Gay Malaysian in Irish civil union raises hackles

Arts curator Pang Khee Teik kicked open the issue of homosexuality in Malaysia almost single-handedly by organising Seksualiti Merdeka a few years ago, a multi-event festival promoting an individual’s rights to autonomy in matters sexual. Owyang Wen Feng, styled Malaysia’s first openly gay pastor, then added to it by his writing and public outspokenness.

By 2011, Seksualiti Merdeka had gained media attention and the police felt compelled to act, telling organisers that they would be shut down if they proceeded with another festival without permission.

However, once opened, the issue of homosexuality seldom goes away, though not everything that follows is a deliberate campaign; some things are just private actions gone public. But the earlier actions by campaigners would have sensitised society to the issue to the extent that even private matters become comment-worthy where previously they would not have been. Such is the trajectory of social movements, where the first milestone is to make previously rock-solid norms and attitudes vulnerable to questioning. Once that has happened, even minor acts are invested with significance. The “mainstream”, now feeling vulnerable, becomes anxious to react to the slightest provocation lest more erosion follows.

Ariff Alfian Rosli’s civil union with his Irish partner was one such private matter. Ireland legalised civil unions for same-sex couples earlier in 2011.

[This paragraph amended 26 Dec 2011] The Irish Times featured his civil union ceremony with partner Jonathan — the newspaper did not give his partner’s full name — and several pictures went up onto Facebook. It is unclear who started that Facebook page; a friend pointed out that it was started the day Ariff got unioned and was classed as a “public figure” which is inconsistent with somebody trying to avoid controversy. It was quickly filled with comments warning him about “despising” Allah and castigating him for bringing shame to the Malay race.

Plenty more figures jumped in with similar pronouncements. “The marriage is a disgrace to our religion, race and country,” said Norizan Ali, chairman of Kepong Islamic Youth Organization (PBIK), to the internet newspaper Malaysia Chronicle. PBIK lodged a police report over Ariff Alfian’s failure to comply with Malaysia’s Islamic laws.

Other reports can be found in Malaysian Insider and The Star, with the former reporting that the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office has pledged to investigate the matter, though what there is to investigate, I don’t quite know.

You would also see from those reports that Ariff had first gone to Ireland on a scholarship, but didn’t do well enough in his studies and so the scholarship was cancelled. He now owes Petronas, the scholarship provider, about 890,000 Malaysian Ringgit (about S$365,000), and [added 26 Dec 2011] Malaysian reports have contained the slant that he was leaving it to his family to repay the debt [/added]. If true, such irresponsibility cannot be condoned, but it is a separate matter from his sexual orientation and civil union, to which topic we now return.

I thought it was rather illuminating that the criticism took the form of being against religion and of bringing disgrace to the group, however group was defined — country, race or religion. It assumed that individuals had an over-riding responsibility to act in ways consistent with how the group saw itself. Even the automatic appeal to religious dictates implies that Ariff must see himself answerable to those dictates.

There is little scope given to an individual’s right to be true to himself and to exercise his autonomy in ways that makes him happy even if others disagree. Nor is there any reflection on who has decided what should constitute group interests or how normative group characteristics have been constructed. They remain unquestioned, even when the absurdity of the implied claim screams at us: Why should Malayness be in lockstep with heterosexuality, for example?

That said, the claim is usually not formulated that way. More likely, it follows this sequence: homosexuality is wrong and disgraceful, and Ariff Alfian is a Malay, Malaysian and Muslim. Therefore his has brought disgrace to the race, the nationality and the religion. Even then, it is an unsatisfactory argument, as it only puts the spotlight on the prior assertion: why is homosexuality wrong and disgraceful? The more one investigates the issue, the more circular and self-justifying the arguments become.

* * * * *

There is something that Ariff said to the Irish Times that Singaporeans should reflect upon too: “Returning home under the current situation is untenable . . . as I fear for my safety there.”

Over the years, a steady number of gay Singaporeans have formed relationships with foreigners. It makes sense for them to live in countries where their relationships are legally recognised, with state benefits.

