In Malaysia, wrapping the wrong candy-colored watch around your wrist can now earn you a $4,300 fine, not to mention three years in jail.
The penalties are laid out in an August 10 order from the Ministry of Home Affairs banning LGBTQ-themed watches from the popular Swatch brand for putting Malaysia’s “national interest” at risk. It comes three months after ministry staff raided a number of shops selling the watches and seized more than 170 of them.
Rights groups say the government’s reaction reflects its dwindling tolerance for the country’s LGBTQ community and the growing sway of political parties appealing to the conservative base of the country’s ethnic Malay and Muslim majorities.
“It’s a trend among the political scene to use LGBT issues as a scapegoat to kind of gain last-minute support from the Malay-majority conservative part of Malaysian society,” Dhia Rezki, vice president of the local gay rights group Jejaka, told VOA.
Malaysia’s ethnic Malays are automatically Muslim by law and denouncing the faith is illegal. Malaysian law also outlaws and punishes sodomy — calling it “intercourse against the order of nature” — with up to 20 years in jail.
The government ordered the watch ban just two days before state elections that were widely seen as a critical test of the ruling coalition’s standing with Malay voters.
The order cites the country’s Printing Presses and Publications Act, which gives the Home Affairs Ministry “absolute discretion” to ban any published material “likely to be prejudicial to public order, morality, security,” to “alarm public opinion,” harm the “national interest,” or breach any law.
It says the ministry banned the Swatch watches for “promoting, supporting and normalizing the LGBTQ movement, which is not accepted by the general public of Malaysia.”
Peace and love
The Swiss company’s Pride Collection features six watches, each in one of the bright, bold colors of the LGBTQ flag. Each watch also features a pair of wristband loops bearing all six colors of the flag together.
Asked for comment, Swatch Group referred VOA to a public statement company CEO Nick Hayek issued in May following the shop raids.
“We strongly contest that our collection of watches using rainbow colors and having a message of peace and love could be harmful for whomever,” Hayek said at the time. “In the contrary, Swatch gives always a positive message of joy in life. This has nothing political.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs did not reply to VOA’s request for comment.
Thilaga Sulathireh, co-founder of the local LGBTQ rights group Justice for Sisters, said the watch ban was not only “discriminatory and unreasonable” but a breach of the rights to personal liberty, gender equality and freedom of expression enshrined in Malaysia’s constitution.
He said the order was also an overly broad and possibly illegal use of the printing act, and no less than the seventh time the government has used it to curb LGBTQ material since 2020.
“The law is in and of itself extremely broad,” he told VOA. “And because it is so broad, I think it is misused and it is used arbitrarily against LGBT expression.”
Dhia, from Jejaka, said using the law to ban a watch underscores the government’s resolve to quash that expression.
“Malaysia already has a problem with restricting freedom of expression, but for them to issue a whole separate ban under a prohibition order kind of highlights how deep the government’s prejudice against LGBT expression is,” he said.
The “paradox,” he added, is that the government has been stepping up its repression just as younger LGBTQ Malaysians are finding their voice.
“As people push for more equal rights, [other] people are feeling that their rights have been taken away on the other side,” he said. “So in general ... I do think in Malaysia, [in] the social context ... [our] rights are being restricted more and more.”
Tolerance “is definitely shrinking by the day,” Thilaga agreed.
Last month, the organizers of what was to be a three-day music festival canceled the remainder of the event after Matty Healy, frontman for the British pop band The 1975, slammed the country’s anti-LGBTQ laws and kissed a male bandmate on stage.
In October, authorities raided an LGBTQ Halloween party and arrested 20 people for crossdressing.
Left and right
Rights groups also point to the myriad programs meant to “cure” or “rehabilitate” LGBTQ people that the government helps run or fund. Thilaga said the number of those programs has “increased exponentially” over the past decade.
Advocates and analysts point to more recent — and political — motives for the mounting backlash as well.
In 2018, the long-ruling Barisan Nasional bloc lost its first national elections since Malaysia’s 1957 independence from Britain. The country has since seen four shaky administrations take power, the latest a tenuous alliance between Barisan Nasional and its former rival, Pakatan Harapan.
Where Barisan champions the interests of the country’s ethnic Malays, Pakatan built its reputation espousing the cause of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.
While Pakatan leads the alliance, its reliance on Barisan to hold a majority in parliament seems to be pushing its agenda toward the right, says Khoo Ying Hooi, an associate professor and human rights scholar at the University of Malaya.
“Pakatan Harapan, when they were the opposition, they were the hope for a bigger ... democracy and human rights space,” she said. “With this very difficult partnership [with Barisan], this has to take a lot of compromising, hence I think that explains the approach that they are taking.”
While being pushed to the right from within, she said, the government is also being pulled the same way by the opposition Perikatan Nasional, a bloc of parties with staunch pro-Malay, pro-Muslim goals. The largest of them, the Malaysian Islamic Party, better known as PAS, has called for the death penalty for apostasy and saw a surprise surge in support during last year’s national elections, winning the most seats of any party in the race.
With help from PAS, Perikatan also put up a tough fight in elections to fill six of 13 state legislatures last week and ended up gaining seats in most of them.
“The state elections have basically signaled that the trend of [the] national elections continued,” Khoo said. “That’s why the Malay votes are very important, that’s why the Swatch issue has become even more sensitive, because PAS ... Perikatan Nasional, those who use the agenda of Malay Muslims ... do not tolerate at all [the] LGBT issues.”