Whose phobia?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 April, 2011, 12:00am


After Malaysia's anti-gay camp for schoolboys made global headlines last week, it seems only natural to typify its average citizen as homophobic. Except nothing can be further from the truth. If homophobia is indeed prevalent in Malaysia, the general public has little to do with it. To begin with, the camp that was set up to change the effeminate behaviour of 66 boys was not the result of any groundswell movement; rather, it was an initiative by politicians in the northern state of Terengganu, which is administered by the National Front ruling coalition.

There are even signs that social attitudes towards homosexuality in this largely conservative country are changing. Take, for instance, the blockbuster success of the nation's first openly gay film, Dalam Botol, or In a Bottle.

The movie made more than a million Malaysian ringgit (HK$2.6 million) at the box office, surpassing its initial investment. This is a significant achievement, considering sodomy is a crime in Malaysia that carries a jail sentence of up to 20 years.

Sceptics may argue that the appeal of the movie, which tells of a Muslim man who undergoes a sex-change operation for his boyfriend, hinges on the film's lesson that being gay brings misery.

But the conservative message surely attracts only a minority. In 2009, a public debate that transpired after the death of filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad would suggest that most Malaysians are not homophobic.

The debate was sparked by an article in the Malay-language Kosmo magazine alleging that Yasmin was a transsexual. Notable public figures including journalists and bloggers sharply criticised the piece, and argued that the award-winning director's reputation should not be smeared by wild speculations of her sexuality.

Bowing to public pressure following the outcry, Kosmo issued an apology for the piece. That the public did not care for such sensationalisation would suggest that Malaysians are easing up on their attitude towards same-sex relationships.

In fact, this more liberal view of gay love can be detected even among Malaysia's political elites. Even though the schoolboy camp was sanctioned by the state government, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the minister for women's and children's affairs, said the camp contravened the country's Child Act, a legislation that protects children without prejudice.

Noticeably, though, hers is the only dissenting voice from the National Front, which nevertheless promotes national unity based on inclusive ideals.

Why, then, had Shahrizat's colleagues not join her in condemning the camp? Most analysts will argue that political leaders are simply reflecting public views, given that Malaysia is a Muslim-majority nation, and homosexuality is an act that is shunned in Islam. But are anti-gay sentiments widely held by the people?

If homophobia is at all predominant in Malaysia, this is being nurtured by the nation's ruling political elites. They have a good reason to do so. That reason is Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition politician whom the National Front is putting on trial for the second time on charges of sodomy. A former deputy prime minister, Anwar was convicted in 1999 of corruption and sodomy in what many believed to be a politically charged accusation. His sodomy charge was later overturned. He was jailed for five years.

Following his release, Anwar played an instrumental role in unifying Malaysia's opposition parties. His efforts bore fruit at the 2008 general election, which saw the opposition deny the National Front its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since 1969.

Seen in this light, the touting of anti-gay sentiments is a crucial strategy for the ruling coalition aimed at deriding Anwar's public reputation before the next general election. Homophobia, some may say, is a Malaysian political allegory for Anwar-phobia.

Nazry Bahrawi is a socio-cultural critic pursuing doctoral research at the University of Warwick