A government-backed musical in Malaysia that aims to warn young people about the perils of being lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) in this Muslim-majority country has sparked controversy over its “state-sponsored bigotry” and potential to incite hatred.
Asmara Songsang (Abnormal Desire) follows the lives of three LGBT friends who throw loud parties, take drugs and have casual sex, thereby incurring the wrath of their religious neighbours, who attempt to reintroduce them to the teachings of Islam. Those who repent are spared, while those who don’t are killed in a lightning storm.
Rahman Adam, 73, who wrote and directed the musical, said his aim was “to educate the youngsters and their parents [on] the bad things about LGBT”.
“Nowadays in Malaysia you read so many things in newspaper articles or write-ups about LGBT … because [LGBT] are going into schools and influencing the children,” he said. “Children need to recognise that men are for women, and women are for men. They [LGBT] are all out to have homosexual and lesbian sex, and although right now it is not so serious [in Malaysia], we need to act, to do something, to say something, to say that this is bad and not to follow it.”
The musical features some of Malaysia’s most famous TV actors and opened this month at the national theatre in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. It has since toured schools, universities and teacher-training colleges – with free tickets provided.
Malaysia is no stranger to anti-LGBT sentiment. In 2011, the governmentset up a camp to “correct the effeminate behaviour” of schoolboys and last year endorsed a how-to guide for recognising gay and lesbian “symptoms” in youth.
This year, it is running parenting workshops on curbing LGBT behaviour, presided over by the deputy education minister Mohd Puad Zarkashi, who has called LGBT “a social illness” and warned: “Just like drugs, a lack of awareness will cause LGBT to spread.” Adam’s musical – which ends with the cast singing the incumbent government’s anthem for national unity – has hit the stage at an interesting time in Malaysia. General elections must be held by June, and the ruling Barisan Nasional, which has presided over the country for nearly 60 years, stands to lose its hold on power. The opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has faced sodomy charges twice in the past 15 years, allegations he says were politically motivated. While Adam insists most of the press his musical has received has been positive, its anti-LGBT message has incurred the wrath of some audience members and human-rights groups, who say it only serves to incite hatred in a nation where LGBT rights still go largely unrecognised.
“We are extremely concerned that such damaging messages and misrepresentation will increase violence towards the community, [as] the LGBT community is already subject to multiple forms of violence and persecution by the state,” said S Thilaga of Seksualiti Merdeka, an annual festival that promotes LGBT rights in Malaysia.
Alia Ali, in a review for the online arts portal Kakiseni Blog, said such a one-sided view of the issue proved just how “narrow-minded and bigoted” the government could be.
“If they want LGBTs to listen to their message, they need to listen to what the LGBT community has to say as well,” she wrote. “[But] LGBTs do not have the same access to the same deep pockets as this performance did, thus have less opportunities to tell their side of the story.”
Adam, however, denied his musical incited hatred and insisted it was a balanced representation of LGBT life.
“I just say, ‘This is their world’. I didn’t do academic research, because I don’t intend to create a war against them,” he said. “My job is to write a story and direct a play. That is all. If anyone said I tried to create hateful feelings, then I say no, I didn’t do that at all. I always do good things.”