New Malaysia looks a lot like old Malaysia when it comes to transgender rights

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Despite calling for a “human rights record respected by the world”, Mahathir’s government continues to marginalize and repress the Malaysian transgender community.

By Oliver Ward

2018 represented a new dawn for Malaysian politics. The democratic transition of power from United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition sparked jubilation. But for one segment of Malaysian society, the new Malaysia looks strikingly similar to the old.

In the closing weeks of 2018, a 32-year-old transgender woman was beaten to death in Klang by four men aged between 16 and 21. While police maintained that the attack was carried out as part of a mobile phone theft, LGBT+ campaigners denounced the crime for what it was; a hate crime.

More than a year earlier, on February 23, 2017, Sameera Krishnan was walking home in Pahang State when the transgender woman was attacked by three assailants. They severed her fingers, mutilated her scalp, then shot her in the head three times and left her to die. 

The two cases occurred more than a year apart under two different government, illuminating the lack of progress Malaysia is making in addressing hate crimes against the transgender community.

Pakatan Harapan has a new narrative but the same policies

Under Najib and his UMNO government, Malaysia’s trans community faced routine and systematic discrimination. They were subject to arrests and harassment from Malaysian authorities. State-enacted Islamic laws made it illegal for men to dress as women or women to dress as men, gender affirmation surgery was inaccessible and there was no possibility of changing the gender on a citizen’s legal documents.

This climate of hostility towards the Malaysian transgender community extended to the top of the country’s leadership. Prime Minister Najib Razak called gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans citizens enemies of Islam and compared the “spread” of LGBT to the spread of ISIS’ extremist ideology.

While the new PH government has been less outwardly hostile to the LGBT+ community, it is unwilling to revisit policy. Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the minister in charge of Islamic affairs, condemned discriminatory practices against the LGBT+ community and suggested that Islamic authorities should take a more relaxed view on transgender citizens’ attire. However, he later called LGBT+ lifestyle “worrying” and reminded the public that the “lifestyle is still subjected to laws which prohibit it.”

In October, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also made it very clear that Malaysia would not “copy” the West in accepting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. His deputy, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail also told the press that the LGBTQ+ community had a right to exist providing they kept their practices “private”, a sentiment echoed by her husband, Anwar Ibrahim, despite serving two prison sentences for sodomy himself.

Some of the most damaging aspects of UMNO’s anti-transgender agenda have been continued

On the campaign trail, Mahathir promised to make Malaysia’s “human rights record respected by the world,” but some of the most troubling and disturbing aspects of UMNO’s anti-trans policies have survived.

Malaysian Islamic development authorities and universities continue to organise “camps”, “seminars” and “retreats” designed to get participants to “abandon the practice of unnatural sex.”

One participant told Human Rights Watch about his experiences at a Mukhayyam retreat in Kedah state. “To make us change,” he said, “they remind us about death.” Facilitators told transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual participants that they would go to Hell if they did not repent. “It made people start to cry,” the participant said.

Mujahid Yusof Rawa has expressed support for these policies and others that seek to return transgender citizens to the “right path.” These do not foster a human rights record worthy of international respect.

Other Muslim countries are making more progress than Malaysia

Muslim nations elsewhere are experiencing their own watershed moments for transgender rights.

In 2014, a Lebanese Court of Appeals allowed a transgender man to change his legally documented gender. In 2016, the United Arab Emirates legalised gender reassignment surgery in cases where the patient had received a gender dysphoria diagnosis.

Rather than taking steps forward, like other Muslim nations, Malaysia is taking steps back. In the 1970s and 80s, Malaysian society was considerably more tolerable to transgender citizens. They could undergo gender reassignment surgery from public hospitals until 1989 when the National Fatwa Committee issued a fatwa declaring the practice haram. Although not legally binding, university hospitals quickly stopped performing these surgeries.

The Malaysian government needs to find the “right path”

Joe Sidek, the organiser of George Town Festival which was forced to remove a portrait of two transgender and gay rights activists in September, said, “the country’s been brainwashed for 30 years; religion’s been politicised for 30 years. You can’t change it overnight. We have to win this battle slowly.”

Ending an environment of hostility will take time, but there are a number of changes that would set the wheels in motion to drive Malaysia down the right path.

Malaysia does not currently have explicit hate speech and hate crime laws. Enacting legislation that criminalised hate crimes would require the government to publish hate crime statistics and provide a better platform for monitoring hate crimes against the transgender community.  

The media also has a role to play in changing public attitudes

The media also needs to modify its reporting to harbour a more tolerant environment. Following Sameera Krishnan’s murder, the Malaysian press used derogatory language in its coverage of the incident, including words like “tranny”, “cross-dresser”, and “pondan”— a Malay word used to describe an effeminate male.

Creating an environment where hate crimes are not tolerated and transgender citizens enjoy the basic right to public respect and decency is essential for reducing violence towards marginalized populations. Transgender activist Elisha Kor Krishnan told ASEAN Today, “talking about acceptance from the government is still [at a] weak stage.”

As a nation that has twice sat on the UN’s Human Rights Council, Malaysia should hold itself to a higher standard. It is not the transgender community that needs to find the “right path”, it is the Malaysian government and press. Mahathir’s government was supposed to represent a ‘new Malaysia’ for everyone, not just those with binary gender identity. For those outside those narrow gender confines, the new Malaysia is just the old Malaysia rebranded.