenting adult and Malaysian policies, law and practices violate the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Razak has made a number of divisive statements aimed at stirring up hatred against the nation’s gay population and ensuring that they remain within the margins of society. In two speeches given earlier this year, he described the LGBT culture as being ‘deviant’ and said that it would have no place in Malaysia whilst he was in charge of the country. The first of these speeches was given in June at the launch of a book of his speeches and the other was given in July to over ten thousand mosque attendees and imams. His words were clearly aimed at impressing hard-line Muslims within the country and increasing his standing within the Islamic community.
Homophobia in Malaysia
Malaysia has a long history of discrimination against gay people. In 1994, the country banned gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from appearing in the state-controlled media and in 2001 former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad proclaimed that the nation would deport any visiting diplomats or foreign cabinet ministers who were gay. In 2010, the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia stated that it would only permit portrayals of gay characters if they repented of their lifestyles or died during the movies. Recent government actions and policies against the LGBT community include the shutdown of the November 2011 Sexual Diversity Festival, the creation of a program aimed at ‘converting’ gay people to a heterosexual lifestyle and a public recommendation by the deputy education minister that parents should be taught how to recognise the ‘symptoms’ of homosexuality in order to stem the increase of what was described as an ‘unhealthy phenomenon among students’. There have also been reports of schoolboys who were identified as being ‘effeminate’ being sent to special ‘masculine behaviour’ camps.
Human Rights Watch is an organisation with a track record of championing LGBT causes. One of its objectives is to ensure that gay people can travel all over the world without fear of experiencing discrimination. As well as campaigning for women’s rights and speaking out against oppressive regimes, the organisation has also drawn attention to countries that enforce homophobic policies and made it clear in its letter that Malaysia should replace laws banning homosexual activity with a gender-neutral rape law governing sexual behaviour. Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Phil Robertson states that by calling for the Malaysian public to display prejudice towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people, Razak is contradicting his claims that he is promoting diversity within the country. Robertson says that Razak’s actions are at direct odds with Malaysia’s attempts to portray itself as a ‘global moderate’ leader.
Obliged to Put an End to Homophobia
Human Rights Watch points out that Malaysia is a member of the United Nations, which means that it has an obligation to uphold the principles laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration includes the statement that, ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind.’ A United Nations report issued by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in November 2011 specifically addressed discrimination and violence against the GLBT Community, calling it for it to stop. It can therefore be said that Malaysia is in violation of the declaration with its stance on homosexuality.
However Razak prefers to use homophobic policies as a means of pandering to both the prejudiced element within Malaysian society and conservative groups within the ruling coalition. Human Rights watch states that the fact that the prime minister is encouraging anti-GLBT discrimination in order to gain popularity means that Malaysia’s claims that it is committed to upholding human rights are fraudulent. It appears that the country’s government is only concerned with the rights of those who identify themselves as heterosexual, which means that Malaysian society cannot said to be truly dedicated to maintaining the well being of its entire population.