[OP-ED] The Impotence of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
On Sept. 3, 2018, two Malaysian women were caned for having sexual intercourse in a car, placing Malaysia’s ultraconservative anti-LGBTQ laws in the global spotlight. The harsh sentence passed down by the Islamic courts was roundly condemned by many human rights groups such as Amnesty International, who called it “a terrible day for human rights”. In the remarks, the judge added that the caning was “a lesson and reminder … [to] the members of society”.
In the past few months, there has been an uptick of attacks against the gay community in Malaysia. On Aug. 20, a small nightclub known for its LGBTQ patrons was raided by the government and 20 men were “detained and ordered into counseling”. A few days before, a vicious hate crime against a transgender woman resulted in her being “brutally beaten on the street”. An interim press secretary has also been pressured to resign due to his past advocacy of “gay rights”. Many observers placed the blame for his ouster on the current government’s “feeble response” and lackluster defense.
The lack of a strong government response upset many Malaysians who had faith in the nonagenarian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. In the 2018 Malaysian General Election, a loose group of political parties led by Mahathir Mohamad shocked the world by successfully overthrowing a coalition government that had governed the country since independence. After the political earthquake, many Malaysians believed that the new leader would be different from his corrupt and intolerant predecessor. Despite the outpouring of hope and optimism, I remained skeptical and unconvinced that the status quo back then would be overturned by the supposedly messianic Prime Minister. After all, this is an authoritarian leader who imprisoned political dissidents, crushed free speech, and created the system of crony capitalism that led to a long era of corruption.
The shameful caning episode and the weak government response that followed reveal a leader who is unwilling to take decisive actions to uproot laws inherently against human dignity. Despite denouncing the caning as one which “did not reflect the justice or compassion of Islam”, Mr. Mahathir did not dispute that the two women had committed a crime, instead recommending a “lighter sentence" to be meted out.
It is important to note that the sentencing was handed out by a sharia court which has jurisdiction over the Muslim majority in Malaysia. However, it does not mean that Mr. Mahathir and his cabinet officials cannot do more to protest the ruling. The Malaysian Penal Code, applicable to all Malaysians, still contains a clause that criminalizes sodomy, which can be overturned by Mr. Mahathir through parliamentary majority. Other lesser steps could involve instituting anti-discrimination laws against gay individuals or reducing enforcement of current laws targeting gay Malaysians. At the very least, he could have issued a statement that placed less blame on the two women than on the judicial system.
This is clearly not reflective of the manifesto which Mr. Mahathir’s coalition, Pakatan Harapan (the Hope Pact), ran on in 2018. In the manifesto, Pakatan Harapan promised to “build an inclusive and moderate” nation. Unfortunately, Mr Mahathir’s record on LGBTQ rights is merely one of several incidents that prove to me that the current government is in need of a serious reevaluation of priorities.
On affirmative action policies, Mr. Mahathir still believes that the Malay majority should continue to receive benefits in order to “bridge [the income and education] gap”. This belief goes against the fact that affirmative action policies geared towards helping the Malay majority have been in place since 1971 and are responsible for the brain drain of minorities plaguing the country today. The overtly racist policies include reserving “senior positions in the civil service” for Malays and providing Malays with “a discount of 5 to 15 percent on new developments”, all for the sole purpose of elevating Malays at the expense of other races.
On the issue of free speech, the former dictatorial figure has been mum about abolishing the Sedition Act, a tool used by the previous government to “muzzle dissenters”. Even though Mr. Mahathir promised to repeal the Act, the police are currently “using the act to investigate … activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri over an article she wrote criticizing the country’s constitutional monarchy”.
So far many of the items on Mr. Mahathir’s agenda have remainedunfulfilled, and he has consistently refused to rise to the occasion when it comes to defending the oppressed members of society. I truly believe that the new government has the capacity to transform Malaysia for the better and usher in a new era of prosperity if bold steps are taken. Yet, the government clearly remains unwilling to use its mandate to expunge the racists, homophobes, and Islamic fundamentalists from the mainstream of society. By staying largely silent and yes, impotent, Mr. Mahathir runs the risk of alienating many who believed that he is the change that Malaysia needs.