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Examining Anwar’s inconsistency

ON 18 July 2012, Opposition Leader and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim told the High Court that the law should discriminate against homosexuality. The irony, of course, is that Anwar is possibly the world’s first deputy prime minister-turned-opposition leader to have been twice charged and twice acquitted of homosexual sodomy. Perhaps this explains the caveat in Anwar’s testimony – “We Muslims should support the sanctity of marriage and we should not punish innocent people,” he said, when cross-examined.

In other words, confirmed homosexuals can be hunted and penalised, but innocent, heterosexually married people like Anwar should be spared by anti-homosexual crackdowns.

(Silhouettes source:

(Silhouettes source:

Anwar’s testimony was connected to comments he made to the BBC after being acquitted of the second round of sodomy charges in January. In greeting this good news, Anwar said Malaysia’s “archaic laws” should be reviewed – clearly in reference to anti-sodomy provisions in the Penal Code. Nevertheless, in the same interview, Anwar again maintained that homosexuality cannot be condoned and heterosexual marriage must be protected.

What is the big deal about Anwar’s stand on homosexuality? Sure, he speaks out against racism, detention without trial and corruption, but is he inconsistent for insisting that homosexuality remain criminalised? Does it matter that Anwar’s stand on homosexuality is no different from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s? After all, Najib heads the Barisan Nasional (BN), whom Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR) blames for violating a wide range of democratic principles.

“Homosexuality” and authoritarianism

The fact is, “homosexuality” has become a potent weapon in Malaysian politics ever since former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad sacked Anwar for sodomy and corruption in 1998. The latest example of this is the homophobic baiting of Bersih 2.0 chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan by various state and non-state actors. Ambiga herself is not homosexual, but she came in the line of homophobic fire for agreeing to launch the subsequently banned Seksualiti Merdeka festival in November 2011.

From this perspective, “homosexuality” is a way for the authoritarian Malaysian government and its supporters to stifle dissent – and a very powerful one.

(File pic courtesy of Grace Chin)

Of course, the label itself is only politically potent because it can rely on considerable social hostility towards sexual minorities in Malaysia. One only needs to think of the violent threats against Azwan Ismail when he came out as gay in late 2010, or the numerous violent attacks against transsexual women over the years. Some might say this is a chicken-and-egg question – did social homophobia enable political homophobia to emerge, or was it the other way around?

This question, however, assumes that we can divide the “political” and the “social” cleanly. The truth is that society is made up of interacting institutions and networks. In all likelihood, social prejudices inform government policies, while government policies often entrench social prejudices.

In this sense, Anwar’s position on homosexuality, as a Muslim and Malay Malaysian, is understandable – he is, after all, a product of his own society. Even PKR does not have a stand on anti-sodomy laws, despite the party’s own adviser being targeted by these laws. Najib’s and even PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat’s hostility towards sexual minorities is understandable, too.

But is it inevitable?

Perhaps one way to examine this apparent consistency between the likes of Anwar, Najib and Nik Aziz is to compare it with the apparent consistency of “gay rights” in the West.

“Homonationalism” and global politics

In October 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to cut aid to countries that still criminalise same-sex intimacy. In December 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to promote gay rights globally. Numerous Western lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups lauded these announcements. Finally, world leaders were rectifying the wrongs perpetrated against a minority that had been vilified for too long.

If only these demands were truly consistent. After all, Cameron is the same prime minister who is worried about British Muslims, specifically young Muslim men, and their supposed connection to extremism. And almost immediately after Clinton’s rousing gay rights speech, President Barack Obama decided that detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay would continue indefinitely.

Jasbir Puar (Wiki commons)

Jasbir Puar (Wiki commons)

Again, these pronouncements did not occur in a vacuum. Academic researchers have noted how “gay rights” rhetoric is increasingly used to feed anti-Muslim sentiments in Western Europe and North America. Queer theorist Jasbir Puar calls this phenomenon “homonationalism” – the Western state’s ability to recruit support from its LGBT citizens for its nationalist projects. She has also noted the right-wing turn in some Western LGBT movements.

This phenomenon becomes particularly dangerous when Western governments use these strategies to control other parts of the world, specifically former colonies. As a parallel example, former US President George W Bush claimed that his 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was meant to save poor, burqa-clad Muslim women from the Taliban. The irony is that Bush was certainly not elected for his feminist credentials. Indeed, some have instead called this syndrome “white men saving brown women from brown men”.


