Malaysia cancels music festival, bans British band for on-stage same-sex kiss

Muzliza Mustafa and Shailaja Neelakantan
Kuala Lumpur and Washington
Malaysia cancels music festival, bans British band for on-stage same-sex kiss British band The 1975 frontman Matty Healy (left) and band members are seen backstage at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Singapore, July 18, 2023.
[Photo courtesy Twitter@the1975]

Malaysia on Saturday canceled a music festival and banned a British band a day after its singer unleashed an expletive-ridden tirade against the country’s anti-LGBT laws and kissed his male bandmate on the lips on stage in Kuala Lumpur.

The government also lodged a police report against Matty Healy, the frontman of the band, The 1975, for breaking foreign artists’ performance rules, according to the Communications and Digital Ministry.

Homosexuality is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where sodomy can be punished with up to 20 years in prison and caning. The LGBTQ+ community has long faced discrimination in the country, where rights groups warn of growing intolerance in general and specifically against minorities.

Videos widely shared online of part of the band’s performance Friday, day one of the three-day festival, showed Healy proclaiming to loud cheers that he didn’t see “the point of inviting The 1975 to a country and then telling us who we can have sex with.”

“I made a mistake. When we were booking shows, I wasn’t looking into it,” he told the crowd.

Soon, though, the set was cut short with Healy saying, “All right, we’ve got to go. We just got banned from Kuala Lumpur,” as the crowd could be heard shouting, “No!”

None of this impressed Malaysian Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil, who said he found The 1975’s behavior “very rude.” 

“There will be no compromise against those who challenge, derogate or break Malaysian laws. Therefore, I have ordered the immediate cancellation of the remainder of the festival,” he said in a Twitter post.

He added that Malaysia was committed to supporting the development of the creative industry and freedom of speech.

“However, never ever touch on the sensitivities of the community, especially those that are against the norms and values of local culture,” he said.

‘Performative activism’

Many on social media weren’t impressed either, with Healy’s actions or the government canceling the festival.

They said the cancellation was extreme, would further discourage international acts from coming to the country, and Healy’s actions brought unnecessary attention to the LGBTQ community in Malaysia that was already under threat.

“Wow, thanks a lot, The 1975. You have officially made it very difficult for Malaysia to have any more international concerts,” said @hinamasayadini.

Another Malaysian, @edwardkurivilla, said he did not care about the band The 1975, per se.

“But I do care about this overreaction. Punish the artist by all means, but why punish concertgoers and organizers?” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, @Mercurylax, who identified as a queer Malaysian, said they believe music, art and politics go together, but in this case, Healy, with his “performative activism,” did no favors for Malaysia's LGBTQ community.

“We have carved out spaces and small wins, many of us have gone to jail or been detained doing so. Please do not assume any of us are okay with the homophobia and transphobia in our country nor that we aren't doing anything about it,” Mercurylax wrote.

“Matty pulling that stunt actively endanger[ed] all those efforts by shining a spotlight onto us. … All this does is tighten the laws against us and increase[s] the number of eyes on us. …All that's going to happen is our conservative party will use this to push more laws against us and international entertainment. More misdirected hate will be targeted towards us.”

State elections

Meanwhile, Minister Fahmi’s action came a scant 10 weeks after Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim made a special Instagram video welcoming LGBTQ-friendly British band Coldplay to its November concert in Malaysia.

But now, six state elections loom, in which close to half of the Malaysian population will be voting in what is seen as a report card on Anwar’s coalition federal government. Of those states, two are predominantly Malay, and three are Malay-majority.

Ethnic Malays make up close to 70% of Malaysia's population, and all of them are Muslim. Ethnic Chinese comprise 22.8% of the population, and ethnic Indians 6.6%.

Anwar’s is a multireligious, multiethnic coalition. But the opposition, Perikatan Nasional, which includes the Bersatu party and the hardline Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), openly stands for Malay Muslim interests.

PAS, in fact, made massive gains in the 2022 general election – the “green wave” is what analysts call it – becoming the single-largest party in the parliament.

Some observers have accused the Anwar government of pandering to the religious right in an effort to appease the Malay electorate.

Since taking office last November, his government has banned two children’s books because they allegedly promoted “LGBTQ lifestyles.” It has also banned a novel for purportedly being “harmful to Malaysian morals.”

In May, the Ministry of Home Affairs seized 172 rainbow-colored watches made by the Swatch Group, in a raid Human Rights Watch described as “utterly ridiculous” and a “hateful, anti-LGBT campaign.”

Anwar had said in January that his government would not recognize LGBT rights, local media reported.


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