Report: Laws, govt-run therapy programs suppress LGBT rights in Malaysia

Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah
Kuala Lumpur
Report: Laws, govt-run therapy programs suppress LGBT rights in Malaysia Wanie Mohtar (center), a Malaysian, wins the national costume segment of the Miss International Queen 2020 transgender beauty pageant in Pattaya, Thailand, March 7, 2020.
Mladen Antonov/AFP

Updated at 12:48 p.m. ET on 2022-08-10

Malaysia has been suppressing the basic rights of LGBT people through using its criminal code and government-funded gay therapy programs, according to a new report published by an international human rights monitoring group and a local NGO.

In their report co-published on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters, a local transgender-rights group, urge the government to decriminalize same-sex conduct and gender diversity, and put an end to programs and rhetoric suggesting that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should be “rehabilitated” or “cured.”

Their 101-page report is based on interviews the groups did with 73 Malaysian LGBT people between 2018 and 2021. Its title is “‘I Don’t Want to Change Myself’: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia.” 

“Malaysia’s current rehabilitation and criminalization approaches to LGBT people are based on neither rights nor evidence,” said Thilaga Sulathireh, co-founder of Justice for Sisters.

“The Ministry of Religious Affairs disguises violence and oppression against LGBT people as compassion, while in reality their policies and actions only foment self-hatred among sexual and gender minorities and hostility among the rest of the population.”

In the summary of their report, the two groups said Malaysia “is one of only a handful of countries that explicitly makes gender nonconformity a criminal offense. Malaysia also criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct at both the federal and state levels.”

Malaysian officials frequently insist that laws do not aim to punish LGBT people but to lead them to “the right path,” the report alleges.

Still, “under Malaysia’s federal system, the federal penal code governs the entire country and covers most criminal acts. The federal penal code also criminalizes consensual same-sex relations, imposing a sentence of 20 years in prison and mandatory whipping,” the report said.

“In addition to institutionalized discrimination and human rights violations that amount to torture, LGBT people also face discrimination and violence from members of the public. Perpetrators are rarely held accountable.”

Besides prison, the government, specifically the Islamic Affairs Department (JAKIM) and state Islamic departments, have organized retreats, known as mukhayyam to bring LGBT people, often transgender women, closer to Islam, the religion practiced by most members of Malaysia’s ethnic Malay majority.  

“More insidious is the underlying purpose of mukhayyam: Using state resources to advance a vision of ‘nature’ that is incompatible with sexual and gender diversity, manipulating LGBT people into believing they are deviant,” the report said.

“JAKIM practices double-speak with regard to mukhayyam, at times reassuring participants that it has no intention to change them, and at the same time publicly claiming success in its mission to ‘convert’ LGBT people.”

The government said that as of June 2021, at least 1,733 LGBT people had attended these programs, according to the report.

It said the government had “long sought” to halt pro-LGBT cultural and other expressions, including censoring gay scenes from “Rocketman,” the feature biographic film about the popstar Elton John, and canceling a planned concert by a lesbian singer from Hong Kong. The government also banned the book “Gay is OK! A Christian perspective.”

On Wednesday, Zahidi Zainul Abidin, Malaysia’s deputy minister of Communications and Multimedia, said the government and the religious department were committed to curtailing the spread of LGBT culture in the country, as he cast blame on outside media sources.

“I am frustrated because the outside world was the one promoting LGBT. We cannot control overseas platforms that are easily reached online – but activities in the country, we have no issues. We have always been stern and committed,” he said, responding to a question in Parliament.

Officials with the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia and the Prime Minister's Department for Religious Affairs did not immediately respond later on Wednesday to BenarNews requests for comment about the report.

‘We are regressing’

LGBT people told interviewers from HRW and Justice for Sisters that the climate in Malaysia was becoming increasingly hostile.

“We are regressing, in many aspects, as conservative strand of Islam becomes dominant in shaping the politics and policies that dictate the lives of the country’s citizens including LGBT persons,” said an activist in Kuala Lumpur identified as Mitch.

Nadia, a trans woman who lives in Sungai Petani, relatives and friends had been pressuring her to change because of social media postings and other media.

“These Facebook postings and news have also led former schoolmates to say, ‘Oh, you should change, or return to how you were in school, and change slowly, bit by bit.’ But they don’t understand,” she said.

Nadia said she was not allowed to be herself while in school, adding her hair was short and she had to wear a uniform.

“If I had the opportunity, I would have transitioned in school,” she said.

Nadia said media reports have confused people.

“And then it also increases transphobia, and parents end up putting pressure on people to change, because they themselves are getting confused. I felt pressure from my parents to change, especially when they see [ex-trans] people in the media.”

The report included information about Bern Chua, an academic who conducted research among Malay Muslim men.

“Basically, they told me when they were young, when they attend any religious classes, one of the lessons will cover sodomy, the story of the prophet Lot. So that becomes part of the early socialization of homosexuality being obscene. And it’s being reinforced by the mainstream government discourses,” Bern said.

A section of the report presented details about Nur Sajat, a transgender woman and cosmetics entrepreneur who in 2021 failed to appear in court in the Malaysian state of Selangor to answer criminal charges for “insulting Islam” based on her attire.

The state’s religious department issued a warrant for her arrest and announced that it had mobilized 122 religious affairs officers to hunt her down. Nur resurfaced in neighboring Thailand where she was arrested at the request of Kuala Lumpur, according to the report.

“The Malaysian government requested her extradition but claimed it wanted to ‘reform’ rather than punish her,” it said. “Idris bin Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s Office minister in charge of religious affairs, told reporters: ‘If [she] has admitted wrong … if [she] wants to return to [her] true nature, there is no problem. We do not want to punish [her], we just want to educate.’”

Following a public outcry, Thailand allowed Nur to stay in the country under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She eventually settled in Australia.

Nur’s case illustrates the extent to which Malaysian authorities are willing to go to enforce the rigid and discriminatory gender norms, HRW and Justice for Sisters said.

The groups presented a series of recommendations for the prime minister, lawmakers, the attorney general, JAKIM, and health and education ministries.

Those recommendations include taking steps to prohibit any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, allowing transgender people to change their identity documents and addressing bullying against LGBT students and other vulnerable groups in schools.

“The Malaysian government should immediately stop sponsoring, funding, and otherwise supporting conversion practices and should, in consultation with LGBT community groups, educate public officials, including police, judges, and government staff, on gender, diversity, and human rights,” the report said.

“The logic of prevention, rehabilitation, and punishment of LGBT people should be replaced by a government commitment to acceptance, inclusion, and non-discrimination.”


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