Certainly these actions by Western powers are alarming. After all, the US can bomb countries it accuses of not respecting women’s rights – there’s a precedent now. What’s to stop it from bombing a country that criminalises homosexuality?

It is even more unfortunate that these shenanigans play into the hands of repressive postcolonial governments, with their “LGBTs, etc., are Western threats” rhetoric. They use the threat of Western domination to justify their own human rights abuses. But does it mean there is no room for challenging anti-homosexual laws in countries like Malaysia? Does it mean that Western governments must stop protecting LGBT human rights?

The answer to both questions is no. However, we must examine the consistency of any struggle claiming to combat discrimination. The truth is, it is possible to campaign against multiple discriminations, including Islamophobia and homophobia, and there are groups already doing this.

Take the Nothing Holy About Hatred campaign, an interfaith effort to combat homophobia in the UK, which includes British Muslim representatives. Or United Against Fascism, dedicated to combating Islamophobia and homophobia in Britain. And lest we think homophobia is a uniquely “Muslim” problem, a 2011 poll found that British Muslims were actually highly supportive of the UK’s advances in LGBT rights.

Certainly it is easier to voice this consistency in countries like the UK, where there are functioning albeit flawed democratic institutions protecting civil liberties. The authoritarian BN government in Malaysia, on the other hand, stifles dissent on a variety of issues, not just homosexuality. But this is perhaps what makes Anwar’s stand even more disappointing. Since 1998, he has had numerous opportunities to develop a credible vision for a democratic Malaysia in which we can respect difference, no matter how distasteful some might find this. Instead, he continues offering an alternative that is not different from the BN’s – on this score, at least.

Still, the future of Malaysian democracy is not in Anwar’s hands alone. It never was. The rakyat can and do speak up, and are getting less afraid to include sexuality in their discussions to make Malaysia more democratic and inclusive.



Shanon Shah is a doctoral candidate in theology and religious studies at King’s College London.

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15 Responses to “Examining Anwar’s inconsistency”

  1. Homosexuality is unlawful in Malaysia. It does not make anyone homophobic to attack it. No more than it is to attack a rapist for being a rapist. There are those with such a predisposition that make them dangerous. Homosexuality as an offence in the Malay Muslim context has its origins in the Judaeo Christian (of which Islam is an integral part) laws and theologies.

    What you fail to also mention in context (if you are not Malay bashing again) is that Catholicism, Judaism and all known forms of Christianity except for those nascent movements within breakaway Christian sects criminalize homosexuality. Leave the English alone as they have celebrated the practice for centuries even when it was unlawful. But that’s the English for you. When the American Indians said “White man speak with fork tongue” they clearly had experienced the same dishonesty and double standards all of us who fought to dislodge the Anglo Saxon domination of our communities had experienced.

    Anwar does not have to make public statements about his support or non support of homosexuals. Homosexuality does not pay your bills, prop up the ringgit against the dollar, build new roads and schools or feed the kids. (The last being most relevant).

    Let Anwar fight the next elections like everyone else on policies. That’s his main disadvantage. He has none.

    • JW Tan says:

      That’s utterly ridiculous.

      Homosexuality is criminalised in Malaysia BECAUSE of homophobia, a phenomenon which has deep historical roots, as you rightly point out. But homophobia is wrong nevertheless, just as slavery is wrong despite also having deep historical roots and religious justification. Western countries, to their credit, now recognise this and try to do better. It is not hypocrisy on their part.

      Understand this – it does not matter at all what Western countries do or do not do. To us Malaysians, all that matters is whether or not we recognise that homophobia is a very ugly part of our culture, and whether or not we stamp it out. To judge by your response, and other commenters on this topic, we’d much rather hide behind the smokescreen that other countries criminalise (or criminalised) it, so we have safety in numbers. That’s cowardice, pure and simple.

      I for one would like to know Anwar’s views on homosexuality. Is a Malaysia led by Anwar going to be a safer, more pleasant place for homosexual Malaysians? On evidence so far, probably not.

      • And rape is criminalised because there are those in the legislature who do not like sex or are simply asexual? Or paedophilia is criminalised because the clergy in the various religions do not like sharing the privilege with lay persons?

