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Some Behavioural Modification Required

I read an appalling article this morning about an inaugural camp to re-educate effeminate boys being set up in Terengganu. The boys were selected by their schools, who identified them for displaying feminine qualities. State Education Minister, Mr. Razali Daud, puts forth this reason for the camp: "The students must understand that there are choices in life and we want them to know all the options available to them."

Or, as he continues to say, "We understand that some people end up as mak nyah (transvestite) or a homosexual, but we will do our best to limit the number."

Terengganu is one of Peninsular Malaysia's most conservative Muslim states, in an area analogous to the US's Bible Belt. Incidentally, for readers wondering about the New Straits Times' choice of headline, "Besut boot camp for 66 sissies", I would think the choice of wording was deliberately chosen to be as scathing as possible to the official stance being taken. From a linguistic standpoint, "sissy" is also one of the most likely translations for a common Malay word for a gay man, "pondan".

There are a number of truly disturbing claims being made Mr. Daud throughout this article. The first is treating homosexuality like a mental illness, albeit without coming outright and saying it, with symptoms of varying severity, and that the link between "effeminate behaviour" and transsexuality bears intervention with physical education, enforced guidance and religious classes. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) delisted homosexuality in 1973 and the UN's International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) delisted it in 1990. Youth with sexual orientation and gender identity issues may require medical help, but this won't be because they're going against social norms. They may, if transsexual, require counselling and medical advice on achieving their true gender identity. Being born liking your fellow gender or behaving like an opposite gender is not an illness. It does not prevent a citizen from fulfilling all of his or her duties as a citizen, it does not prevent them from contributing to society as meaningful workers and leaders, and it certainly doesn't stop them from paying their taxes or voting, two of the most important prerequisites for a fair share of national participation. Based on this, they deserve the full respect that all other Malaysian citizens receive from their peers and from their elected government.

More than that, it is clear that while the age of these schoolboys goes unmentioned, even putting them in secondary school, as this article does, strongly suggests they are still legally children. Forcibly coercing them into reeducation camps is in direct conflict with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Malaysia has ratified. It effectively undermines the school as a safe place for children to grow and thrive as citizens and individuals, since the schools were responsible for selecting these boys. It is a direct infringement of these boys' rights as individual citizens, and their right to develop and achieve their full potential as individuals. In other words, every aspect of this camp endangers Malaysian children.

Additionally, there does not appear to be any oversight for this programme mentioned in the article. Who are the moderators of this camp, if mental or physical harm should come to these children? And if such harm occurs, whether because the children were forced into attending it or because of attending it, will the state government take responsibility for the potentially irreparable damage they have caused? Will the federal government reimburse these children and their families for any damages in the long term? In fact, what are the potential risks involved in rehabilititation? Were feasibility studies done to determine the medical justification for such a programme beforehand?

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality issued a compelling press statement in response to the article, available on Malaysiakini. It goes into greater detail about the CRC violations and the possible repercussions of the state MoE's criteria in selecting children and setting up standards of normal behaviour without a medical basis. Once and for all, homosexuality and transsexualism are not mental illnesses, and thus, their rehabilitation has no medical basis.

The repercussions of long-term discrimination, more so at a young age, limits the survivability of Malaysian GLBTs as adults, which in turn limits a significant segment of our population from contributing fully to our country's development. When faced with repression and social shame, many of these children may grow up with any number of coping issues that could prevent them from completing or pursuing school, work, meaningful relationships with their peers and therefore, fulfilling their promise as citizens in service of the country. By forcing GLBT citizens into hiding and making homosexual behaviour criminal (Penal Code, 377A, "Carnal intercourse against the order of nature"), we are preventing a segment of our population from participating in our country's economic, cultural and social viability.

Nor does dismissing GLBTs as a problem make them go away. In fact, making them go away doesn't make any problems go away either. It exacerbates many of the same problems the Terengganu MoE probably envisioned when its Minister said, "If left unchecked, it (effeminate behaviour) could become a problem later in life for them, their families and society," and many more problems said MoE may not have predicted. Note, for example, this article, where four Malaysian homosexuals seek political asylum in the UK. From my understanding, GLBT Malaysians have been discreetly migrating overseas for at least the last two decades. It's rare for Malaysians to publicise their migration based on any ideological dissonance, often out of very real fears of repercussion against their acquaintances and family back home. It's rarer still for Malaysians to cite political asylum as a reason, which does pin any differences under the spotlight fairly quickly. In the same last two decades, Malaysia has seen an exodus of professional talent overseas, usually our brightest and best minds who migrated because living abroad offers better experience, better economic prospects and better opportunities for them to grow as individuals in a holistic sense. The Prime Minister's Department recently created Talent Corp Malaysia, a body specifically tasked with attracting some of these migrants back home, to contribute to the local economy. There seems to me an obvious relationship between this loss of talent, and growing ideological dissonance between Malaysian citizens with the training we need and their country's treatment of them. Better put, here is one more segment of talent that is overlooked and unwelcome back home, and here again is one reason why more Malaysians cannot return.

When any Malaysian makes the news because they are compelled to seek asylum from their own country, our country's standing in the eyes of the world suffers. It highlights grave injustices happening in our nation, well worth the international criticism.

At the same time, the shame and ire faced by the people left behind, the families, the friends, the people who do not have the means to escape the country, increases. The potential dangers to their safety increases, as does the limits imposed on their chances for success as citizens. Discriminating against even one GLBT citizen eventually limits the viability of the whole community, gay and straight. Working to increase discrimination against any segment of society, in this particular case children, not just gay or transsexual children, but all children as individuals, cripples the future of our nation. To this end, the Federal Ministry of Education must work to eliminate these rehabilitation camps, to safeguard the safety of all Malaysians.


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