Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah salutes the royal guard of honor during his 65th birthday celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo: Reuters/Ahim Rani
Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah salutes the royal guard of honor during his 65th birthday celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo: Reuters/Ahim Rani

The recent moratorium on enforcement of a law mandating that those committing homosexual acts in Brunei be stoned to death came only after a wide-ranging and high-profile international outcry. In a matter of about four weeks, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, backtracked on the implementation of a newly passed Islamic law.

As Pride Month is observed and celebrated in June around the world, we’re also reminded, yet again, about the continued systematic discrimination, bigotry, intimidation, and outright oppression that the LGBTQ communities across Southeast Asia (and beyond) continue to endure.

Pride Month is of course deeply rooted in the history of the gay liberation movement, symbolized especially by the Stonewall riots of 1969 that erupted in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Centered on the Stonewall Inn, the protest followed yet another raid on the establishment by police.

Fifty years on, as Pride Month has grown in visibility around the world, among other things, it serves to remind the international community of all that has been achieved by LGBTQ communities in the struggle for equal treatment and human rights.

However, the continued state-sanctioned bigotry and oppression against the LGBTQ population in Brunei and other parts of Southeast Asia provide a poignant reminder of how much more remains to be done to bring about greater awareness of unjust policies.

If there was any doubt about this, one need only scrutinize Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s comments even as the moratorium was announced. He was quoted as saying: “I am aware that there are many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation of the [Syariah Penal Code Order]…. We are conscious of the fact that misperceptions may cause apprehension. However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident.”

It warrants noting that there’s nothing in the above comments by the sultan to suggest a change in perspective about such draconian measures; merely that the inconveniences and impact of the international outcry and boycott of Brunei in many circles compelled a pause in enactment of the law. Indeed, it warrants asking just what might the sultan be insinuating by the apparent “misperceptions” about the law, and that “the merit of the law will be evident” once those “misperceptions” are cleared up?

In Malaysia too, we have seen overt targeting of the LGBTQ community. Several months back, I brought attention to the fact that “there is little doubt that the … 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 … [and there is] a lack of willingness to expand political capital to safeguard and protect certain targeted minorities.”

Research shows that people’s attitudes about strongly held attitudes and biases on social and moral issues, including those associated with homosexuality, can and do change

The pervasiveness of homophobia in Malaysian politics resurfaced again in recent months when Tourism Minister Mohamaddin Ketapi reportedly claimed there are no homosexuals in Malaysia. In Ketapi’s defense, he may well have misspoke; after all, it would be quite puzzling indeed why Malaysia may need to criminalize homosexuality when it apparently doesn’t exist there.

Sadly, history is littered with countless episodes where oppressive and draconian measures have been invoked in the name of organized religion for political expediency. Yet research shows that people’s attitudes about strongly held attitudes and biases on social and moral issues, including those associated with homosexuality, can and do change. This change happens not just over generations, but even across individuals’ lifetimes.

Insofar as approximately a tenth of a population tends to be gay, it’s reasonable to expect that individuals like Abdul G are also in the halls of power, parliament and among relatives of politicians who espouse hate and homophobia in countries like Malaysia and Brunei.

While demagogues continue to perpetuate the myth that gays, lesbians or queers are inherently deviant and a threat to the moral and cultural fabric of a society, these fellow citizens – and in fact, family members – of the very peddlers of prejudice toward the LGBTQ communities can be countered, and have their own preconceptions about “the other” reconsidered and re-examined.

It is essential to recognize that acknowledging the humanity and existential reality of our brothers and sisters who happen to be LGBTQ is not a “Western” thing, as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and others would have us believe. It is the enlightened and decent thing.

Mahathir’s distorted, hyperbolic and naive proclamations about the demise of the “traditional” family in Western societies – apparently exacerbated, if not caused, by recognizing the rights of gay couples – is precisely the kind of fear-mongering and prejudice that legitimates prejudicial attitudes, fuels hate, and ultimately contributes to state-abetted violence perpetrated against LGBTQs.

It is evident that deeply embedded homophobic attitudes and prejudices in countries like Malaysia and Brunei may prevail for the foreseeable future and that indeed the injustices toward LGBTQs will, unfortunately, persist with or without the abuse of contrived religious precepts and justifications to legitimate these prejudices.

And while many in Malaysia and Brunei may not be able to acknowledge openly, let alone celebrate Pride Month, it would behoove us all, in spite of the apparent misgivings of some leading politicians in the region, to elevate the discourse on this front and contemplate the humanity of those in the LGBTQ communities routinely deprived their human rights.

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.

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