To understand how queerness occupies the space it now does in the Malaysian zeitgeist is important first to understand the role sexuality played as a tool of colonisation. More specifically, we can see it be used as such in Southeast Asia, a region hailed by many anthropologists as a kind of queer paradise given its proclivity towards non-normative gender and sexual norms, at least by Western standards, writes Ash Layo Masing
In the recent 15th general election, as is the case with every other election season the postcolonial state has been through, LGBT Malaysian voters were faced with a dilemma: how do you exercise your responsibility as a citizen to elect a government for your country when none of the major coalitions supports your right to exist as a citizen? Unsurprising to many, the far-right Islamist party PAS had gone on a tirade accusing the centrist liberal coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), of being pro-LGBT and communist in an attempt to win over and dissuade the conservative Malay electorate from giving them their vote [link]. And in response to these accusations, candidates from PH, a coalition that has always positioned themselves as being the voice of the Malaysian people against the backdrop of rising authoritarianism, have decided to deny such claims and double down on queerphobia instead of standing up for the country’s sexual and gender minorities. Mohd Sany Hazman, PH candidate and now MP for Hulu Langat, defended party leader Anwar Ibrahim against accusations that he would “bring LGBT” to Malaysia at a recent rally of his [link]. Similarly, DAP (a constituent party of PH) candidate Lim Guan Eng threatened to sue anyone who claimed he was pro-LGBT, amongst other things, at a press conference [link].
With homophobia being the through line tying all the Malaysian parties together across the spectrum – with the exception of PSM (the Malaysian Socialist Party) – one can’t help but wonder why such a discourse has become an overused rhetoric for winning over votes, at least in the eyes of our politicians. I argue that this political tendency is reflective of orientalist civilisational discourses concerning gender and sexuality in the non-West / postcolony, which position queerness as a purely Western phenomenon incongruent with ‘Asian values’, despite gender and sexual non-conformity being recorded in most if not all societies across the globe. Queerness, in this case, is a powerful scapegoat representing a threat to a fixed idealisation of what it means to be Malaysian. Hence, this and every other election to come before and after is a battle over the definition of ‘Malaysian culture’.
To understand how queerness occupies the space it now does in the Malaysian zeitgeist is important first to understand the role sexuality played as a tool of colonisation. More specifically, we can see it be used as such in Southeast Asia, a region hailed by many anthropologists as a kind of queer paradise given its proclivity towards non-normative gender and sexual norms, at least by Western standards. Colonial visitors often made remarks about the ‘barbarism’ of ‘Asiatic races’ to justify their civilising missions and incursions to the region, oftentimes along the lines of gender and sexuality. Such was the case for places like Thailand, which, at the time, had little to no cultural distinction between men and women in terms of clothing [link]. For this reason, sexuality occupied a prominent space in the colonial imagination: differences, categories, and hierarchies across racial and cultural lines were constructed according to the West’s moralistic standards, characterising indigenous populations as primitive and transgressive; heteronormativity and a strict gender binary were seen as markers of civilisation and modernity. This moral imperative to civilise non-normative arrangements of sex and gender ultimately led to heteronormativity becoming institutionalised through legal reform. For the former colonies of Great Britain, including Malaysia, these effects can be felt in Section 377A of the penal code, designed to target “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” referring mainly to anal and oral sex but is typically targeted at homosexual activity [link].
Ironically, the inverse is now true – whilst sexual discourses still play a role in facilitating imperialism, queerness is now recast as modern and progressive against the perceived sexual regressiveness of non-Western states that still criminalise homosexuality. We can see this in the advancement of rights on behalf of Third World sexual minorities, where the language of civility and sexual modernity is employed to justify the gift of intervention, paralleling the sexual discourses of the colonial era [link] Such a recharacterisation occurs alongside mainstream queer scholarship’s complicity in replicating imperial agendas, given its emergence from those institutions and the calls made by privileged Western gays and lesbians who demand a seat at their national tables [link]; queerness thus became assimilated into the hegemony of Western values. Once again, the non-West / postcolony is fixed as primitive and un-modern as its otherness becomes juxtaposed against the more sexually enlightened liberal democracies of the West.