Yet we have the government trying to persuade Singaporeans to come back. Brain drain is something we can ill afford when our population is so small. Our society may not be as antagonistic as large parts of Malaysian society to homosexuality and same-sex couples, but our state policies aren’t all that different. Take the simple matter of residency rights for the spouse — unless this is assured, no gay Singaporean in a same-sex relationship is going to consider moving back.

Perhaps it is time to ask if a Singaporean Ariff would have any less reason than the Malaysian Ariff to stay away and kiss his country goodbye.

31 Responses to “Gay Malaysian in Irish civil union raises hackles”

  1. 1 Poker Player 25 December 2011 at 16:48

    If you think Singapore Evangelical Christianity is bad, you haven’t met Malaysian Mainstream Islam.

    Think Obedient Wives Club.

    Their tabloids have religious scholars recommending that wives too pregnant for regular sex should masturbate their husbands.

    The arguments in your article would be unintelligible to them. It may as well have been written in Klingon.

    • 2 Jason 27 December 2011 at 18:47

      The Obedient Wives Club is not part of mainstream Islam. Their manuals have been banned by the Malaysian authorities.

      Even wikipedia has this information. Read up before you decide to spread such falsehoods.

      • 3 Poker Player 28 December 2011 at 11:41

        I read this stuff (Malaysian issues) in the original Malay. Unfiltered through the sensibilities of the “English” educated. You are the one who needs to do the reading.

      • 4 Poker Player 28 December 2011 at 11:45

        BTW, to people who get their information about the Muslim world from BBC and CNN, look up “rose-tinted”.

    • 5 Jason 30 December 2011 at 23:25

      Well, since I can’t reply to your comment below, I’ll reply here.

      Firstly, great that you read the issues in Malay, but did you also read it from a biased viewpoint given the plurality of voices within Malaysia and its religious discourse? If indeed the Obedient Wives Club is part of mainstream Islam, did you verify this through speaking to other Muslims, as well as official statements made by any authorities?

      And yet you claim that my views are filtered for the sensibilities of the “English” educated? Let me get some facts across to you: Number of Muslims in Malaysia: Approximately 17 million. Number of Members in the Obedient Wives Club: 800.

      800 constitutes a mainstream? Really?

      And just to prove my point, here’s an article from THE MALAYSIAN INSIDER:

      I insist on putting the title of the publication in caps. In case you don’t want to click on the link, let me quote, “According to the ministry’s Al-Quran Text and Publishing Control Division, the book was banned because of its links to the outlawed Al-Arqam movement and for violating the Department of Islamic Development’s (Jakim) censorship rules.”

      I wasn’t aware the Department of Islamic Development and the Al-Quran Text and Publishing Control Division was the BBC or CNN. Sure my views may be filtered for the “English educated”, but I at least take the effort to inform myself, so thank you for your suggestion that I do my reading. However, it is evident that I have read more than you.

      And for the record, I took interest on this specific post by Yawning Bread and the issue he writes on at large because my partner of 8 years is Muslim.

      • 6 Poker Player 2 January 2012 at 08:21

        “Firstly, great that you read the issues in Malay, but did you also read it from a biased viewpoint given the plurality of voices within Malaysia and its religious discourse?”

        According to your logic, the Muslim brotherhood was fringe. Suddenly when democracy comes to Egypt, it is mainstream?

        In Malaysia, this “biased viewpoint” has never been underground. This biased viewpoint is the reserve political capital that Malay politicians mine when they want credibility. What do you call it if not mainstream?

        “And for the record, I took interest on this specific post by Yawning Bread and the issue he writes on at large because my partner of 8 years is Muslim.”

        If he is also Malay and Malaysian and doesn’t have to hide his relationship from his family and his community – then you have proven your point.

      • 7 Poker Player 2 January 2012 at 08:30

        “Firstly, great that you read the issues in Malay, but did you also read it from a biased viewpoint given the plurality of voices within Malaysia and its religious discourse?”

