Malaysia government ‘demonising’ LGBT people by censoring art exhibit

A Malaysian government minister has been accused of acting to “demonise” LGBT people, after a senior minister ordered an arts festival to remove portraits of local LGBT activists.

On Wednesday it was confirmed that government minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa, who serves in the office of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, ordered the removal of portraits and a rainbow flag from an exhibit at the George Town Festival in Penang.

Mujahid Yusof Rawa

Experts have warned that the news is the latest sign of a dramatic swing against LGBT rights led by the minister, whose government came to power this year.

Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International’s Malaysia Researcher, said: “The removal of these portraits is a deeply discriminatory act grossly at odds with the Pakatan Harapan government’s stated commitment to enhancing diversity and inclusiveness across Malaysian society.

“Unfortunately, it’s a decision that’s entirely in keeping with several of the Minister’s recent announcements, which have demonized LGBTI people and put them at greater risk of harm.

“Malaysia’s new administration must seize the opportunity to set higher human rights standards across the region. This includes ensuring an inclusive, equal and accepting society for LGBTI people.”

Homosexuality is still illegal in Malaysia.

Religious affairs minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa previously defended the removal of portraits of two LGBT activists, Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik.

He told the media: “Society cannot accept LGBT being promoted, because that is against norms, culture and religion.

“I was informed that there was an exhibition that showed the LGBT pictures, along with the rainbow pride flag to represent the struggle. That is not in line with what we have consistently repeated in Parliament and the policy of this government.

“When you put the picture with the symbol, and you have written that they are LGBT activists, that is the definition of promotion.

“I was in contact with the state government, and told them the exhibition doesn’t go well with our stand on the LGBT group.”

Mujahid Yusof Rawa

He added that he asked for the pictures to be removed “based on the policy.”

According to the Malay Mail, Mujahid Yusof Rawa also claimed that censoring the exhibit would protect the two activists pictured.

He said: “We received a lot of comments from those who are hostile towards this group, so in order to calm the situation down I had to make the call. My main concern I don’t want them to get hurt or victimised.

“Many are enraged by their openness. I want to protect them.”

The portraits were later removed from the exhibition.

The event’s sponsor Datuk Vinod Sekhar said: “How could this happen in Penang? I expected more from the Penang government.

“We should be enlightening people, changing their mindsets – not reacting to people who are closed minded.”

Last year the country’s then-Deputy Prime Minister vowed to block a planned gay festival in the country’s capital – and ban its organisers from the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi vowed to block the event as gay people are “not natural”.

He said: “We are monitoring the names of the relevant individuals and will place them on the ‘not to let’ category [banning them from Malaysia].

“As the Home Minister, I have instructed the police and Immigration Department to ensure that the White Party is not held in our country, anywhere at all – indoors or outdoors.

“This is my commitment that I wish to state to all Malaysians.”

A Human Rights Watch report from 2015 said that discrimination against members of the community was “pervasive”.

Transgender people in Malaysia can face arbitrary arrest, physical and sexual assault, imprisonment, denial of healthcare and employment and other abuses.

A challenge to a legal ban on cross-dressing was defeated in 2015 by Malaysia’s highest court.