Country of Origin: Malaysia
The Mid-May 2023 seizure of rainbow-colored Swatch watches from the brand’s Pride Collection at most major shopping malls in Malaysia, including the regionally renowned Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, Queensbay Mall, and Mid Valley Megamall, struck many a Malaysian local as absurd. Following this crackdown, Malaysians flocked to comment sections on most major social media platforms with sarcastic, lighthearted memes and comments.
These comments appear to poke fun at the government’s unease in engaging with the LGBTIQA+ dialogue, still in relative nascency among the older population, with clear, generational differences in approach.
While several grassroots platforms have made notable efforts to independently spotlight the LGBTIQA+ community, politicians, typically those hailing from older generations, have persistently discredited it. Worryingly, these attitudes are believed to have negatively shaped the mindsets of the local population towards this community, and are often bundled with local criticisms of the influence of unwanted “Western rhetoric” in the country.
Most recently, an alarming piece in a MalaysiaKini article dated August 10, 2023, is titled: “Govt bans Swatch LGBT watches, owning one can result in 3 years’ jail.”
LGBTIQA+: Approaching a delicate topic with humor and a new mindset
Arwind Kumar, a popular local social media figure, was cited by the Guardian for criticizing an offensive and superficial “how to spot a gay [person] checklist” in local newspaper, Sinar Harian. One point stood out. It focused on how queer men purportedly style their facial hair as a non-conformist gesture. “I know a lot of priests, I know a lot of ustads [Islamic scholars], I know a lot of really really religious people who love keeping beards. Are you implying that they are gay? That’s how stupid this is,” he observed on YouTube and TikTok.
This is an example of how commenters have been utilizing the anonymity of the internet to voice their criticism of Malaysia’s complex and outmoded legal system, using plenty of mockery and regional slang.
This vernacular, observers note, has been utilized frequently due to its esoteric nature. Using this coded language fosters a sense of community and belonging among netizens discussing sensitive political matters. These feelings are perfectly expressed in the comments from Reddit users pokegomsia and crasher_7, implying the need for a more open mindset among conservative local elements extending to the highest political ranks in the country.
Furthermore, comments like the following, from Dreamerlax and Juliensyn, are just a few of the many satirical testaments to the everyday rainbow-coloured items common in Malaysian households.
After hinting sarcastically at the wobbly crackdown efforts of the usually-respected local police authorities, commenters began to poke fun at the raid using jokes and memes to foster a sense of solidarity among critics of these recent developments.
When examining this persistent and intricate local issue that interacts with sensitive religious beliefs, and observing how these sentiments sway the Government’s perspective, it is clear to political observers that such topics can be reduced to mere objects of ridicule on the international stage.
Why playing catch-up with ‘the West’ is a talking point
These perspectives can also serve as starting points for a look at how Malaysians are actively expressing new perspectives on identity and individualism.
“It’s time us Malaysians judged people based on how they treat others, and their open mindedness, rather than on their ethnicity, lifestyle, or religious affiliation. Everyone has the right to their own opinions, and should be treated with equal dignity,” nurse Vivian Tan, working in Malaysia’s inclusive healthcare system, shared with me.
Malaysia, like many other Muslim-majority countries, still lags in acknowledging and reworking compulsively labeled “Western sentiments” at home, while also facing the need for pressing economic reforms including welfare policy, typically modelled on the West.
When echoing such conservative sentiments with the sole aim of protecting the traditional constitutional rights and privileges enjoyed by the country’s Muslim-majority community favored by the rural poor, the media here typically refrains from taking part in protests as is the common practice in most democratic nations.
This reticence explains the widespread use of colloquialisms, memes and other alternative forms of expression among social media commenters, mentioned earlier, to show solidarity with a broader rainbow of possibilities.
The quest for freedom is led by the next generation’s more global mindset
Alluding to global warming, Reddit user, M1CKYMC, remarked that “Malaysia will be Underwater in 50 yrs,” poking fun at a comment made by one of Malaysia’s veteran politicians, Zahid Hamidi and reported in the Free Malaysia Today newspaper, who claimed that the natural disasters in Indonesia are a karmic response to its scripture-defiant LGBTQIA+ community.
On the bright side, these youth-led, liberal sentiments are seeping into mainstream consciousness. This activity follows decades of repetitive local calls to reform policies, and growing concerns over the health of Malaysia’s democracy, and the right to freedom of speech.
It is significant that the use of heavily nuanced slang, typically with Chinese or Indian origins, and which requires a considerable amount of cultural understanding from like-minded people to decipher, serves as a popular way of encrypting this emerging, more critical commentary. Manglish, in particular, is a popular and informal, creole-style form of Malaysian English heavily influenced by the dominant languages of the country: Malay, Chinese languages, and Tamil.
Losing out on the cha-chings
But this approach is not only eating away at the country’s potential tourism revenue from concerts by visiting foreign performers. It is also dissuading foreign investors from offering seed funding that can boost the success of local talent.
The locally based non-profit, Arts, Live Festival and Events Association, has noted that Islamic-centrist politicians are deterring international, revenue-generating concerts from operating in the country. From an economic perspective, Malaysia has long been losing out on substantial tourist revenues, related jobs and even vending opportunities to its southern neighbor, Singapore.
More recently, British band, The 1975, was banned in Malaysia after lead singer, Matt Healy, openly kissed his bandmate, Ross MacDonald, while citing his disapproval of the local LGBTIQA+ legislation. While Healy’s track record in queer activism is laudable, some have highlighted his attempts to present his argument under a “white savior complex,” also noting that he insensitively dropped the f-bomb while drunk.
On a final note, will Skittles and Paddle Pop be held accountable next? Will our politicians render themselves a laughing stock yet again and leave us in stitches? Here’s what our creative fellow netizens have come up with!
About Un-Breaking the News (UBN)
This is our section covering “news” events we feel we HAVE to share/report on and potentially exciting/newsworthy items that haven’t been covered at all, while scouting for people with interesting things to say about them. We look at world regions, focusing on the global majority – countries around the world, beyond the West.
We’re interested in what’s bothering or inspiring local people NOW, and prompting them to draw attention to it through campaigns, movements, interest group protests and more. We also zoom in on the tension between things global and local, and how this is expressed in newsworthy on-the-ground actions.
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