The commemoration of the birth of Christ draws nigh, signalling a time for people from all walks of life to celebrate a renewal of hope and peace. The portrayal of the helpless Newborn in a cave in Bethlehem reflects the helplessness of so many people in Malaysia who remain cradled by the political, economic, and even socio-religious ideologies of others. Malaysians have witnessed a multitude of events in 2015 that have caused us to question what it means to be Malaysians in the twenty-first century. As battles for power and position in the local political scene continue unabated, many Malaysians find themselves growing increasingly vulnerable in their own land. Issues of gender and sexuality continue to be monitored with antagonistic attentiveness. Malaysians who demonstrate non-conformity to conventional, heteronormative performances of gender and sexuality, chiefly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and other queer people, have become favourite ‘targets’. They continue to experience ‘strange and unusual’ strategies in Malaysia that aim to diminish their sense of personhood.
Over the course of the year, the country has seen how the issue of racism has been deployed to detract the attention of Malaysians from more pressing concerns in the country, such as hazardous levels of air pollution, the implementation of the GST amidst the dismal economy, accusations of political ineptness and mishandling of state funds, and transgressions against a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. It saddens me that LGBT Malaysians have also been enlisted as convenient decoys to divert Malaysians from real issues at hand. It saddens me even more that LGBT people who strive to live authentic lives find that they are still vulnerable to suspicion, misperceptions and even violence in an increasingly technology-driven and capitalistically-conscious Malaysia. Hope for a more just, egalitarian and inclusive Malaysia has become little more than a pipe dream.
In November 2015, the Yayasan Pembangunan Ekonomi Islam Malaysia or YAPEIM drew the ire of many Malaysians who wondered why funds were being funnelled towards marriage courses in Paris for the purpose of eradicating the ‘LGBT culture’ (a dubious descriptor at best) instead of fostering the economic growth of Malaysian Muslims, and assisting the poor and orphans.[i] While the source of the outcry was the shady nature of YABEIM’s activities, my thoughts fleeted to how insinuations of financial misappropriation were subsequently (and conveniently) deflected by turning the spotlight on the LGBT ‘problem’ in Malaysia. I also thought of how Malaysian Christian churches have also been actively involved in reiterating the illegitimacy of LGBT lives by organising seminars, talks and plays in the Klang Valley to this end.[ii]
On the one hand, I can see why such anti-LGBT zeal exists. Opposition towards LGBT expressions by many devout Malaysians of faith often emanates from their interpretations of sacred texts. On the other hand, I wonder why Malaysians have not considered an alternative perspective—that their sacred texts are fundamentally human experiences and interpretations of the divine by ancient people, and that such texts must always be reinterpreted in the context of contemporary readers, rather than simplistically and uncritically applied today.
The fact that Malaysians persecute other Malaysians for being different reminds me of the Christian writer Albert Nolan’s very accessible discussion on the persecution of the early Christians by those who initially did not understand their principles and beliefs. In his classic work Jesus Before Christianity, Nolan stated that ‘It is difficult for us to imagine what it must have been like to differ radically from everybody else, past and present, in an age when group conformity was the only measure of truth and virtue’.[iii] While Nolan writes from within the context of ancient Christianity, I find his point on inclusion and exclusion, conformity and non-conformity curiously applicable to contemporary Malaysia. Some Malaysians have forgotten what it was like for our forebearers in the colonial period when they were excluded from leadership of the country and treated like strangers in their own land. Other Malaysians have forgotten both the arduous journeys that led them to a rightful claim of Malaysian citizenship, and the continuing contestation of this citizenship by those who see them as lesser, migrant Others. These Malaysians seem to have amnesia about how they have been—and continue to be—alienated, overlooked and maltreated. Ironically, it is these same Malaysians who are either unaware of or indifferent to the reality that many LGBT Malaysians are treated in similar ways. Any Malaysian—LGBT or otherwise—can undeniably attest to the fact that it is indeed a terrible thing for one to live as a shunned, second-class (third class?) citizen in one’s own land through no fault of one’s own. Yet many act as though LGBT lives do not matter in Malaysia, and LGBT Malaysians are demonised and relegated to being ‘problems’.
At the threshold of Christmas, I am reminded of how the great Teacher Jesus Christ, whom Christian theologian Sebastian Athappilly refers to in his book Theology of the Heart as ‘the perfect exegete of God’,[iv] brought hope to the hopeless through his birth, teachings, and integrity of life by speaking out against injustice and discrimination, and by cultivating a special empathy with the marginalised. As this year draws to a close, dare I hope that the spirit of Christmas can regenerate hope and courage in the hearts of all Malaysians for the country that we love and cherish? Dare I hope that Malaysians will learn to appreciate diversity in all its forms in the years to come without feeling threatened? Dare I hope that all Malaysians will deepen their sense of sacred appreciation for every manner of human existence, including for LGBT Malaysians? Perhaps all that one can do, when one has done one’s best to work for a better Malaysia, is to hope.
[i] Joseph Sipalan, ‘Yapeim’s Paris Wedding Courses Part of Efforts to Curb LGBT Threat, Putrajaya Says’, Malay Mail Online, 18 November 2015, http://m.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/yapiems-paris-wedding-courses-part-of-efforts-to-curb-lgbt-threat-putrajaya; Elizabeth Zachariah, ‘Paris Marriage Course to Combat LGBT, Deputy Minister Defends Yapeim’s Spending’, The Malaysian Insider, 18 November 2015, http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/paris-marriage-course-to-combat-lgbt-deputy-minister-defends-yapeims-spendi.
[ii] Joseph N. Goh, ‘Reflections on the Play “The Third Way: Same Sex Attraction and the Catholic Church” at Holy Family Church, Kajang’, Blog, Queer Eye for God’s World, (11 April 2015), http://josephgoh.org/?cat=17; Joseph N. Goh, ‘A Response to the Talk “Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT” at the Church of the Risen Christ, Kuala Lumpur’, Queer Eye for God’s World, accessed 22 December 2015, http://josephgoh.org/?p=1009.
[iii] Albert Nolan, Jesus before Christianity, reprint (Mumbai, India: St Pauls, 2015), 173.
[iv] Sebastian Athappilly, Theology of the Heart: Towards an Affective Theology (Bangalore, India: Dharmaram Publications, 2014), 66.