As Anwar Ibrahim prepares to fight for his political future all over again, SSO explores Malaysia’s acceptance of their gay and lesbian population.
Kuala Lumpur-raised, Kevin (surname withheld), 33, attributes an overall shift towards a greater acceptance of homosexuality to better economic conditions in Malaysia.
We as a nation have become more affluent. People don’t really care so much now because life has become so fast-paced and business-driven that people aren’t concerned about these -˜trivial’ matters any more, he said.
I disagree when some people say that it’s because Malaysian society is now more open.
Kevin believes that the four gay bars and two saunas currently found in Kuala Lumpur are due to entrepreneurial locals capitalising on a demand for gay venues.
Society has become so materialist that entrepreneurs look at any way to make money. Someone had the foresight to cash in on the pink dollar, he said.
Despite the presence today of a gay infrastructure, homosexuality in the country is illegal. Under British imperial law, Section 377 of the penal code prohibits sodomy. There are also no laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In reality Section 377 is hardly ever executed. A rare exception was one of the most famous cases in Malaysian judicial and political history.
In 1999 Anwar Ibrahim was Malaysia’s deputy prime minister. He was the only Malaysian to ever make Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and was Newsweek‘s 1998 Asian of the Year. At the height of his political power he was a staunch critic of what he perceived as corruption within the government.
In a political move, Anwar himself was charged, found guilty and sentenced to six years’ prison for corruption and nine years’ prison for sodomy. On appeal the sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004 and taking into account good behaviour he was released in September that year.
It was an injustice. The case does reflect badly on gay people, Kevin said. But it was a political move on behalf of Mahathir [the former prime minister], who used this law for his own political gain.
In April this year Anwar was re-elected to the Malaysian Parliament. Kevin believes that Anwar has no intention of attempting to overturn the legislation that convicted him.
It’s not a huge issue for him. He says he wants equal rights for everyone and no-one should be disadvantaged but he can’t be a gay activist, Kevin said.
If he attempts to do that, his supporters will turn away from him. The Malaysian government is dominated by Muslim parties.
Rather than having the opportunity to fight for social justice, Ibrahim is again forced to defend himself amid new accusations of sexual assault by a 23-year-old male aide.
For Kevin, growing up gay in Malaysia was not particularly difficult because he’s not Muslim. There were no societal expectations placed on him.
I had it much easier than my Muslim friends. A few ended up having to get married because that is what society wanted them to do, he said.
Kevin came to Australia in 2004 after spending a couple of years in New Zealand.
I wanted to come to a first-world, liberal, cosmopolitan country that’s close to Malaysia, he said.
The reality has far exceeded my expectations. You can be who you want to be here.