The removal of two portraits of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists at a state-sponsored photography exhibition in Penang this week may have been a distraction from wider issues, women’s rights campaigner Ivy Josiah said.
Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik’s portraits were less important than other issues, she said.
The exhibition featured portraits of Malaysians with the flag to commemorate 60 years of Malaysian independence from Britain.
Nisha is a transgender activist who has won several awards, including the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in 2016 for her campaign for transgender rights.
Pang is the co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka, an annual gay rights festival, and the editor of the Queer Lapis online forum.
Josiah mused: “We have bigger corruption scandals, economic issues, debts, among others. These are more urgent.
“A person’s identity is not going to bring the economy or our gross domestic product down.
“This is just bullying people and trying to blame a group of people for nothing,” Josiah told a Monash University forum.
George Town Festival director Joe Sidek said he chose to lose the battle when he made the decision to remove the photographs at the Stripes and Strokes exhibition.
Sidek said he was not “threatened” over the exhibition he claimed was to showcase “Malaysian pride and not gay pride”.
“I don’t approve of censorship but I understand why it had to be done,” he told the BBC, adding that making a stand would have triggered more problems.
“So I chose to lose this battle,” he purportedly said.
Homosexual activity is currently illegal in Malaysia under both secular and religious laws.
The Islamic affairs minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa admitted that he had instructed the removal of the two portraits.
Mujahid had told The Star that Malaysian society “cannot accept LGBT being promoted because that is against the society norms”.
“When you put the picture with the [gay pride] symbol, if that is not promotion… then tell me what is the definition of promotion.”
His remarks created an uproar on social media.
“Vijay47” posted that the photos’ removal was “the kind of rubbish PAS [Malaysian Islamic Party] would be proud about. It is unbelievable that it should happen when Pakatan Harapan has become the government.
“The first thing to be done is that the little Napoleon responsible for this display of extremism should be dismissed.”
Mujahid told the media he wanted to “protect” Nisha and Pang from a backlash as he said he received “complaints” from the public.
The two controversial portraits. Homosexuality remains taboo in many areas of Malaysian society. Picture credit: YouTube