Where does Malaysia stand on gay rights?

An outburst by a Malaysian minister who criticised a feminist rally attended by gay rights campaigners is the latest sign the government is reneging on pre-election vows to improve the country’s dismal human rights record, critics say.

Islamic Affairs Minister Mujahid Rawa sparked uproar among activists when he said the presence of members of the gay community at the Women’s March Malaysia on Saturday was “shocking”, an “abuse” of democracy and an attempt to “defend practices that are against Islamic teachings”.

The rally, which was supposed to mark International Women’s Day and was attended by ordinary citizens in addition to activists and non-governmental organisations, had made a series of demands to improve women’s rights, including an end to child marriage, a dignified minimum wage for all and an end to gender-based discrimination.

But its demand to end discrimination based on sexual orientation drew opposition from the minister, who said the government was unable to recognise something that was against the law.

While the minister is technically correct on a point of law – in Malaysia, Islamic laws prohibit homosexuality while a secular law bans sodomy – his rhetoric has angered activists who point out that the country’s ruling coalition, the Pakatan Harapan, had made pre-election pledges to boost universal rights.

Activist Thilaga Sulathireh, of the NGO Justice for Sisters, said Mujahid’s comments had served only to inflame public sentiment and divert attention from the rally’s original premise: women’s rights.

“People who attended the march, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, are being asked by family, friends or colleagues why they were at this ‘LGBT’ event,” said Thilaga, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Some Pakatan Harapan backbench members of parliament have been vocal in support of gay rights.

“Focus on the rally demands; stop the demonising of the LGBT community,” said Pakatan Harapan MP Charles Santiago. “What we really need in Malaysia is a radical transformation of society based on equality and justice.” Read more via SCMP