Malaysia’s recent historic election has propelled Anwar Ibrahim – the long-standing political leader who has twice been jailed on sodomy charges – into the political limelight.
Anwar was freed a week after Malaysian voters elected former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, ousting the country’s ruling coalition that had been in power for 61 years. The political veteran now finds himself in the extraordinary position of waiting to take over the prime ministership, which Mahathir has promised will be handed over to him at an unspecified date.
But given the former opposition leader’s persecution and his comments that “we should not unduly harass or discriminate against others”, is the Muslim-majority country likely to change its stance on homosexuality?
Anwar’s political career was first derailed when, as deputy prime minister in 1998, he was charged with corruption and sodomy.
In Malaysia, sodomy is listed among other “unnatural [sexual] offences” in Section 377 of the penal code. This is a statute that can be found in the penal codes of other post-colonial nations in the region and has been retained in some form in 36 post-colonial nations altogether.
In 1999, he was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to a six-year prison-term. This verdict effectively banned him from holding political office until 2008. Then, in 2000, he was found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to a further nine years in jail, to be served after he had completed his six-year sentence.
Anwar was released in 2004 after the federal court upheld his appeal against the sodomy sentence.
But then, in 2008, after he was credited with galvanising the opposition to its best electoral showing, he was again charged with Section 377 violations. After a lengthy legal battle that marred his tenure as leader of the opposition in parliament, he was sentenced to a five-year prison term in 2015.
A re-examination of Anwar’s persecution
As Malaysia begins to grapple with the machinations of government formation and the transition to Anwar’s leadership, it is likely that there will limited time, opportunity and capacity among policy-makers to fully re-examine his long years of persecution.
Of course, the issue of political suppression is (and should be) the primary consideration in any re-examination of this part of Malaysia’s history, and tackling that will be a significant challenge.
However, the legislative and legal frameworks as well as the social climate – the seemingly irreversible post-colonial commitment to the criminalisation of homosexuality – that enabled Anwar’s persecution to occur will not go away.
Unfortunately, in most of South-East and South Asia, even progressive political movements and (particularly) governments cannot muster the political wherewithal to fight entrenched sexuality and sexual identity-based discrimination.
The formidable power of fundamentalist religious groups and ideology in Malaysia, in parallel with the wider region, is unlikely to diminish soon. As experience has shown, any attempt to fight discrimination against LGBT+ individuals, whether it’s in the form of social and community outreach, legal reform or political reform, will be actively thwarted by fundamentalist religion.
From unwavering state support for the actions of the hard-line religious police to a lack of legal protection for victims of religious persecution, a number of social and political trends demonstrate how the combined power of state and religion acts as a constraint on liberty.
Malaysia has seen mass arrests for religious offences in the 1990s, and vigilante justice mobilisations have continued apace.
Public health efforts to address increasing rates of HIV and STI transmission and to improve access to education on safe sex have also been thwarted by opposition based on religious belief or conservative sentiment.
University-sanctioned events aimed at “gay conversion” – converting gay individuals to heterosexuality – have even been staged by religious student groups.
And, politically, there is a powerful constituency that favours the preservation of the status quo.
The demands of political coalition-building and governance require the pragmatic omission of certain inconvenient problems. A fledgling government cannot afford to lose its momentum by proposing actions that are likely to prove contentious or disadvantageous. Realpolitik places limitations on progress, and that will be the case in Malaysia.
Chances for reform
From the newly-elected Mahathir’s past political support for continued legal discrimination, to a range of cultural prohibitions reflected in the media, there are several facets to Malaysia’s disregard for and violation of the human rights of LGBT+ people.
Many may feel reassured by the liberal mindset of urban elites in Malaysia, but there is still great fear and trepidation when it comes to issues around sexuality and sexual identity.
Some of those elite Malaysians, particularly Muslim Malays (whose lives are governed not only by secular law but also religious law), express reservations about the potential repercussions of coming out, in terms of their safety and wellbeing.
Many who live abroad, including in Australia and New Zealand, still grapple with the social ramifications of homophobia, refusing to talk about their relationships and private lives with family and friends back home. Some feel compelled to maintain dual identities on social media to get around the problem of controlling who knows what about them.
For rural, religious and underprivileged Malaysians, and for trans people, homophobia and persecution can take direct and violent forms.
Nevertheless, there have been important movements and initiatives to improve the lives and wellbeing of LGBT+ people. From community outreach programs to legal and community-based advocacy groups, and from arts festivals to university-based, student-led initiatives, efforts aimed at increasing awareness of and fighting against sexuality-based discrimination have continued to gather momentum.
My research highlights a number of academic, cultural and social activities that have been undertaken by the Asian diaspora to specifically highlight the challenges that LGBT+ individuals from the region face.
While it’s probably too much to hope that Mahathir’s new government will directly address the issue of continued criminalisation of homosexuality, it could offer to publicly support social services and community outreach efforts that aim to support and improve the lives of Malaysia’s LGBT+ people.
Let’s wait and see.
A version of this article also appears on Election Watch.
Banner image: Getty Images