In a globalizing world LGBT rights activism is more and more prevalent and included in the universal human rights discourse. This discourse can, however, largely be attributed to Western hegemony under the United States, and LGBT rights are not upheld and accepted in vast parts of the world (Wilkinson et al., 2017). In this essay, the focus is on two neighboring Southeast Asian countries, Singapore and Malaysia. Both have semi-authoritarian political structures with similar electoral systems and laws declaring the illegality of homosexuality, although prosecution has become less frequent. LGBT activism groups and festivals have emerged in both countries over the last decades in a different way, most notably Pink Dot in Singapore, founded in 2009, and PTF in Malaysia, founded in 2000 (Ng, 2018). The question posed here is as follows: Where does the difference in LGBT activism presence and manifestation between Malaysia and Singapore come from?
I argue that there exists a difference in LGBT activism between the two countries. In Singapore, LGBT activism is modelled after Western models and revolves directly around LGBT rights in the public sphere, which I argue is a direct consequence of the perpetual model of the ‘global city’ stressed by the government, which focuses on transnational investment in the city. In contrast, most efforts of LGBT activism in Malaysia work through less controversial issues, such as health, and are more focused on helping the marginalized segments of LGBT communities. This is the outcome of the image of a modern anti-Western Malaysia, significantly emphasized by the government as social discourse, in combination with the religious discourse and the existence of sharia law for a majority of the population. It will be depicted how, although the preservation of ‘traditional Asian values’-argument is prominent in both countries among LGBT opposition, activism has manifested itself differently over the years. The origins of these differences will be analysed at the hand of cultural, political and religious factors as well as colonial legacies, through the analysis of existing literature on both countries. The existence of the difference in activism has been acknowledged, the origins have only been touched upon as of yet.
LGBT rights in Singapore and Malaysia
There are various similarities in current day Singapore and Malaysia concerning LGBT rights. Both countries have known British colonization, of which laws that criminalize homosexuality are significant remainders (Yulius et al., 2018). Although the law is not being enforced in either of the countries at present, it does characterize the cultural status of same-sex relations (Ng, 2018). In both countries, a frequently used argument opposing LGBT-rights is the need to ensure the perseverance of traditional values, as well as the emphasis on the nuclear family as the most significant cornerstone of society (Lee, 2012). This discourse of traditional values is often posed as contrary and exclusive to the advocacy of same-sex equality and rights. This ‘Western LGBT agenda’ is seen as neo-colonial imposition of Western values on Asian societies (Yulius et al., 2018).
At the 1993 World Conference on Human rights then minister Wonk Kang Seng of Singapore used homosexuality as a significant difference to ‘consolidate the imagined border’ between Singapore and the West. He then went on to say that ‘homosexual rights are a Western issue’ (Offord, 1999, p. 305). This still represents the view of the PAP, although prosecution at the hand of section 377A does not take place anymore. Still, LGBT lives in Singapore are pushed from the forefront, and laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality do not exists. There is wide state support for sexual borders that demonstrate the heteronormative ideal of the nuclear family. This support partly roots from the significant influence on the government of anti-LGBT Christian communities and Muslim minorities. LGBT equality is seen as a threat that would lead to even lower birth rates, the destruction of ‘Asian values’ by accepting Western liberal values, and thus finally leading to a decline in religious authority and a more fragile society. Contrary to these impressions, the average Singaporean is isolated from these LGTB developments. It is a discussion that takes place predominantly between two groups that can be identified as the religious conservatives and the liberal progressives (Yulius et al., 2018).
Historically, in Malaysia the existed a culture of tolerance towards sexual diversity, which changed after British colonial times. Contemporary Malaysia has a socio-political and legal environment that is hostile towards sexual minorities, paired with an increase in conservatism and prosecution of ‘transgressions’ in the sexual sphere (Lee, 2012). The Malaysian government has highlighted the country as a modern Muslim nation opposing Western values (Ng, 2018), which can be seen as ironic considering the hostility towards sexual diversity is a remnant of Western colonial values. Just as in Singapore, opposition to LGBT-rights is grounded in the combined emphasis on maintaining local norms, conservative Muslim norms related to sharia law in Malaysia’s case, with the suggested corrupting influence of non-domestic, often Western values. Here too, the West is portrayed as being supportive of values that destruct the traditional family life and supportive of sexual conduct contrary to the moral behavior and culture of Malaysians (Lee, 2012). Not only LGBT-activist groups are characterized as pawns of the ‘Western world’ trying to influence Malaysia. Other factors that ‘negatively’ affect the country are also often depicted as resulting from international conspiracies by Western governments. Pepinksy illustrates this with Mahathir’s explanation of the currency crisis in 1997. The then president argued that capitalists were at fault by relating the currency struggles to a conspiracy of Western governments, the foreign press, and Jews (2008, p. 465). This shows that various ‘negative’ events threatening the government in recent Malaysian history have been blamed on the Western international powers.
Activism in Singapore and Malaysia
LGBT-activism in South East is introduced by Wilkinson et al. as being somewhat to completely distinctive from what takes place in Western countries (2017). LGBT movements can be identified by various factors; geo-political context, history, social, religious and economic conditions. Moreover, their attitude to expression and focus are critical aspects, formed by the identified factors, as well as influenced by wider and more specific political and cultural expectations inherent to society (Wilkinson et al., 2017). All these taken together, identify the difference found in LGBT activism between Singapore and Malaysia.
