An earthquake and tsunami that devastated Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province last month were “God’s punishment” for LGBT behavior, Malaysian opposition leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said during question time in parliament on Tuesday.
Zahid linked the natural disaster that killed at least 2,250 people in Sulawesi to the LGBT issue while questioning government officials on the parliamentary floor about a state-run program to “rehabilitate” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“If we look at the situation in Malaysia, it is worrying, because of what happened in Palu, Indonesia, when an earthquake and tsunami happened,” said Zahid, a deputy prime minister in Malaysia’s previous government who heads the opposition Barisan Nasional bloc.
“It was reported that there were about 1,000 people in their community that were involved in LGBT activities. This resulted in the destruction of the whole area. This is God’s punishment,” he said.
His remarks were videotaped and disseminated online, including on the website of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), his party that anchors the opposition alliance.
Zahid, 65, made the comments while asking questions about a government program known as Mukhayyam, an initiative by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) that aims to “reform” gay people and “return them to the right path.”
“My question is what are the measures being taken by [Jakim] to ensure the effectiveness of the Mukhayyam program because, we see that until mid last year, about 1,195 people had joined the program,” he said, adding, “And I also want to know the effectiveness of the program so we can avoid God’s punishment toward all Malaysians including those who reject LGBT.”
The Mukhayyam program consists of sessions lasting three days and two nights. Enrollees receive religious instruction and take part in team-building activities. The participants, according to Jakim, enroll in the program voluntarily.
Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, responded to Zahid’s comments on the floor of parliament.
He said the government’s stand on the LGBT issue was clear and that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had rejected the LGBT “way of life.” In late September, the 93-year-old leader of Malaysia’s new government said same-sex marriage and gay rights went against the values of the Muslim-majority nation.
Mujahid said “the rights of the LGBT community to practice their way of life is not allowed under the law.”
“At the same time, the rights of them as humans and Malaysians are always protected based on the customary and culture in Malaysia and within the frame of the Federal Constitution that puts Islam as the federal religion,” he said.
During Tuesday’s session in parliament, government officials did not respond to Zahid’s remarks about the Sulawesi disaster.
But Hannah Yeoh, an MP with the Democratic Action Party, one of the constituent parties in the ruling Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition, criticized Zahid for focusing on the LGBT issue.
“Of all the pressing issues the Opposition Leader @Zahid_Hamidi could have raised, he chose this. Corruption is the biggest social ill and immoral activity in Malaysia. State UMNO’s stance on this instead,” she said via Twitter.
Last week, Zahid was arrested and charged on suspicion of committing a raft of graft-related offenses, including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering amounting to U.S. $27.56 million.
Mujahid said general attitudes toward the LGBT community had not helped, but marginalized gay people and caused many of them to drift into the sex trade.
There are about 20,000 transgender people in Malaysia, of whom almost 80 percent are involved in the sex industry, Mujahid said, citing studies.
Besides the Mukhayyam program, Mujahid said one of many initiatives to be introduced by the new government was to help community members find proper jobs.
Mujahid also told parliament that his department would be upgrading an app-based e-book for the LGBT community that was introduced by the previous government in 2016.
The e-book, titled “Hadis Sahih Mengenai Perlakuan LGBT” (a compilation of authentic Islamic Hadiths on LGBT behavior), can be downloaded from the Google Play Store application. The app contains guidelines on how to “control lust and behavior” and includes verses from the Quran.
Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor, the mufti of Penang state, applauded the initiative from Jakim despite not having heard about the app before.
“I think it is good because we want them to return to the right path,” he told BenarNews. “We have to agree and support the initiative because LGBT is not the norm. Not just in Islam but other religions as well.”
Meanwhile, LGBT rights activist S.Thilaga criticized the “conversion program” started by Jakim as a waste of public money that was harmful to people.
“The fact is that conversion therapy, rehabilitation or balik pangkal jalan (return to the right path) efforts are not evidence and rights-based,” she said.
“Constantly being told that we need to be corrected and rehabilitated, amongst other things, can increase stigma and misinformation, further isolate people, create additional stress, lack of self-worth, create even more barriers for LGBT people to access basic services, and more,” Thilaga told BenarNews.
Malaysia’s LGBT community has long suffered discrimination in a country where homosexual sex remains banned under a British colonial-era law and cross-dressing as the opposite sex is illegal.