Malaysian state’s gay ‘rehab’ centre plan ‘amounts to torture’, LGBTQ activists say

“This rehabilitation centre is established … for them to get back on the right path,” Mohd Fared told the assembly.

A worshipper at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur. The constitution grants each of Malaysia’s 13 states the power to prosecute Muslims who breach religious offences, with same-sex relations being one of them. Photo: AP

Aside from same-sex individuals, Mohd Fared boasted that the centre would also house “those who are deemed deviant” from the state-prescribed religious orthodoxy, which includes the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and Baha’i among some 42 groups, the state’s religious affairs body has identified as “deviant”.

In Johor’s state elections last year, the multi-ethnic and progressive Pakatan Harapan was voted out in favour of the monoethnic and conservative Umno party.

Reacting to the rehab news, transgender rights group Justice for Sisters said detaining people was a violation of the Malaysian constitution, which safeguards personal liberty, privacy, dignity, equality and prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

“Detaining people on the grounds of changing their SOGIE – sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression – amounts to torture without a doubt,” said the group’s spokesperson Thilaga Sulathireh to This Week in Asia.

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Alongside the constitution enshrining Islam as the state religion, it also grants each of Malaysia’s 13 states the power to prosecute Muslims who breach religious offences, with same-sex relations being one of them. That does not include the act of sodomy, which is a common law offence under the federal government’s purview.

Justice for Sisters said the long-term impact of so-called rehabilitation efforts on LGBTQ people, strains mental health, school dropouts and even pushes suicidal thoughts.

“Conversion practices or efforts to change a person of any kind, be it through medical, religious or other methods, have been rejected by medical and human rights bodies as it is not backed by evidence and is not rights-based,” Thilaga stressed.

Protesters urge the government to recognise the LGBTQ community at a 2011 rally outside a mosque in Shah Alam near Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

Despite voting in a multi-ethnic and progressive administration to power in the November 2022 election over the staunchly Islamist monoethnic Perikatan Nasional coalition, Malaysia’s LGBTQ community continues to find themselves in the cross hairs of enforcement agencies.

“We voted for this government because we are scared of the other side, but times like this make me question whether there is any difference between them,” said Jay, a gay man in Kuala Lumpur.

He refused to share his identity for fear of repercussions.

Over 1,733 Malaysians from the LGBTQ community had already been sent to similar rehabilitation camps run by Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department, then-prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said to parliament in 2021.

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Asia-Pacific Transgender Network in its 2020 report on Malaysia found that conversion therapy practices are widespread and often perpetrated by parents, school systems, religious institutions, and the state.

“These programmes include showing trans women videos about death and dying (to strike the fear of God in them) and forcing them to participate in strenuous physical activity in the hope that it will make them more ‘masculine’,” the report said.

Homosexuality is frowned upon in Malaysian society, with more than 82 per cent of the population against same-sex marriage, according to a study published on Wednesday by Pew Research Center. Some 75 per cent said they strongly opposed such unions.

Among six Southeast Asian countries surveyed, only Indonesia was more opposed, at as much as 92 per cent.

“Muslims report the lowest support for same-sex marriage of any religious group in any place surveyed,” the report said.

Where Muslims are in the minority, such as in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, some 57-65 per cent are in favour of same-sex marriage. In comparison, cosmopolitan Singapore hangs in the balance, with 45 per cent for and 51 per cent against.
In July, British band The 1975 ended its Kuala Lumpur concert early after frontman Matt Healy launched a profanity-laden speech criticising the Malaysian government’s treatment of the LGBTQ community and kissed bassist Ross MacDonald on stage as a form of protest.
The government promptly cancelled the three-day music festival over the incident and has since pushed for a ‘kill switch’ at all major events.

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