        • JW Tan says:

          Nice bait and switch. But let’s stay on topic here – I assert that homosexuality is criminalised in Malaysia because of homophobia. Instead of drawing irrelevant analogies, do you have any arguments that refute that?

          • AP says:

            Gopal Raj Kumar, your argument that connects rape and homosexuality legislature is flawed because you have obviously failed to make a few KEY distinctions between two different issues.

            Rape is defined as unlawful sexual intercourse with another person against his/her will. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation; being attracted to or engaging in consensual sexual intercourse with another person of the same gender should NOT be a crime. It is criminalised in many countries (including ours) because of homophobia.

            Our lawmakers criminalise it because homosexuality apparently “goes against” Malaysian culture and values (values which were so arbitrarily defined FOR US), and they are so afraid that LGBTs will “influence” us straight people until we ultimately become a nation of sinners. So there are many more issues in this country that need to be tackled — yet what is the point of sorting them by relative importance? This is just one form of discrimination and ignorance that needs to end immediately. We can only move forward when we realise the importance of becoming an accepting and open-minded society, a society that welcomes people for who they are and who they would like to be.

    • Marc says:

      “Homosexuality does not pay your bills, prop up the ringgit…”. Do you really think the Pink Dollar isn’t strong? And how offensive is it to say that “Homosexuality does not feed the kids” or “build schools”. Homosexuals are just as much a part of life here in Malaysia (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) and contribute just as much as everyone else. LGBTs are feeding children, building roads, helping the economy, paying bills, paying taxes and are in lots of top positions in the community.

      And for the matter of “criminalising” homosexuality – it’s archaic and not necessary in this day and age. Church and State are supposed to have separation and if the State is supposed to represent the people, then it should represent all people. My being homosexual does not affect others, so why should other people’s religious beliefs affect my rights and my safety?

      I do agree with you, however, on the fact that Anwar has no policies (not that any of the politicians here have any).

      • Just as it happens with heterosexuals if you do not keep your sexuality in your trousers where it belongs or in the bedrooms of consenting adults, it will become more than a matter of interest to others who are not homosexuals. The fact you are one is not a problem for others to suffer. Heterosexuality too has its legal limits. Who says it is a free for all or legal? It has conditions as homosexuals who want ‘recognition’ will be subjected to. All of that is part of the human behaviour in sex. Keep it private amongst consenting adults and within legal boundaries and it will not need the condescension or patronage of the law.

        Statutory rape is widely recognised in more than half the world as lawful. Perhaps you ought o put on your thinking cap and ask how and where and why?

        • JW Tan says:

          The problem with your comment is simple. The law criminalises homosexuality even when kept private and behind closed doors. If the law did not distinguish between homosexuality and heterosexuality in matters of rape, incest, paedophilia etc that would be perfectly fine, and morally appropriate. But it doesn’t.

  2. Lainie says:

    As a queer voter, while there are certain individuals I would consider giving my vote to — the bulk of politicians are doing a shoddy job of understanding/upholding human rights.

    • zamorin says:

      As a straight voter, I entirely agree with you. Trust me, it will change, just like how women rights, minority rights changed. No unjust regime can continue in this manner. It’s just sad that your group is often the most overlooked because this world is ruled by the straights and ironically you have women folk and minorities that oppose your rights. How ironic.

  3. zamorin says:

    A person who is a doctoral candidate in theology and religious wouldn’t know that Judeo-Christian religions prohibit homosexuality? Really?

    Where does he state anywhere in the article that this only applies to Islam?

    You are engaging in the classic act of ‘bait and switch’ by bringing on irrelevant points about native Americans, the white man’s forked tongue etc and attacking the author for not pointing that out. Meaningless.

    • And the point you make is?

      • JW Tan says:

        That your middle paragraph is irrelevant, and does not add much to any understanding of Anwar’s stand (or lack of stand) on homosexuality.

        • Irrelevant in what way? To you perhaps. The point being lost to you does not make the subject irrelevant. The point I make which you crib about is a response to WC Huat’s reference to the English and their attitudes and practice of homosexuality.

  4. zamorin says:

    My point is that your comment is meaningless. It is not to query, explain, inform or educate. It has no positives. In other words…meaningless. I thought i was clear enough.

    In doing so, I hope to educate new readers of this site to frauds.

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