Malaysia's religious affairs minister Mujahid Rawa orders removal of LGBT activists' portraits

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia's religious affairs minister has ordered portraits of LGBT activists to be removed from an arts festival in Penang, sparking criticism from the country's more liberal quarters.

Portraits of activists Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik, who champion the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, were taken down on the orders of Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a minister in the Prime Minister's Department. Dr Mujahid said promoting LGBT activities was not in line with the new Pakatan Harapan administration's policies.

He told reporters at the Parliament lobby on Wednesday (Aug 8): "I was informed of the exhibition that showcased their pictures, along with the rainbow pride flag, in a public gallery.

"I contacted the state government to check if the claim is true, and I have consistently repeated in Parliament that we do not support the promotion of LGBT culture in Malaysia."

Ms Nisha and Mr Pang's portraits were removed from the month-long Stripes and Strokes exhibition at the George Town Festival in Penang. They were portrayed holding the Jalur Gemilang, Malaysia's flag, in prints captured by photographer Mooreyameen Mohamad.

Ms Nisha was the first transgender woman to receive the International Women of Courage Award in 2016, while Mr Pang is the co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka,  an annual sexuality rights festival.

The exhibition sponsor, Datuk Vinod Sekhar, criticised the decision.

"How could this happen in Penang? I expected more from the Penang government. We should be enlightening people, changing their mindsets - not reacting to people who are close-minded," he said.

Earlier, Penang state Gender Inclusiveness Committee chairman Chong Eng said she would look into the matter.

She also clarified that the state Gender Inclusiveness Committee was focused on the social and economic roles and needs of men and women, and the committee does not concern itself with sexual orientation.

"However, I don't want to run away from the issue and will look into this. It will be ideal if everyone in society values each other based on our abilities and contributions, while people's sexual orientations are simply their personal matter. But this is not an ideal world," she told The Star on Wednesday.

She added: "I am told the photographs reflect only patriotism and were not even remotely sensual, but that alone was enough to anger some people."

The photography exhibition runs from Aug 4 to Sept 2.

According to the Malay Mail, Dr Mujahid explained that one of the reasons for his decision was to protect the activists from being victims of witch-hunts.

"We received a lot of comments from those who are hostile towards this group, so in order to calm the situation down, I had to make the call. My main concern, I don't want them to get hurt or victimised. Many are enraged by their openness. I want to protect them," he said, as quoted by the news site.

Dr Mujahid had previously said that he cannot stop LGBT people from living according to their "lifestyle" in private, but he would never agree to it being practised in the open, as it is not in accordance with Malaysia's religious and cultural norms.