IT was perhaps timely that the controversy surrounding Seksualiti Merdeka followed the earlier euphoria of Bersih 2.0. Both were events which tested the extent to which Malaysians understand and define democracy. Interestingly, some who supported Bersih 2.0 were against the very idea of something like Seksualiti Merdeka. The Nut Graph asks political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat whether this is a contradiction in what we want in a democracy, and how democrats can navigate their opposing ideals.
TNG: Amid all the controversy around Seksualiti Merdeka, Bersih 2.0 chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said she stood by her initial agreement to launch the event. On the other hand, PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat said that while he supports Ambiga’s work on Bersih 2.0, action should be taken against all those involved in Seksualiti Merdeka. Is Ambiga’s support for Seksualiti Merdeka damaging Bersih’s goals?
There are two issues here: first, Bersih 2.0′s goals, and second, the individual beliefs of personalities associated with Bersih 2.0.
Bersih 2.0 was designed to be an advocate of procedural democracy. We just want to see a multiparty democracy functioning, regardless of the substantive policies which may be attained. By extension, this will require free speech, other civil liberties, rule of law, and basic inclusion of all. The point about procedural democracy is that the ultimate goal is open-ended. We therefore don’t take positions on other issues involving class, religion, language, or sexuality. Within the steering committee, we have a good combination of left and right, of liberals and conservatives. Nevertheless, Ambiga’s stand is shared by Maria Chin Abdullah and a couple of others in the Steering Committee including myself.
While a big portion of Bersih supporters would probably prefer a more homogeneous and conservative Malaysia, to say that Ambiga is damaging Bersih 2.0′s work is to effectively tie Bersih 2.0 with a close-ended vision for a reformed Malaysia. It would be the same if
liberal Bersih 2.0 supporters demanded that the coalition as a whole embrace same-sex sexuality rights. Either way would be principally wrong because it would then be about creating a coalition for concrete and specific policy goals. This should be the task of a governing coalition — what political parties aim to be — not an issue-specific advocacy coalition, which is what Bersih 2.0 is.
Now this is the catch. If the common goals were so easily reached, we would merely have a two-party system for a long time. So why is Bersih 2.0 attracting the support of so many Malaysians? Simply because we are open-ended beyond basic democratic ideals. People support us because they want an open and fair process. Those who think that Ambiga has now become a liability to Bersih 2.0 are either naive or co-opted by anti-reform forces.
I am glad and proud that no members of the Steering Committee take such negative views. We respect Ambiga’s and other Bersih supporters’ individual stands on homosexuality. Meanwhile, it’s perfectly alright for someone to support Bersih 2.0 and peacefully and civilly oppose Seksualiti Merdeka. If you call for action taken against Seksualiti Merdeka supporters and organisers, we need to know what actions they are — prayers, memoranda, protests, or imprisonment in rehabilitation camps? That will tell us about not your stand on Bersih, but your stand on democracy and civilised public life in the modern day.
The controversy also seems to be triggering larger anxieties. On one hand, there is disagreement among spokespersons of even Barisan Nasional (BN)-controlled states on what to do next — Malacca and Pahang say they are going to amend laws to further penalise sexual minorities, while Terengganu says it will not. On the other hand, there are more ambiguous concerns, for example from the Kelantan palace about the supposed rise of “anti-establishment elements” in Malaysia. What do you think the state is ultimately concerned about now?
There is no single “state” here, in the sense of a unitary actor. There are institutions within government, and there is one federal government and 13 state governments. The Sarawak state government’s declaration that religion is a private matter is a declaration of secularism, which is connected with that state’s public sentiment. That in fact is the Malaysia that was understood by the leaders of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah in 1963 when the four nations came together to form this federation. Any move to further transform Malaysia towards a theocratic state will strain the federation. We would then eventually have to choose a looser form of federation or disintegration of the union.
Perhaps to the dismay of many, pluralistic lifestyles are part of modernity. That does not mean you have to embrace same-sex unions or gay parade marches. But a country that criminalises individuals for their private lifestyle, even if it affects just a particular community, will shun investors and tourists. Malacca and Pahang will have to think about that. The greatest stake is Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s. Imagine him in the foreseeable future addressing his brainchild, the Global Movement of Moderates, while the Syariah Court in Pahang sends a gay couple to jail. Well, he might still call himself a moderate homophobe in comparison to the Taliban, for instance.
The solution to this is for the government to call for roundtable meetings to sort out a consensus on how sexual majority and minorities may peacefully and compassionately coexist. The conservatives can remain conservative, believe sexual minorities will go to Hell and pray for their repentance. They just can’t appoint themselves as the Divine representative on Earth to put the “deviants” in a living hell. The difficulty is that there are ultras on both sides of the divide who would seize on any talk of reconciliation to attack the other party. So, the moderates in both sides must come together first.
What can the Malaysian public learn from this issue on the whole?
We have to stop living in fear of others who are different from us, whether they profess another faith, speak another language, go to other types of schools, have a different hair style, or love different kinds of people.
I am a straight man and cannot see myself not being one for the foreseeable future. But why should I see gay men as a threat? Well, if gay men love each other, the genuinely straight men don’t have to face artificial competition in the love market. Neither would I see lesbians as a threat. I would definitely not want to fall in love with a pretty girl only to find her having a crush on another woman. That won’t do my male pride any good. Further, if I have a daughter, I definitely don’t want her to marry a “secretly” gay man and spend her life correcting him. If I have a gay son, I won’t want him ruining someone’s daughter’s life either. I would just want him to be happy. To me, in that sense, being gay-friendly is the best protection for the institutions of marriage and family, which I do subscribe to.
As a pluralist, I recognise that others have the legitimate right to think and persuade us that homosexuality is wrong or curable. But society must not as a whole become paranoid of differences in sexuality or lifestyle. When we become paranoid, we take medicine which costs us money but does us no good. That’s how we should see a state that wants to police our bedrooms — costly and harmful. And we are sick as a society if we love swallowing this medicine.
Do you think it is possible for more religiously “conservative” societies to establish democratic governance? In such societies, how might we embrace democracy more fully, protect minorities, and still allow the majority to regulate according to their values?
Yes. I think real conservatives should be confident about their beliefs. If you are on the right path, time will show that you live a happier and more successful life than the deviant does. Then you are in every position to convert the deviant.
Except for some hard-core fringe elements, I believe most mainstream conservatives recognise that some members of sexual minorities cannot live a heterosexual life, at least not before a bit of surgery*. Their contention is really about people having choice. They are most troubled when people they believe could and should live a straight life would opt to be gay or lesbian.
I think the best way to promote heterosexuality is to do your best to make every heterosexual union work. If heterosexual unions are all happy while homosexual unions have a high percentage of failure because of false “sexuality” consciousness, surely those who have a choice would return to the “right” path. It’s called market force. So I wonder why some of my fellow heterosexuals are so insecure about our lifestyle when we make up 90% of the population.
Harping on sexual minorities when many members of the sexual majority are still caught in abusive and exploitative relationships reminds me of the zeal of some to prevent apostasy. Someone put it nicely: it’s a majority with a minority mindset. At the very least, surely those who have been victims of this mindset in other instances should not perpetuate it here.
Wong Chin Huat is a Bersih 2.0 steering committee member. He is also a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.
*Editor’s note: The words ‘at least not before a bit of surgery’ were originally edited out. They were reinstated on 25 Nov 2011 after a discussion with the columnist who felt strongly that their removal affected the meaning of his answer and thus amounted to censorship of his views.