(With US President Barack Obama on a historic visit to Malaysia this weekend, Malaysian LGBT rights activist Pang Khee Teik responds to the Human Rights Watch’s call on Obama to address LGBT issues among other rights during his visit.)
In the past two weeks, I have been invited to two meetings, one by the US Embassy and one by Human Rights Watch, in which Malaysians LGBT activists were consulted on what we would like Obama to say in support of Malaysian LGBTs. It’s nice to be asked how we would like to be helped for a change, instead of simply being told to accept help according to the terms and conditions applied to the help.
While I appreciate the call for Obama to support the activism on sexual orientation and gender identity issues, I find myself confused by the intended outcome of such a support. How can they help, really? And who are they helping, really? (And no, I wasn’t invited to meet Obama. But with my cynicism, could you blame them, really?)
On one hand, Obama’s visit seems premised on securing better international relations. And better international relations are often the stepping stone for better trade agreements. Better for the signers of agreements, naturally. Most notoriously, the USA has recently been trying to promote the TPPA (Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement), which has terms favorable to USA’s corporations and their economic interests, as well as the interests of ruling elites locally, at the expense of local communities and rights. A possible outcome of TPPA is the protection of the interests of pharmaceutical firms, thereby increasing the prices of HIV drugs and making effective cancer treatment less accessible for Malaysians.
On the other, Obama wants to appear to his own people, and to the rest of the world, as the leader of the free world. It is easy for him to perform USA’s moral leadership globally by supporting rights issues elsewhere. But why should Obama have the moral imperative to support local rights issues elsewhere? The US itself has not ratified major international UN treaties (not unlike Malaysia). Have we forgotten that the USA has a history of ‘fighting’ for freedoms using Agent Orange, napalm and drones on civilians? Is it because the USA’s various gross and open violations of human rights, in their own country as well as abroad, are less serious violations compared to ours? Are drone attacks and jailing of whistle-blowers marks of courageous moral leadership?
Could it be that being seen as a global leader allows them to dictate the trade terms and the global political economy by which others are obligated to comply? The ‘freedom’ that US wants to champion everywhere else is greatly compromised by the ‘freedom’ it then champions for its corporations and financial institutions.
Freedom is lovely. But not if the end goal of this freedom is that the powerful secure more freedom for themselves to regulate the terms of freedom for others. I don’t need freedom in which I am not free to determine my freedom.
It bugs me that increasingly LGBTs have become pawns in the ideological battles of the powerful. Being a gay Malaysian, I am called an enemy of religion, a traitor to my country, a threat to society. So I find myself seduced by the human rights of international institutions — rights which by the way I have no means of securing in my country yet. But I hold out the hope that someday the wishful thinking translates into reality.
Meanwhile, I find myself very disturbed when aid-granting nations graft human rights to developmental issues. For when wealthy nation tie their aid to their promotion of human rights, the imposition of rights norms become indistinguishable from the might of wealth, as if only the wealthy gets to set the moral agenda for others. A dangerous logic develops. This leads to easy lip service paid to human rights by states in order to justify their trading with one another. I worry that human rights debates are being used to mask the global economic system by which the powerful operate, and by which the rest of us have all been oppressed.
Don’t mistake me, I love my human rights. It is one of the most human, powerful, and also necessarily paradoxical, standards we have derived as a species. Yet I can’t help but feel it is self-defeating to support the very mechanisms that support other inequalities.
At home, I want to resist these global forces but I am unable to take part in any resistance that comes from nationalist, conservative forces when these groups fight global imperialism by demanding for my alienation and criminalization. So, while some countries go about shaming others for not promoting LGBT rights, other countries are enacting harsher legislation against LGBTs as a way to fortify their sovereignty.
LGBTs in countries with anti-LGBT laws and policies today are feeling more and more orphaned, seen as charity causes by some, and social outcasts by others. Who can we look to? How is it that sexual orientation is today at the center of this global tension? We are more than issues, we are lives in the balance.
During the meetings to listen to what local LGBT activists want Obama to say in support of Malaysian the LGBT situation, I expressed my cynicism. I see no need for Obama to support our freedom as if the USA is the icon of freedom. East and West, North and South, we are all struggling together and learning from one another. But some of us get to determine who is developed and who isn’t.
What I would have liked is for USA to admit to its past discriminatory policies and bad laws targeted at LGBTs, and how some are still being enacted as we speak. Some states have recently signed into law the right of people to refuse services to LGBTs based on religious convictions. Really, USA, WTF?
I would have liked for Obama to reflect on the heavy costs upon social cohesion and individual morale that discriminatory policies and laws have waged, costs from which the US are still struggling to overcome. From the shadows of these damaging, divisive policies, Obama could say he brings with him the hopes and hard lessons of valuing the diversity of communities and the dignity of individuals. And that these lessons should similarly guide how countries find value in each other’s insights and histories.
Obama darling, if we are all in this together, then we have much to learn – from one another. I know you mean well, but I worry that your well-meaning gestures may leave unchanged those well-meaning systems and structures, the hoarding of power, the bottlenecked trickle-down economy, and the invisible hand of the 1 percent, through which many injustices perpetuate.
Perhaps what you could say is that you are impressed with Malaysian citizen movements and civil societies for showing a model of inclusivity and solidarity by embracing rights of the poor, women rights, indigenous rights, migrant and refugee rights, ethnic and religious minorities rights, detainee’s rights, the right to political dissent and assembly, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity and expression rights. Say that you are inspired by the sight of Malaysian citizens coming together to enact their full citizenship by regarding each other as citizens first. Say that leaders around the world could learn from how citizens everywhere are starting to organize, include, listen to, and support one another, not as leaders to followers, but as equals to equals.
Therefore, I offer my solidarity and support for all who have suffered from abuses of rights by the US government, the Malaysian government, and all governments. I stand with those who are left to eat the dust of economic giants racing past them, those marginalized by both nationalist rhetoric and global forces. Let us look to each other for our rights as we dream up new ways to imagine our nations and our world, a world where elected leaders don’t pay lip service to our rights while trading them away.
Pang Khee Teik is a prominent Malaysian LGBT activist and co-organizer of the banned Seksualiti Merdeka festival.