The audience at the Jalan Berapit ceramah
“THE Barisan Nasional (BN) should change its name to Barisan Pondan (faggot)!” bellows Penang Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) chief Datuk Zahrain Mohamed Hashim to the 5,000-strong crowd in Jalan Berapit on 23 May 2009.
The audience applauds the Bayan Baru MP, and emboldened, he goes on to repeat this homophobic epithet three times in the campaigning for the Penanti by-election. “They are pondans because they are afraid to contest here in Penanti,” he says.
This certainly raises an interesting question: why does PKR, a party born out of Umno’s homophobic attacks against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, boast of leaders who have no qualms perpetuating such homophobia?
Zahrain’s use of the word “pondan” is not without context. Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s star leader, popularly-elected Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, had earlier given the audience a blow-by-blow account of what happened during the 7 May Perak assembly sitting.
When he got to the part where he described PR state assemblypersons being ambushed and shoved by their BN peers, Nizar said, “Luckily the PR assemblypersons had fit physiques and could stand their ground. The BN folks were all unfit, all have high blood pressure.”
A member of the audience then shouted: “Depa pondan (They are faggots)!” Nizar laughed it off but was noticeably thrown off by the comment.
When The Nut Graph raises Zahrain’s speech over the phone with PKR elections director Saifuddin Nasution, Saifuddin says, “I’m sure that was not the only message in his speech. It depends how you want to interpret his meaning.”
Saifuddin, however, clarifies that he wasn’t there, but if indeed it was true that Zahrain used such a word to describe the BN, it was wrong.
“It’s true, in the 10 years since Reformasi, the BN has been using these sorts of terms to attack Anwar, and their rancour is beyond compare. But it would be wrong for us to counter their arrogance with even more arrogance,” he says.
“And my comments do not apply to the Penanti by-election campaign alone — our leaders should not be making these sorts of comments in any situation at all,” he continues.
During the BN’s campaign in the Bukit Selambau by-election, The Nut Graph noted that Umno supreme council member Datuk Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim used a range of homophobic expressions to discredit Anwar during a 6 April ceramah.
“Our leaders are living angels, but their side is stuck with someone who is obsessed with backsides,” said Azeez, and the crowd of 200 young Malay Malaysian men exploded in laughter.
But, as Saifuddin rightly points out, Azeez’s wrong does not make Zahrain’s wrong right. PKR vice-president R Sivarasa is even more candid when he confesses to The Nut Graph, “Zahrain’s statement reminds PKR of the baggage that we carry, and that our own leaders need a lot more sensitisation on these issues.
Zahrain’s statement a reminder PKR’s leaders need
more sensitisation on certain issues“There is a lot of work to be done within the party and outside, and sadly, the party sometimes reflects society’s prejudices instead of challenging them.”
Sivarasa, however, does not think PKR will be focusing on challenging homophobia anytime soon. “Look at the situation in the country now — we are fighting for our basic political survival,” he says via telephone. “And so, while issues like homophobia are important to deal with, we have to put out other more urgent fires first.”
Sivarasa, too, has a valid point, given the spate of arrests of PR leaders ever since Datuk Seri Najib Razak took office as prime minister barely two months ago. But could he perhaps be evading the real social conservatism that permeates through large sections of PAS and PKR?
“Conservatism is prevalent in Umno and PAS, and to some extent in PKR, but again that is merely a reflection of the societal attitudes of the Malay (and Muslim Malaysian) community,” he says.
Which then points to the heart of the problem — if the PR stands for justice and human rights, can it afford to be selective and not tackle homophobia in its larger agenda?
Walking the talk
“Talking about human rights as an issue and actually being guided by human rights principles in one’s day-to-day conduct are two different things,” says Angela Kuga Thas, a spokesperson for the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI).
Kuga Thas tells The Nut Graph that in Malaysia, parties from both the BN and PR seem to lack a rights-based framework to guide party members in how they interact with the public and with each other.
“When this code of conduct does not exist, it then becomes very hard to shake off entrenched attitudes and prejudices,” Kuga Thas says via telephone.
When asked to provide an encouraging example of private sexuality being respected in Malaysian politics, Kuga Thas is quick to cite the so-called scandal involving intimate pictures of PKR’s Selangor exco Elizabeth Wong which were exposed in February 2009.
“It’s amazing that despite the internal conflicts within PKR about Wong’s case, she was not fired and is in fact back at work,” she says.
Kuga Thas’s point is that Umno’s homophobic comments against Anwar, Zahrain’s homophobic comments about the BN, and attacks against Wong’s private life all come under a big umbrella of issues, which she refers to as “sexual rights”.
“This is not merely about people of non-normative sexualities, but also about people of ‘normative’ sexualities who do not fulfill society’s expectations, such as an unmarried, working woman like Wong,” she explains.
And in this sense, she says there are no comparable scenarios within the BN that work in its favour. It is difficult to disagree with her. At least in PKR, Zahrain has been publicly rebuked by his own party leaders, Saifuddin and Sivarasa.
Like Kuga Thas, Sivarasa also locates the issue within a larger framework.
“Things like homosexuality, religious conversions, polygamy in Islam, and so on — these are difficult things to discuss,” he admits. “But we will be able to talk about these things without fear of persecution or violence if the country democratises effectively.”
Kuga Thas couldn’t agree more. “Civil society needs to believe that it can change the political scene in Malaysia.”
She says that with PKR carefully starting to denounce homophobia in this way, it will start a trend in Malaysian politics, where other parties will also be challenged to be more sensitive.
“And as long as there is space for dialogue and debate, there’s always hope for Malaysia,” she adds.
Disclosure: Shanon Shah was a WCI coordinator during the March 2008 general election.