Yet, this is only one part of the civilisational narrative, as these colonial legacies have fundamentally affected the approaches postcolonial states have taken towards gender and sexual diversity. In his recent book Out of Time, queer postcolonial scholar Rahul Rao refers to queerness as a metonym for whiteness and its associated meanings, such as modernity [link]. The construction of queerness as inherently Western can be seen in recent discourses surrounding Qatar and the World Cup, with conservative Qataris coming onto social media to denounce the outrage concerning the country’s violation of LGBT rights as a colonial infringement upon their culture [link]. And while Western imperial projects have definitely played a role in constructing this symbolic association through the perpetuation of orientalist tropes about non-Western sexual illiberalism, Rao insists that we not ignore the way that postcolonial elites themselves have also perpetuated the Westernisation of queerness within the postcolony.
For example, the discourse of Asian values that permeated so much of Malaysian and Singaporean political rhetoric during the 80s and 90s still rings true today in terms of how queerness is positioned within the country’s imaginary. LGBT rights and issues were treated as a foreign entity that threatened the ‘traditional’ values underpinning Malaysian society, becoming a site through which Malaysian identity was negotiated and contested [link]. A fixed conceptualisation of what it means to be Malaysian was presented, one that is inherently socially conservative, heteronormative, and unopen to change – a conceptualisation that clearly still holds weight in our contemporary political discourses. Whilst we cannot say for sure that queerphobia never existed in Malaysia prior to colonial impact, evidence of non-normative genders and sexualities have been recorded, such as the sida-sida who were effeminate men residing in sultan’s palaces, historically gay villages in now conservative Islamist states, and gender non-conforming Iban shamans in Borneo known as the manang bali [link]. As such, by characterising queerness as a purely Western object that has no place in Malaysian society, our leaders are making contradictory moves that not only ignore our colonial and pre-colonial histories but also play into stereotypes of sexual regressiveness that already plague us in the arena of international politics for the sake of protecting a self-orientalising static idea of Malaysian culture.
This irony is especially poignant given how the criminalisation of homosexuality in Malaysia through section 377A originates in British colonialism. Yet, in his 2013 article Shanon Shah asserts that the issue is not necessarily with the code itself as “a larger political and cultural climate makes it one of many other laws and directives hostile towards diverse expressions of gender and sexuality”, having had a complex relationship with Malaysia’s political and religious arenas, intersecting with state-level shariah laws reinforced by a colonial past [link]; the Malay community would fit the moralistic mould of its prospective political allies [link]. Such a move only seeks to reinforce ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) and its political claim over Islam, as there is no singular set of values governing Malaysian society given its ethnic and religious pluralism [link]. Hence, by rejecting gender and sexual diversity in order to secure the conservative Malay vote, our political representatives are inevitably consolidating an ethnonationalist vision of Malaysia shaped by political Islam and a fixed notion of Malay civilisation.
Therefore, by insisting on LGBT as something foreign and Western threatening Malaysian culture, we are playing into orientalist tropes of sexual regressiveness that have been used to justify our supposed civilisational inferiority in both the past and the present. In their refusal to accept queerness as something that could be and is Malaysian, our leaders are adopting not only a self-orientalising position that fixes Malaysianness as something static and inherently traditional but also a fascist stance that rejects the possibility for cultural pluralism in favour of Malay supremacy’s idealised version of Malaysian culture.
In closing, our political arenas are haunted by the spectres of a colonial history that have fundamentally altered our understanding of sexual and gender diversity in inextricable ways. For this reason, queer Malaysians exist in a state of non-existence as the simple fact of our being is refused recognition by a nation contoured by the anxiety of Western encroachment and a fear of moving beyond the past since that would mean having to accept a future which embraces queerness and other forms of pluralism as part of the national fabric. Only time will tell what direction Malaysia might take in the next five years, especially since our new Prime Minister has fallen victim to the lingering coloniality of section 377A before. But for now, at least we have something uniting our new unity government.
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.