How bad is racism in Malaysia

Malaysia's homophobia and anti-Semitism : ITB partner country with a hard hand

The International Tourism Exchange started this week in Berlin with a scandal. When asked by the Tagesspiegel about the situation of homosexuals in Malaysia, Bin Ketapi, the tourism minister of this year's partner country, replied: "I don't think we have that in our country."

Critics felt confirmed. Ever since it became known that the Southeast Asian state would be the focus of interest in Berlin this year, politicians and activists had repeatedly pointed out the precarious human rights situation there.

High hopes for the new prime minister - in vain?

In major Malaysian cities, they are still hanging in front of the shops: T-shirts with the likeness of Mahathir Mohamad. The imprint in the colors red, beige, blue and with the slogan “Hope” is based on the iconic poster of Barack Obama from the US election campaign in 2008. On May 10, 2018, Mohamad was surprisingly elected prime minister as the top candidate of the opposition alliance "Alliance of Hope".

Since Malaysia's independence in 1957, the National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN) coalition of parties, led by the conservative, Malay-dominated United National Organization (UMNO), had ruled throughout. The younger generation in particular had great hopes for the more democratic politics promised in the election campaign.

Mohamad is the oldest head of government in the world

At 93 years old, Mohamad is the oldest head of government in the world. And it's not the first time he's ruled the country. He was Malaysia's head of government from 1981 to 2003, modernizing the country with an authoritarian and hard hand. Economic stability, he once stated, is more important than civil rights. In this context, Mohamad described the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an oppressive instrument to force Western values ​​on the Asian world.

Homosexuality is still one of them in Malaysia. It is generally punishable. Even heterosexual “inactive supporters” who campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians in the country can be prosecuted. Only last September a lesbian couple was publicly whipped with canes under Islamic law.

Trial of Vice Prime Minister for alleged homosexuality

Former Vice Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has been sentenced to prison terms for alleged homosexual relationships. The trials against him were overshadowed by false testimony, confessions obtained under torture and violence against the accused.

The elected Prime Minister Najib Razak made it unmistakably clear in 2015 how topical the rejection of “carnal intercourse against nature” is, as stated in the sodomy law from colonial times. "These groups, including the Islamic State and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexuals, target the younger generation to spread their ideologies," he said.

There is a risk of up to 20 years in prison

Violation of the strict laws can result in up to 20 years in prison. Some time ago, the state censorship loosened the ban on representation. Since then, homosexuality has also been allowed to be shown on television - but only if the protagonists become heterosexual or die in the course of the plot.

Nevertheless, there is a lively LGBTI scene in the comparatively liberal capital Kuala Lumpur. However, activists repeatedly report targeted, large-scale raids against meeting places. It remains to be seen whether this policy will change under the new administration.

The head of state's anti-Semitism is unlikely to change

The overt anti-Semitism of Mahathir Mohamad is unlikely to change. He has been noticed in the past by claiming that Jews are "not just hook-nosed, they understand money instinctively." He had the film Schindler's List banned because it was "too pro-Jewish". At party congresses he distributed the anti-Semitic pamphlet “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.

Just a few weeks ago, the International Paralympic Committee withdrew the country's already promised hosting of the Swimming World Championships this summer. The Malaysian authorities did not want to assure the Israeli athletes that they were "free from discrimination and safe". Mohamad defended this position with the words: "A country has the right to keep its borders closed to certain people".

Structural Racism and Volkish Nationalism

The story of the Jewish threat, which the prime minister likes to spread, goes hand in hand with structural racism and ethnic nationalism in Malaysia: the Muslim Malays, who are supposedly rooted in the country, are preferred to the Chinese and Indian minorities in many areas of public life.

The face of the capital Kuala Lumpur is still changing at a rapid pace. A shopping center is also currently being built in one of the darkest places in the city. Only the former entrance gate in Berjaya Times Square is reminiscent of Pudu Prison, once the central execution site of Kuala Lumpur.

1200 are on death row for drug offenses

The Australians Kevin John Barlow and Brian Geoffrey Shergold Chambers were hanged here in 1986. They were the first western delinquents to be executed on the basis of the drug laws that were tightened under Mohamad. Even possession of 15 grams of heroin, 40 grams of cocaine or 200 grams of hashish is enough to be sentenced to death by hanging. For years, tourists were greeted at the border with warning signs saying “Death is the compulsory punishment for drug traffickers in Malaysia”. Over 1,200 prisoners are still on death row.

Human rights activists have a hard time. Amnesty International only operates a single, small office on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Even the taxi driver warns that this is not a suitable area for tourists. Only a small sticker on the mailbox indicates the headquarters. A handful of people work here behind a security gate made up of double doors, secured by video surveillance. "Activist groups keep having bad experiences with unwanted intruders," explains Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, director of the Malaysian section of Amnesty International.

A visit to Amnesty International

Kaliemuthu is sitting at the table with a woman whose husband is on death row. Because of an act he did not commit, says the relative, who does not want to reveal her name. Despite numerous inconsistencies in the process and contradicting witness statements, the appeals court rejected a retrial.

Also because the Malaysian state wants to demonstrate toughness, says Kaliemuthu - errors of justice do not fit into the picture. And in the case of ethnic minorities and socially disadvantaged groups, the Malaysian courts would apply a different standard anyway. The convict's family fulfills both criteria.

Will the death penalty finally be abolished?

But most likely the man's life will be spared. On October 10 of last year, World Day against the Death Penalty, the new Malaysian Justice Minister Liew Vui Keon announced that the cruel form of punishment for all crimes should be completely abolished and an immediate moratorium imposed. The final implementation has not yet been decided. Also because there is massive political resistance from the opposition. "Still, I'm cautiously optimistic," says Kaliemuthi.

It remains to be seen whether this decision is a first sign of the announced progress. Malaysia at the ITB in Berlin these days is showing itself to be very cosmopolitan. But the still existing blatant grievances in the country should not be covered up by the pictures of beautiful beaches and rainforests.

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