Malaysian LGBTQ+ groups condemn seizure of rainbow Swatch watches

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian LGBTQ+ groups condemn seizure of rainbow Swatch watches Members of Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs enforcement unit with 25 rainbow-colored watches confiscated from Swatch’s Pride Collection at One Utama Shopping Center, Kuala Lumpur, May 13, 2023.
Handout/Swatch Malaysia

LGBTQ+ rights activists and campaigners have condemned Malaysian authorities for confiscating 172 rainbow-colored watches made by Swatch Group, describing the raids on stores across the Muslim-majority nation as “unwarranted” and “hateful.”

Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs seized the watches from the Swiss company's Pride Collection during raids at 11 stores between May 13-15, Swatch’s marketing manager for Malaysia Sarah Kok told BenarNews Wednesday. Another five stores were told to remove the items from shelves.

The ministry’s enforcement and control division cited the controversial Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984 as the basis for the raids, according to a seizure notice seen by BenarNews. The law contains provisions to control the sale of products deemed morally harmful.

The LGBTQ+ community has long faced discrimination in Malaysia, where homosexuality is forbidden and sodomy can be punished with imprisonment and corporal punishment. The recent raids have intensified concern. 

“The unwarranted crackdown on these items of expression, which display the colors of the global symbol for diversity and inclusivity, directly contradicts the fundamental freedoms of expression and the promotion of tolerance and understanding,” Dhia Rezki Rohaizad, deputy president of Malaysian gay rights group Jejaka, said in a statement. 

“Furthermore, the legality of the raids and seizures is questionable. As an international brand, Swatch has the right to sell its collections without fear of government interference as long as these products are not illegal or harmful.”

Thilaga Sulathireh, co-founder of Justice for Sisters, also expressed concern over the raids, saying they signaled increasing homophobia and extremism in Malaysia. 

“Malaysia has a role to protect everyone, including LGBT people,” she told BenarNews. “Through our work, research, surveys and such with the community, we see how increasing discrimination and marginalization are resulting in increased stress and mental health burden, isolation, and desire to migrate or seek asylum.”

She said continued discrimination also reduced trust in government institutions, which meant people were more reluctant to report cases of abuse or seek health services.

The home affairs ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

‘Anti-LGBT campaign’

Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek Jr. defended the Pride Collection, emphasizing its positive message about the joy of life. 

“We strongly contest that our collection of watches using rainbow colors and having a message of peace and love could be harmful for whomever,” he said.

Joachim Bergström, the Swedish ambassador to Malaysia, said everyone was equal in dignity and rights. 

“They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” Bergström told BenarNews. 

Discrimination against Malaysia’s LGBTQ+ community is often led by the country’s politicians.

In February, the government made headlines when it banned two children’s books due to allegations they promoted “LGBT lifestyles,” as well as a novel deemed “harmful to Malaysian morals.”

More recently, conservative political parties have called for a concert by chart-topping British band Coldplay to be canceled, due to its support of the pride movement. 

Islamic Affairs Minister Mohd Na’im Mokhtar said Monday in a written parliamentary reply that Malaysia has formed an inter-agency special committee to tackle issues related to Muslim LGBTQ+ individuals.

“Despite this, the government still does not discriminate against any group, including LGBT,” the minister said.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, labeled the raids as “utterly ridiculous” and criticized the government's “hateful, anti-LGBT campaign.”

“Malaysian conservatives inside and outside the government seem to be pursuing a strategy to try and demoralize and isolate the LGBT community by attacking their symbols, whether it be rainbow flags, watches, clothes, or their community events,” Robertson told BenarNews. 

“The big question is where Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and government leaders really stand on this issue of fundamental human rights. They cannot continue to fail to protect LGBT persons in Malaysia from these sorts of attacks and then turn around and claim on the international stage that they are a rights-respecting government.”


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