Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaking in Beijing in 2018. Photo: AFP/How Hwee Young

When the new Pakatan Harapan government came to power in Malaysia, it vowed to improve the state of human rights in the country. Yet here we are. It has been well over a year since PH took the lead and human-rights violations persist.

The worst part of it all? The stagnation when it comes to reforming abusive laws is due to one thing and one thing only: an appeal to win over more voter support.

First came Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s backing out of his pledge to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). This treaty was rejected because of pressure from the majority Malay population, who wished to secure their affirmative-action privileges.

Then we have the Sedition Act, a draconian law used by the government to censor criticism and shut down opposition. Prime Minister Mahathir pledged to abolish this law too, yet to this day it is still being used to silence government critics.

The Security Offenses Act (SOSMA) is another draconian law that PH vowed to get rid of. However, this law which, violates the right to a fair trial, was used just last month when 12 people were detained for alleged links to a defunct Sri Lankan group.

If you think these examples paint a dreary picture of human rights in the supposedly modern country of Malaysia, there is more to the story. Arguably, the most horrific violations of basic rights come in the form of the treatment to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in the country.

The Muslim-majority nation has always criminalized homosexual activity under both Islamic and civil law, yet the climate for sexual minorities has been deteriorating rapidly since the general elections last year.

There have been documented spikes in anti-LGBT hate speech on social media, and an increase in reports of violent attacks, workplace discrimination and requests for shelter by those who have been banished from their homes.

Mahathir has been known for his anti-LGBT rhetoric. Last year he said that Malaysia could not accept LGBT rights such as same-sex marriage, dismissing them as “Western” values. This statement came just a month after two women were caned in sharia court, the first time that sentence had been used in the country as part of a punishment for lesbian sex.

This month, four men were caned for engaging in consensual gay sex. The men, aged 26 to 37, received six strokes of the cane each in a prison outside Kuala Lumpur for attempting “intercourse against the order of nature,” an offense under sharia law, Amnesty International said.

How could it be that a government that promised to stand up for minorities, and which made it a mantra to improve the state of human rights, has let the LGBT community continue to suffer?

Like always, it reeks of political maneuvering. The PH government has seen its support slipping after a year of economic stagnation, broken promises, and all-around disappointment. Upping their anti-LGBT actions is a sick way of trying to win over the majority Muslim Malay vote.

It is a cheap trick that highlights what kind of leaders Malaysians have voted in: leaders where, on their list of priorities, human rights are nowhere to be seen.

Albert Wilkins has been working as a freelance political risk analyst specializing in Southeast Asian markets for the past five years. He has a specific interest and passion for analyzing and writing about corruption and human rights.

Leave a comment