        You also seem to be changing the subject. My point was about Malaysian Mainstream Islam. One of its tenets is: non-Muslims please butt out of our business. Hell, it’s not clear if they even allow Sisters in Islam to sit on the same table.

      • 8 Poker Playe 2 January 2012 at 09:11

        I used the OWC because it was still fresh in some minds.

        A slam dunk would be “Lina Joy”. This happened in the full glare of the English language press and web.

        Look it up before you decide to spread such falsehoods.

      • 9 Poker Player 2 January 2012 at 20:23

        Less visible to the English-language press and web:

        “Nur’aishah Bokhari” – a more “dynamic” case. And very mainstream reactions.

      • 10 yawningbread 2 January 2012 at 23:03

        I think we’re really far off topic by this point. Call a truce.

  2. 11 Afiq 25 December 2011 at 21:45

    The problem with some conservative Malaysian Malays is that they still view the Malay community a collective and not an individual and believe that any Malay who does not “conform” by traditional norms is a “traitor to the Malay race”.

    Having said that, I heard from someof my Malaysian Chinese friends that gay pubs in the more urban KL city is a norm – provided that it is not in Malay or English that is. Malaysian authorities tend to close one eye on gay bars and pubs if the sign is in Chinese. What I see fromt he Malaysian government is that while they tend to secular in their approach in politics, they often do not want to do so untill at the expense of losing votes from the conservative Malays.

  3. 12 Lee Chee Wai 26 December 2011 at 07:50

    “Such irresponsibility cannot be condoned, but it is a separate matter from his sexual orientation and civil union, to which topic we now return.”

    Somewhat off-topic, but I am curious to know what you feel is so irresponsible and “un-condonable” about an individual’s failure to do “well-enough” on a scholarship program?

    • 13 yawningbread 26 December 2011 at 12:41

      It’s a terribly unclear sentence; thanks for pointing it out. I have now added a clause to make it clearer.

      • 14 Ian 26 December 2011 at 12:55

        “Malaysian reports have contained the slant that he was leaving it to his family to repay the debt”

        from your source you gave (irishtimes):
        “Mr Rosli insists he has been in regular contact with Petronas representatives over the repayment of his college fees. “… I have no intention of running away from this responsibility or shrugging it off my shoulder.””

      • 15 Chee Wai Lee 28 December 2011 at 08:40

        Ah, cool. Thanks for the update with the context! Makes sense.

  4. 16 Paul 26 December 2011 at 10:17

    On a positive note, Ignatius coming out piece in the Sunday Times on Christmas Day was like a breath of fresh air

  5. 17 Dickson Yeo 26 December 2011 at 13:49

    I am sick and tired of the MIW placing an unloaded pistol at my forehead with s377 and the other archaic colonial era homophobic legislation.

    I will not wait till I’m 50 in order for my state to recognize my relationship legally. I have served 2.5 years in the military, paid my taxes, did my remedial army training and obeyed the law throughout my life.

    If this is the price I pay for my loyalty to Singapore, then I think I must have wasted my last 30 years. To hell with the Christian fundie nutcases like the Thios and the other mainstream, evangelical loonie bins. Their teachings have no bearings on my value as a person, straight or otherwise.

    And if they’re so hung up about “morality”. Please let these fundie hypocrites explain how they managed to work and finance gigantic corporate banking MNCs in fleecing their own countrymen or enabling money laundering? You mean Jesus didn’t say anything about helping third world Kleptocrats launder timber-smuggling money at Shenton Way? Oh my, which Bible have you been reading?

  6. 18 Passerby 26 December 2011 at 16:21

    Basing off of the newspaper article in the Irish Times, I’m wondering if his scholarship was rescinded because of not making the grade academically, or because he has made known his intention of not returning to Malaysia, which is a breach of contract, or because Petronas wishes to distance itself from someone perceived as being disloyal and a disgrace to his country.

    Regardless, from the point of view of those here who are against gay equality, losing talented gay people is an acceptable loss, if they even consider it a loss at all. A person’s choice to never return because of local prejudice should be respected, given the circumstances.

