Test 2

Please select your preferred language.





Remember Me

New to Fridae?

Fridae Mobile


More About Us

7 Nov 2007

visiting malaysia

In the academic setting of an Asian studies conference, Malaysian Muslim women academics could talk about sex and homosex. But any references in mainstream media remain taboo. Doug Sanders recalls impressions of the recent conference held in Kuala Lumpur.

Some of us queer academics have been flaunting our respectability at the International Convention of Asia Scholars' biennial conferences - Singapore 2003, Shanghai 2005, Kuala Lumpur 2007. These big academic parties are co-hosted by the International Institute of Asian Studies in the Netherlands and a local university or research body.

Top: the Malaysian edition of FHM, an internationally printed men's magazine, is one of few sensual images on public view. Bottom pic: Interior designer Jason Mah's home was featured in the Life&Times section of the New Straits Times in August. The article read, "His home doubles up as an interior design office for him and his partner Bernie Lee."
Singapore was our first try at inclusion. Would we be banned in Singapore in 2003? No! Why not? Who cares what is said by boring academics to other boring academics in an event hosted by the very respectable National University of Singapore? The same proved true in Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur (where the support staff was 90 percent women in Muslim headscarves from the host Universiti Kebangsaan).

Headscarves and new fiction

The high point of the KL conference for me was a session on Aug 3 titled Mapping Malay Sexuality in Malay/Malaysian Texts. The four academics making presentations were all Muslim women, three in plain long dresses and white headscarves. The chair, also a Muslim woman, had no headscarf. (She's of Arab descent, I was told.)

One panelist commented that when she was an undergraduate she was told that the only graphic description of sex that was permissible was something like: "I embraced her and she became a mother."

But, we were told, there had been a boom in popular commercial fiction in the 1960s, depicting very graphic sex. The books are remembered as "dime novels." The stories were heterosexual and usually had some return to religion at the end.

This literature was part of the "swinging sixties." Authorities closed it down in the 1970s and 1980s. It restarted around 1999. Now there is a literature in English that is seen as quality writing, with significant sexual content.

The first paper dealt with a novel by Shahnon Ahmad, a "Malay laureate", a leading author. According to the author it is a "novel of ideas." Or is it just a story of bedhopping? The heroine at 27, with bravado, goes about having sex with 19 men. In the end she asks herself whether she has done the right thing. Some remorse or at least some self-questioning restores a moral sense at the end.

Another paper dealt with Malaysian Women bloggers. Two-thirds of bloggers in Malaysia are women, compared to 56 percent worldwide. Currently there is a "war on bloggers" and two individuals have been charged.

So far all the sexual references had been hetero. Then Washima Che Dan, Lecturer, Department of English Language, Universiti Putra Malaysia, presented a paper "Language, Gender and Sexuality in Dina Zaman and Karim Raslan's Works." She focused on the story "Neighbours" in Karim Raslan's collection of short stories entitled Heroes.

A middle-aged, middle class, overweight, bored housewife is charmed by the handsome husband who is moving into the house next door with his wife. She spies on the neighbours from the upstairs balcony where she takes her morning coffee. Oooops. She discovers that the neighbour's wife, under the Muslim dress, is a male. And the wife is the active partner in sex.

The housewife is not so much shocked by what she has learned as filled with guilt over her intrusion. Her improper behaviour has led to her discovering what she did not want to know and had no right to know. The shock of it all is her fault, not that of the neighbours. She has disrupted the public faade of normality that the neighbours have carefully maintained.

One of the Muslim academics gave me her copy of Karim Raslan's book. It has another story of gay sexual repression by a Malay Muslim playing a colonial role in Sabah in Eastern Malaysia. The stories are beautifully written. It seems you can get away with more in Malaysia if you write in English, not Malay.

The conference panel was seen by the women academics as a bold venture. One, after reading a passage from a novel, said almost reflexively: "I actually read that out - and on a Friday!" (Mosques hold a congregational prayer weekly on Fridays and is considered to be obligatory for men.)

Malay, Chinese, Indian

At the conference, the Malaysian government stated and restated its basic national line: Malaysia is multi-ethnic, stable and peaceful. It is a successful example of "unity in diversity." It can teach other countries about how to live together in peace and harmony.

None of the Malaysian academics, off the record, took the governments line seriously. They all know of the race riots of 1969 and the long controversies over the affirmative action programs designed to boost the economic status of Malays (in relation to that of the Chinese).

For Malaysians at the conference, their sense was that the races were drifting further apart, each becoming more insular. Separate religious and educational systems had much to do with this. The legal system is part of the problem, with rigid rules against conversion and intermarriage enforced on Muslims.

Shortly after the conference there was a national controversy over whether Malaysia was a Muslim state or not. Prime Minister Badawi had to intervene to kill the debate, declaring that the country was neither Muslim nor secular.

Sex in Malaysia

There are a few gay bars in Kuala Lumpur and a number of gay saunas. But there is no public discussion of sexual diversity, no discussion of the criminal law still in place (good old 377).

The New Straits Times, Wed, Aug 8, 2007, had an expose on prostitution entitled "The dark side of sex in the city." It told the tragic story of three female prostitutes, sick or diseased, working in the Chow Kit area of Kuala Lumpur. There was no mention of the transsexual prostitutes working in the same area, much less of any male prostitution.

On a "crisis" in the spread of HIV, the article quoted "Pink Triangle chairman Hisham Hussein," without noting that the organisation is a gay focused group that works on HIV prevention with transgender prostitutes. Prostitution was depicted as sordid and apparently exclusively heterosexual.

There were a few sensual images on public view - on the posters outside a mainstream video store - and on the cover of the Malaysian edition of FHM, an internationally printed men's magazine with mostly Caucasian models and stories.

In August, 2007, the Thai gay film Me Myself was playing in KL. It is a pleasant romantic comedy, which treats the causes of homosexuality as inborn (for the lesbian character) and the result of being raised by kathoeys (for the male hero). Neither find their fate a happy one, which presumably made the film suitable for Malaysian eyes.

In the trendy Life&Times section of the New Straits Times on Aug 10, 2007, we got images of "an interior designer's home." Thirty-nine-year-old Jason Mah's home had an eclectic mix - Asian and western, antique and contemporary. "His home doubles up as an interior design office for him and his partner Bernie Lee." Both are seen smiling and casually dressed in the lead photograph. A nice couple, I thought. Perhaps conscious of the lack of reference to female companions in the pictures or the story, the last paragraph has Jason Mah referring to his home as a "bachelor pad." As in the sex novels, some sense of propriety is inserted at the end of the article.

Doug Sanders is a retired Canadian law professor living in Bangkok. He can be contacted at sanders_gwb@yahoo.ca.

Reader's Comments

1. 2007-11-14 17:59  
Nice article Prof Sanders!

Please log in to use this feature.


Select News Edition

Featured Profiles

Now ALL members can view unlimited profiles!


View this page in a different language:

Like Us on Facebook


 ILGA Asia - Fridae partner for LGBT rights in Asia IGLHRC - Fridae Partner for LGBT rights in Asia