In the last decades, a perceived rise of demonization and discrimination of non-heterosexual sexuality has been documented in Malaysia. Social activism for equal rights slowly materialized into the event Seksualiti Merdeka, first held in 2008 (Lee, 2012). It was organized by a Chinese-Malaysian LGBT activist and artist, and focused on sexuality rights through English LGBT talks, workshops, screenings and performances (Ng, 2018, p. 1100). The event focused on the expression of LGBT struggles and rights through art rather than through direct confrontation. It succeeded in assembling a common space for a wide diversity of communities to develop the LGBT discourse in Malaysia (Lee, 2012). After taking place for three consecutive years, the event was banned in 2011 . There has not been an event like it since then, which illustrates the dominance of the conservative opponents over the sexuality rights discourse. As before, and subsequently to the banning of Seksualiti Merdeka, PTF has mainly focused on advocating for LGBT rights through less controversial ways such as the HIV and public health discourse. The PTF is different to mainstream LGBT activism as it puts its focus to the more marginalized communities, and acts in their support, rather than targeting the mainstream media and the majority of citizens in a country (Ng, 2018). This based on the belief that the needs of LGBT communities and individuals can be met better through support the health and private sector, than through mainstream ways, as the promotion of the rights of sexual minorities goes against social, cultural and religious discourses dominant in Malaysia (Lee, 2012). Much like Seksualiti Merdeka, current day LGBT activism in Malaysia willingly takes a step back as to not overstep cultural and political boundaries, as the government could prohibit activism again.
The approach to activism in Singapore and consequently its manifestation in society can be argued to be inherently different from Malaysia. Activism for equal sexuality rights can be traced back as far as the 1970s (Chua, 2014). Expression occurs in various domains, predominantly through various political groups, receiving funding from both Singaporean sources and international corporate sponsorships, as well as in the social and cultural sphere (Ng, 2018). The appearance of Pink Dot’s LGTB events can be attributed to it international funding by large corporations. This funding is in line with the PAP’s post-colonial vision of the ‘global city’, where the ‘world’ provides the country and its markets with the required resources. Within five decades this vision was realized, both imposing material and cultural changes on society, and the LGBT community. By opening up global markets, the government opened the city to cultural and social liberalism, while reaffirming anti non-normative sexuality laws (Yulius et al., 2017). Despite the invitation by the government for international investment in Singapore, Pink Dot’s conservative opponents were successful in arguing that Pink Dot’s annual 2016 event too excessively relied on foreign funding in contradiction to domestic state policy (Ng, 2018). Shortly after the event, the government declared against “foreign entities … fund[ing], support[ing] or influenc[ing]” controversial social or political issues, including “the LGBT cause” (Ng, 2018). By the 2017 event, it was also made illegal for any non-Singaporean citizen to attend the annual Pink Dot gathering – or any event in Hong Lim Park for that matter (Ng, 2018). This coincided with conservative opposition arguing against LGBT by stressing its ‘foreignness’. Pink Dot argued that it is inherently Singaporean, as pink is born out of the mix of red and white, the colors on the Singaporean flag (Chua, 2014). At this point, both the conservative and LGBT groups were ‘pressuring the government’ to listen and respond (Yulius et al., 2017).
Although Pink Dot’s annual festivity of LGBT Singaporeans has established itself as a well-known cultural event in the public life of Singapore (Wilkinson et al., 2017), it has been criticized in the same way Western mainstream gay pride events have been criticized, at the hand of its commercial character rather than the taking of a more radical stance on queer politics and identities. Not only Pink Dot, but LGBT activism in Singapore as a whole has been condemned for its focus on mainstream activism as opposing to helping out the marginalized sectors in the LGBT community (Ng, 2018). At the same time, it could be praised for activism in trying to change cultural stigmas, as the legalization of homosexuality, would not change societal and political opposition. Legally acknowledging LGBT rights, does not mean society will change (Wilkinson et al., 2017). In Singapore the LGBT movement has developed through the “cultural liberalization” of its “creative economy”, instead of through political or legal recognition or liberalization (Yue, 2012, p. 199). As such, through the openness of the ‘global city’ the LGBT community has developed at the hand of contemporary Western norms, while the legal status of non-normative relations has not changed since the introduction of Section 377 of the Penal Code by the British.
Political, social and cultural conditions in both countries have enabled a certain amount of locally based LGBT advocacy. Differences in culture and religion as well as sentiment to the perceived ‘Westernization’ have led to differences in activism and its manifestation in society. The conservative Muslim majority in combination with cultural non-acceptance and anti-Western sentiment in Malaysia has pressured LGBT activism out of the spotlight. The PTF has manifested itself in society by focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention through the public health route, according to the consensus that it can best serve the marginalized LGBT individuals and communities this way, as well as through artistic expressions. In this way, it aligns itself with the government policies wanting to keep LGBT rights outside of the public narrative. Contrary to this, LGBT activism in Singapore is more mainstream and actively focuses on the public sphere, resembling Western LGBT festivals. In this way it opposes government narratives. It developed this way because of “cultural liberalization” of the “economic market”, despite anti-Western sentiment from the opposition. This indicates the inherent differences in LGBT activism in both countries, stemming from different political and cultural climates, both under a semi-authoritarian government. Both countries have known steps-back in LGBT rights in recent years, and thus activism is not seen as successful. However, in Singapore the Pink Dot event takes place annually, something that has not been achieved in Singapore by the PTF or others. Future research should incorporate the successfulness of both streams of LGBT activism, and evaluate which one can be the way forward, in creating equal sexual rights for all.