    • 19 SN 27 December 2011 at 00:08

      I find all this talk of talented gays mildly amusing (present also in Alex’s conclusion).

      It is as if only gays are talented in a manner that gays can be. Worse still, it appears that your civil rights are worth protecting only if you are “talented.”

      Can we please stop this bullshit?

  7. 20 Yujuan 27 December 2011 at 13:37

    Sorry, Yawning Bread is not my cup of tea – too much obsession with homosexual issues.
    Would not log onto this website any more, but all the best anyway.

    • 21 Chee Wai Lee 28 December 2011 at 08:49

      Too bad. Alex is a homosexual man, so it is natural that homosexual issues be close to his heart. As for the “obsession”, I have not actually counted this … but by my casual reckoning, I’d say only about 30% of his articles focus on issues of homosexuality. And when these articles do appear, they are often focused on the issues of fairness which apply to most if not all minority groups in society.

      The only minor (and bemused) annoyance I have with some of Alex’s homosexuality articles are when non work-safe pictures show up (sometimes rather egregiously … as if to provoke, heh, which I must say he succeeds at :P) without the label (he *used* to put up clear “unsafe” tags … dunno what happened since :P).

      On the whole, I feel sorry you like your “cup of tea” whole … all or nothing. I handle Alex’s blog the way I handle most blogs – if it is not interesting, I don’t read it. “TR Emeritus” is mostly full of crap, but I still visit it on occasion because once-in-a-while something insightful does show up.

      • 22 Poker Player 28 December 2011 at 13:18

        >> “TR Emeritus” is mostly full of crap

        As it should be. The ST too but dressed in “respectable” language. Since fence-sitters tend to split the difference when confronted with opposing views, you need something over-the-top like TRE to counter equally over-the-top ST.

      • 23 Chee Wai Lee 29 December 2011 at 02:28

        Frankly, at one point, I read the ST articles less often than I read TR (before the “Emeritus” part) ones. I handle most ST articles as badly written news where “balance” is either spin or just mere hand-waving.

        Anyway, this is my last comment on the matter. This sub-thread has gone seriously off-topic. My apologies to Alex.

      • 24 Anonymous 29 December 2011 at 12:02

        I think PP has a pretty good point here. The equilibrium is always sought. If the ST wasn’t so blatantly biased, there would not have been so much ill will generated that enables sites like TRE to thrive.

    • 25 Poker Player 28 December 2011 at 11:37

      Half the weight of the Saturday paper is classifieds.

      • 26 yuen 30 December 2011 at 09:13

        being an SPH shareholder, this is good news to me; it means ST would generate a good income

        I assume the current editorial balance, even or not, is what SPH reckons would keep advertising, from GLCs especially, coming in; competitors like Today probably finds it so too – it tries to be different, but ends up more or less in the same place

      • 27 Poker Player 2 January 2012 at 13:44


        The current editorial “balance” is what the government would allow it.

    • 28 mycenas 28 December 2011 at 12:16

      Its a fundamental human rights issue and has nothing to do with obsession.

      For those who have similar viewpoints like Yujuan, these straight / heteorsexuals do not understand that everything that they take for granted. The gays/lesbians/transpeople had to fight for them.

    • 29 jem 29 December 2011 at 12:03

      What you really mean to say is that you have have no real arguments to back up your opinions, and are tired of being publicly embarrassed when everyone rebuts you and you are unable to reply.

    • 30 R 10 January 2012 at 23:35

      No one’s begging you to read you know.

  8. 31 ajohor 25 January 2012 at 20:10


    Interesting to note that at least 1 person who is GLBT claims by choice”

    To quote

    “CYNTHIA Nixon has caused outrage among gay and lesbian rights groups by claiming she is gay “by choice”.

    The former Sex and The City star, who has been with partner Christine Marinoni since 2004, touched on her decision to become a lesbian during a recent empowerment speech and has further spoken out about her comments after a backlash from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. ”

    Read more:

    So as for your theories, it does disprove that for some, “gayness” is by choice.


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