In Malaysia, possessing ‘LGBTQ’ watches could get you 3 years in prison

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
In Malaysia, possessing ‘LGBTQ’ watches could get you 3 years in prison A still photograph from Swiss watchmaker Swatch’s campaign for its 2023 collection of watches inspired by the rainbow flag – a symbol of pride and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other gender non-conforming and pansexual people.

Malaysia on Thursday banned Swatch watches and accessories with LGBTQ references and made possessing them punishable by up to three years in prison, saying that normalizing the gay community may harm the nation.

Homosexual acts are considered a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where the LGBTQ+ community has long faced discrimination and where human rights groups have warned of growing intolerance against minorities. 

The ban comes two days before state assembly elections where Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s progressive alliance is competing against a resurgent conservative and Malay Muslim-centric coalition amid a rise in racial and religious rhetoric.

Possession of banned materials may also carry a fine U.S. $4,375, the Home Ministry said in a post on Facebook, adding that the ban, under the controversial Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, would take effect on Aug. 10.

“The Malaysian government is committed to preventing the spread of elements that are harmful or may harm morality, public interest and the country … or national interest, by promoting, supporting, and normalizing the LGBTQ+ movement that is not accepted by the general public in Malaysia,” the ministry’s post said.

The ministry also said it was committed to protecting the public through supervision, control and elimination of “movements that contradict local socio-culture.” 

The ban applies not only to watches that refer to LGBTQ+ but also their packaging, wrappers, user manuals and other accessories, the Home Ministry said.

BenarNews contacted Swatch Malaysia for a comment, but did not immediately hear back.

The ministry did not specify which Swatch watches it banned, but in May it seized 172 rainbow-colored watches from the 2023 Pride collection of Swatch from 11 stores in the country, and told five of them to remove those items from their shelves.

Swatch says the following about its Pride collection in a press release on its website – “vibrant designs represent six colors of the Pride flag – a symbol of humanity that speaks for all genders and all races.

The Pride flag, or the rainbow flag, is a symbol of pride and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other gender non-conforming and pansexual people.

Malaysian Muslims hold signs as they protest against rights for gay people, outside Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 4, 2011. [Samsul Said/Reuters]

Two months after its watches were seized from stores, Swatch filed a lawsuit in the Kuala Lumpur High Court against the Malaysian government over the confiscation. The “arbitrary” seizures, done without prior notice, caused loss and damage to the company’s trading reputation, it said.

Swatch said most of the watches did not contain the LGBTQ+ letters but were inspired by several colors of the rainbow. It also said the seizure notices did not clearly state on what basis the watches were being confiscated.

Rights groups and activists lambasted the government’s latest move, saying it was discriminatory and misusing the notion of public safety. 

A Malaysian gay rights group criticized the government’s move Thursday on the Swatch watches, saying it “perpetuated discrimination” and created divisions in society.

“The Ministry’s assertion that the LGBTQ+ elements in Swatch products are detrimental to morality is not only misguided but also inherently discriminatory,” Dhia Rezki Rohaizad, deputy president of Malaysian gay rights group Jejaka, told BenarNews.  

“We firmly believe that every individual, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, has the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in both international human rights law and the Constitution of Malaysia.” 

The minority LGBTQ community, which is already a target in the country, will now become more marginalized, according to Thilaga Sulathireh, co-founder of an NGO called Justice for Sisters.

“This [ban] creates further misconceptions, stigma and discrimination,” she told BenarNews.

“Further, any form of restriction of rights on those grounds has to be justified in terms of its legality, necessity and proportionality.” 

‘Symbols and words matter’

Some said the ban and other actions in recent months by the Anwar administration were an attempt to increase the federal government alliance’s vote base among the rural, conservative Malay Muslim electorate. Ethnic Malays, who are all Muslim, make up 70% of the population. 

Many observers were stunned when the hardline Islamic party PAS won the most parliamentary seats in last November’s general election, amid a general rise in religious fundamentalism and intolerance.

“Anwar Ibrahim throwing both Swatch and LGBT persons in Malaysia under the bus with this rights abusing, politically expedient ban on rainbow watches from one foreign company,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.

“Symbols and words matter, LGBT Rights are Human Rights! You should know better!”

Five of the six Malaysian states going to the polls on Saturday are Malay-majority ones. Three of these are governed by the opposition, which includes PAS and which has been campaigning on Malay ethnocentric rhetoric.

Some civil Society groups had hoped Malaysian society would slowly become more open once the progressive Anwar was named prime minister in November, but his administration’s actions in recent months have proven otherwise.

Josef Benedict, a researcher with CIVICUS, an alliance of civil society organizations dedicated to citizen action, noted that this government is misusing some of the same laws as previous Malay-centric administrations to curb freedoms.

“Instead of reforming restrictive laws, once again the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) is abused by the Anwar Ibrahim government, this time to ban so-called ‘LGBT watches.’ How ridiculous can this government get?” he said on Twitter.

Last month, the government banned a British pop-rock band The 1975 for a same-sex on-stage kiss and shut down the entire three-day music festival because of the band’s actions.


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