Justice Party president Wan Azizah smiles after visiting her husband, jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, at the Cheras Rehabilitation Centre hospital in Kuala Lumpur on May 11, 2018.  
Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman
Justice Party president Wan Azizah smiles after visiting her husband, jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, at the Cheras Rehabilitation Centre hospital in Kuala Lumpur on May 11, 2018. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Recently two women were sentenced by a sharia court in Malaysia to be caned for having sex with each other. According to reports, unless the sentence is appealed, these two consenting adults – aged 32 and 22 – will each be subjected to six strokes of the cane, while also fined 3,300 ringgit.

The case garnered a fair amount of international attention, with Amnesty International chiming in to register its concerns over the caning sentence, calling attention to the fact that such punishment amounted to torture.

The women sentenced in this instance happen to be Muslim and as such had their case adjudicated through the Islamic legal system that is authorized to oversee various aspects of personal and religious affairs for Muslims in the country.

In a separate matter, some days ago, the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur publicly expressed its support for Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik – two LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists – whose portraits at a photography exhibit were ordered removed by the minister for Islamic affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Identity politics in Malaysia, as manifested in regulation of sexuality and sexual identity, is undoubtedly deeply fraught with controversy and contradictions, and will continue to simmer as cultural conservatives and reformists jockey to dictate their respective agendas on this front. However, there is little doubt that the newly budding Pakatan Harapan coalition remains reluctant to address the legitimate grievances and plight of the LGBT community, which has become a critical focal point of the culture war in the country.

The aforementioned incidents have – for Pakatan Harapan at least – put an unwelcome spotlight on a lack of willingness to expand political capital to safeguard and protect certain targeted minorities.

Religious and cultural conservatives, who have had their moral dictates in essence institutionalized in sharia law as well as Malaysia’s civil Penal Code, appear intent on making this cultural and values-laden battleground about sexuality and sexual orientation a pivotal terrain for targeting and undercutting the traditional – and especially Malay/Muslim – base that had become disillusioned by the excesses, corruption and scandals that plagued the last government.

The battle lines for winning back especially the fractured and disparate Malay populace became increasingly apparent within days of the formation of the new governing coalition. To this end, even as the LGBT and other marginalized communities struggle to have their voices heard, and they continue to be the targets of persecution – state-sanctioned or otherwise – the government appears to be extremely guarded and, one might suggest, discernibly timid in recognizing and affirming the rights of the LGBT community.

This was no more apparent than in Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s recent comments regarding the rights of LGBTs, when she was quoted as stating that they “have the right to practice whatever [it is] they do in private,” while seemingly – and contradictorily – affirming that the law prohibits homosexuality.

It raises the question as to whether by this Wan Azizah was in fact suggesting that Malaysians – of all faiths – may indulge in homosexuality so long as it’s done in private. To this, it also warrants asking if such slippery and precarious logic applies to other forms of apparent law-breaking in the country. Might, for example, the deputy prime minister suggest pedophilia was all right if it happened in private?

The point here, of course, is not to equate homosexuality with pedophilia (though more on this later) or to place the two on any comparable moral equivalency; rather, it is to draw attention to the faulty and problematic logic embedded in Wan Azizah’s comments.

More important, it sheds light on the hair-splitting the Pakatan Harapan government appears to be engaging in on such cultural and social issues in order not to walk into the political trap of the religious zealots and cultural exclusivists keen to undermine the governing coalition’s credentials on the cultural front.

However, such waffling notwithstanding, it is evident from recent developments that the issues central to Malaysia’s LGBT minority are being kicked around like a proverbial political football.

Meanwhile, in early July the international community also came to learn of the case of a 41-year old man – Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid – who had secretly married an 11-year old girl, apparently taking her as his third wife. The outcry domestically and internationally, which occurred after one of his other two wives reported the matter to police, remains in limbo.

While the deputy prime minister, who also serves as the minister of women and family development, questioned the legitimacy of the marriage since it wasn’t clear if it had the blessing of the sharia court, it remains curious that no further clarification has been forthcoming about the case. Had the marriage in fact been blessed by the sharia court? If not, did Che Abdul Karim in fact violate any civil, criminal and/or sharia code?

Indeed, while UNICEF Malaysia and other activists for children were quick to condemn such exploitation of children, the government appears to have taken the politically expedient path of tiptoeing around the matter and not unequivocally condemning such acts.

It seems the onus is wholly and rightly on Wan Azizah, her ministry and her government to ensure pedophilia is not legitimated under some obfuscated and precarious logic and legalese that is nothing but tantamount to justifying the abuse and exploitation of children.

On this culture-war front, recent developments in Malaysia appear to suggest how susceptible Pakatan Harapan is to appeasing cultural conservatives. Unfortunately, it also appears to have scored at least a couple of own-goals in the process.

Sunil Kukreja

Dr Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound. His areas of academic expertise include multicultural studies, social and cultural change, and the political economy of South and Southeast Asia. Professor Kukreja has published widely in academic journals and edited several books.