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.