Malaysia’s government has come under fire from human rights campaigners and members of the arts community after two portraits of LGBTI activists were removed from a photography exhibition.
On Wednesday (8 August) portraits of Pang Khee Teik and Nisha Ayub were taken down from the Stripes and Strokes exhibition, which is currently taking place in the George Town Festival.
The photographs featured the well-known LGBTI activists holding the Malaysian national flag.
LGBTI rights are a divisive issue in Malaysia, where homosexuality is still illegal.
Malaysia’s religious affairs minister, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, said he had ordered for the photos to be removed from the festival in the northern state of Penang.
“I have consistently repeated in parliament that we do not support the promotion of LGBT culture in Malaysia,” the Star reported Mujahid saying outside parliament on Wednesday.
Calls for boycott
Human rights campaigner Marina Mahatir, whose portrait is also on display, requested her picture be removed from the exhibition.
‘I am asking for my photos to be taken down in solidarity with Pang and Nisha,’ Free Malaysia today reported Marina saying.
‘I am personally very sad about this. When people say they are not treating LGBT Malaysians as second-class citizens, this is exact proof that discrimination exists,’ Marina added. Marina is also the daughter of Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahatir Mohammed.
Well-known theatre practitioner Jo Kukathas called on the all other subjects featured in the portraits to boycott the exhibition.
‘I hope the other people whose portraits are part of the exhibition request that their portraits are taken down too as an act of solidarity with their fellow Malaysians,’ the Star reported Kukathas saying. ‘I hope the photographer who lovingly composed these shots feels the same way.’
Other prominent public figures in Malaysia expressing their dismay at the government’s order to remove the portraits included author Faisal Tehrani and human rights lawyer Siti Kasim.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International released a statement calling the government’s move a ‘deeply discriminatory act’.
Mixed messages from govt on LGBTI rights
The new Pakatan Harapan government, which claimed power in a shock election victory in May, have been hailed as progressive reformers with strong ties to activist groups.
However, the government has been sending out mixed messages with regards to progressing LGBTI rights in Malaysia, where the LGBTI community is often stigmatised.
Human Rights Watch has detailed the rhetoric by Mujahid, who condemned bullying and workplace discrimination of LGBTI people, though has also spoken of the government’s concern of the ‘worrying […] spread of the LGBTI lifestyle’.
In July, an LGBTI activist resigned as the press officer for a government minister after an influx of threats and public outcry over him being openly gay.