Malaysia Turns Towards Democracy—but Leaves LGBT Rights Behind | Opinion

Protesters raise placards during a protest outside a corridor Mosque in Shah Alam near Kuala Lumpur on November 4, 2011. The demonstration was to urge the goverment to give recognition to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

In the early hours of a Saturday morning in late August, Malaysian police stormed into the Blue Boy club in central Kuala Lumpur, one of the country's oldest LGBT venues. As more than a 100 stunned locals and tourists looked on, 20 men were detained and ordered into counselling for "illicit activities". Although police claimed the raid was part of an anti-drug drive in the area, a government minister later posted on Facebook that he hoped it would "mitigate the LGBT culture from spreading into our society".

Apart from being wildly discriminatory and humiliating, what makes this raid even more disappointing is that it came just a few months after Malaysia's historic May election. The Pakatan Harapan coalition ended the 61-year reign of the former authoritarian government, having campaigned on a platform of respect for human rights and an end to corruption.

Since the new administration took office, the wheels of promised reforms are beginning to turn. From Indonesia – where I serve as a Member of Parliament—we have watched with hope and admiration how the new government has committed to ratify a number of international human rights treaties, begun the process of quashing a repressive "anti-fake news" law, and promised to repeal the death penalty.

These are encouraging steps, crucial for rebuilding a new Malaysia that is inclusive, progressive, and free from discrimination. But, for one community – the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) – the fight for equal rights has been met with pushbacks and attacks from both state and non-state actors.

In Malaysia - a majority Muslim country where homosexuality is banned in the penal code and through Shari'a law - the small but active LGBT scene has for decades lived with threats and harassment. The previous government was openly homophobic and organized "camps" and "seminars" it claimed had turned thousands of LGBT people onto the "right path" – that is, heterosexuality.

Hopes were high that this climate would change with a new government, but instead its first few months in office have been marked by a worrying crackdown on the LGBT community.

During the last parliamentary session in September, many MPs openly associated LGBT–related questions with "yellow culture" (ie pornography and vice) and called it an ongoing concern for the nation. Parliamentarians described LGBT as a "lifestyle," "threat," "deviancy," and "cancer to society." Some even made inappropriate jokes about drag queens - a term which was clearly misunderstood by a minister as "women with moustaches."

Other public officials have made similarly intolerant remarks. Even the Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail – wife of the leader of the People's Justice Party Anwar Ibrahim, who has been sentenced to jail on politically motivated sodomy charges twice - recently said that LGBT persons are allowed to "practice whatever," so long as they keep their so-called "lifestyle" away from the public eye.

Such language reinforces harmful stereotypes and prejudices – sadly, it has also been backed up with action.

On 8 August, the Minister of Islamic Affairs ordered the removal of two human rights defenders' portraits from an arts festival, citing a breach in government policy as they promoted LGBT "culture". On 3 September, two women were caned in front of some 100 people after having been found guilty of same-sex relations by the Sharia court in the conservative state of Terengganu.

According to the Malaysian organization Justice for Sisters, which campaigns for transgender rights, hate crimes and violence against the community is on the rise. In August, a trans woman was brutally assaulted by a group of men, but despite being seriously injured, the government offered no official response. There has also been a surge in the use of homophobic and transphobic comments on online platforms, including social media, which until now has been a relatively safe space for the community.

It is equally worrying that the government has decided to continue programs from the previous administration aimed at supposedly helping LGBT Muslims "return to the right path". Such programs run afoul of the most basic principles of self-determination and dignity; they suppress a person's desires and prevent them from being their true self.

Malaysia is part of a shrinking but still substantive global group of 70 states that have imposed bans and repressive measures on LGBT persons through the legal books. If the new Malaysia is genuine about becoming a rights-respecting nation, it needs to change course immediately.

This month, when parliament sits again, the 2019 budget proposal is expected to dominate the discussions. This will be a golden opportunity to end policies and activities that perpetuate harm towards LGBT persons, including programs that aim to rehabilitate and "cure" LGBT "behavior". Steps towards repealing laws that criminalize and discriminate against LGBT persons must also be taken.

Islam is a religion of love that places great value on protecting the most vulnerable members of society from harm and abuse. Malaysia should embrace this spirit and ensure that the law is applied fairly to every citizen. The legal book should not be used to propagate hatred or discrimination against minority groups, including by preventing adults of different or same sex from caring for one another, or criminalizing feminine expressions by transgenders.

This would send a powerful message that the "new Malaysia" is truly inclusive and open to everyone, regardless of background or sexual identity. It would also show set an example to the rest of Southeast Asia – not least to my own country, Indonesia, where hateful rhetoric against the LGBT community is on the rise, and there's even a worrying campaign to criminalize same-sex behavior.

Malaysia has an opportunity to take a giant leap forward when it comes to LGBT rights—it is one that must be seized.

Eva Kusuma Sundari is a Member of Parliament in Indonesia and a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.