Swatch dares Malaysia to confiscate rainbows after raid on Pride watches

Malaysia's Home Affairs Ministry confiscated over 100 watches from Swatch's Pride Collection on May 13 and 14. PHOTO: SWATCH/FACEBOOK

KUALA LUMPUR – Multiple raids on Swatch Group’s stores in Malaysia over their sale of Pride-themed rainbow watches has sparked a furious response from the watchmaker and raised renewed doubts about the commitment of the nation’s six-month-old coalition government to LGBTQ rights.

The Swiss-based firm blasted the move in a statement on Tuesday after officials from Malaysia’s Home Affairs Ministry confiscated more than a hundred watches from its Pride Collection – a series of timepieces with rainbow wristbands that come in six colours – at various malls across the country on May 13 and 14.

“We strongly contest that our collection of watches using rainbow colours and having a message of peace and love could be harmful for whomever,” said Swatch chief executive Nick Hayek.

He said the watches were “nothing political” and questioned how the Malaysian government “will confiscate the many beautiful natural rainbows that are showing up thousand times a year in the sky of Malaysia”.

More broadly, the public spat is likely to spark renewed concern about the commitment of a government led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to minority rights, amid resurgent support for conservative parties in the majority-Islamic nation.

Criticism of the government has ratcheted up in recent months, led by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). The Islamist party emerged as the single party with the most seats in parliamentary elections in November 2022, on a wave of youth support, but declined to join a unity government led by Datuk Seri Anwar.

It is “very obvious” that the raids are part of a political game the government is “playing to show they are as Islamist as the opposition Perikatan Nasional”, said Dr James Chin, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, referring to a pro-Malay coalition of which PAS is part.

Concert criticism

The government’s decision to host British band Coldplay for its first concert in the Asian nation later in 2023 turned into another issue for criticism. A leading member of PAS called for it to be cancelled, accusing the government of nurturing “a culture of hedonism” in the country.

Rights groups reacted with anger to such calls, just as they did to news of the Swatch raid.

Jejaka, a gay rights organisation, said it was dismayed by the “unwarranted crackdown” and urged the government “to promote a culture of acceptance and understanding rather than repression and discrimination”.

Malaysia’s Home Affairs Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg News. Its Minister Saifuddin Nasution earlier told the Associated Press that he was waiting for a full report on the raids before issuing a statement.

Mr Anwar has been jailed twice on sodomy charges, although he has called them unjust and received a royal pardon in 2018. He has so far rejected opposition accusations that he plans to legalise same-sex marriage, which like most of Asia, is not recognised by the authorities.

PAS, which governs various states in Malaysia, has also drawn criticism from rights groups for enacting laws that they say discriminate against minorities. This includes a push in 2022 by north-eastern Terengganu state, which PAS controls, to enact a law to punish Muslim women for out-of-wedlock pregnancies and donning men’s clothing.

“The raid appears to be a way for the government to react to allegations that it is not sensitive to Islamic matters” ahead of six key state elections due in a few months, said Prof Mohar Tunku Mohd Mokhtar, a political lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

Yet, some watchers were unsure why the government was getting involved at all.

“Based on recent Malaysian history, the opposition always wins at these sorts of games, as they can always propose something drastic or radical but the government can’t do that,” said Prof Chin. “This is a very silly game for the government to get involved in.” BLOOMBERG

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