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PANG KHEE TEIK――Arts & LGBT Activism in Malaysia

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Title at the Current Moment

Seiya Shimada (hereinafter Shimada): It's good to see you again. We hadn't been in touch since I left Malaysia in 2009 but I had been following you on Facebook. To begin, could you tell me your position or title at the current moment?

Pang Khee Teik (hereinafter Pang): I have no title. I mean, sometimes I'm called the founder of Seksualiti Merdeka [Independent Sexuality] or the director of Art For Grabs.

Pang Khee Teik during the Asia Hundreds interview

Shimada: One of my colleagues was very impressed with your presentation at the Borak Arts Series in 2014. Could you tell me about it?

Pang: I presented a manifesto I wrote. Let me give you some background. I think it was two years ago that the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the country, and, immediately, Facebook provided its users with the rainbow profile to celebrate the occasion.

Shimada: Like the French national flag just after the terrorist attack in Paris?

Pang: Yes. While I was happy for the LGBT communities in the US, to be honest I was a little bit annoyed at the same time. I feel that the drive for the same-sex marriage legislation in the US is not necessarily the best direction for the LGBT movement because maybe not everybody wants to get married, can get married, or feels the need to be married. Right? And the rainbow as a symbol actually includes a lot more people.

Eventually, I changed my Facebook profile to the rainbow. I also wrote a long post to accompany it called "We are the rainbow." I wrote a list of fourteen different kinds of relationships and people: sluts, celibates, virgins, people in threesome relationships, people who are in same-sex marriages or otherwise, people who are still in the closet, et cetera. My point was that, all of these people are in the rainbow, and that the rainbow is for them as well, not just for people who want to get married.

Shimada: Is the post still there?

Pang: Yes, it's there. People have been inviting me to read this in public; they like it, I guess. Izan Satrina of the My Performing Arts Agency—they run the Borak Arts Conference in Penang—invited me to perform something at their conference.
So I said, "Ok, I'll do 'We are the rainbow.'" But instead of doing it by myself, I suggested inviting the Rainbow Community of Penang and Kuala Lumpur to perform it with me. So everyone took a paragraph to recite it. Some of my friends, and many different people came together to help me perform this piece. We each wore different colors, so that at the end, when we came together, it became a rainbow. You can see the picture on my Facebook.

About "Seksualiti Merdeka"

Shimada: At the moment, are you spending most of your time on Seksualiti Merdeka*1 and Art For Grabs? Could you explain a little bit about each project?

*1 The word "merdeka" means "independence" in the Malay language.

Pang: Seksualiti Merdeka is a festival my singer-songwriter and poet friend Jerome and I started in the Annexe Gallery*2 in 2008 . So we're considered the founders of Seksualiti Merdeka.

*2 The Annexe Gallery opened in 2007 as a part of Central Market, a small shopping centre located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

Shimada: What kind of activities are under Seksualiti Merdeka?

Pang: We started with one weekend in the first year, and in the second year, it became one week, and in the third year, it became two weeks. We had workshops about how to talk about sex, performances, and a concert called "Rainbow Massacre" where we invited our singer friends to perform songs and queer anthems.

Shimada: What do you mean by "Rainbow Massacre"?

Pang: It's just a title of the concert we had. We "kill" the songs and the audience with the rainbow, basically [smiles]. The idea is to pick a song that you feel represents the "rainbow" anthem, the "queer" anthem—it could be anything from "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor to even U2.
That was my favorite part of the whole program, I think. People really enjoyed the concept, too. We also had performance programs. We actually did a Forum Theatre*3 once. Alfian Sa'at wrote a short script about two boys who were lovers each coming out to their mothers. And we took this performance to universities and colleges, I think, in 2010. We also had lectures and talks. It was a very simple program; it was indoors and small. Not like a parade.

*3 Forum Theatre is a technique used to engage the audience into the action of the play in order to solve issues that actors and audience members face in their daily life. The strategy involves a cycle that is repeated: a stage performance followed by open discussion and re-play of the scene.

The Police, Seksualiti Meredeka, and I

Pang: So in 2011, Seksualiti Merdeka was banned by the police because we invited Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan, the Chairman of Bersih,*4

*4 The Gabungan Pilihanraya Bersih dan Adil [Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections], or Bersih for short, is a coalition of non-governmental organizations that pursue a reformation of the current Malaysian electoral system to guarantee fair elections.

Pang Khee Teik (right) and Seiya Shimada (left)

Shimada: So, that was controversial for the police.

Pang: Not just for the police, but also for the government. Ambiga is not popular with the government either, so we think they saw it as an opportunity to discredit Bersih by saying, "See, they are supporting the LGBTs." I think they were also worried that this [the meeting of Bersih and Seksualiti Merdeka] is a legitimization of LGBT; that the leader of a powerful and popular movement is seen to be in support of LGBT. So I think they thought it was the chance to take down both at the same time. I was called in for questioning; bringing someone in for "questioning" basically means to ask for assistance with the investigation. They called in the three of the sponsors, too.

Shimada: Even the sponsors?

Pang: Yes. We had a small number of sponsors: Irene Fernandez from Tenaganita,*5 which is a small NGO; Maria Chin Abdullah from Empower, which is a women's group that functions as the secretariat office for Bersih; and Ambiga from Bersih. They thought that all the three were the organizers. But they didn't press charges.
A day after the ban, I was interviewed by a number of newspapers, and that was how my parents found out that I am an activist. They already knew that I am gay, and it took them a while to be okay with it. I think they were quite proud of themselves for being okay with it, actually.

*5 The Tenaganita is a non-profit organization in Malaysia that support social minorities such as immigrants, refugees, women, and children.

Pang Khee Teik during the Asia Hundreds interview

But when they found about my activism—my cousin called my mother and said, "Auntie, your son is wanted by the police"—they were like, "We are okay with you being gay, but why do you have to tell everyone [about being an activist]...?"
I realized that it was, in fact, harder for them to accept my being an activist than being gay; being gay was just something between me, my parents, and my boyfriend. But being an activist is something that other people will come to know and they have to find a way to explain it to their friends.

But an interesting and surprising outcome of this ban was that a lot of people and groups ended up supporting us, and one of them was the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST*6). So a council of all these non-Muslim groups in Malaysia came together and wrote a letter supporting us.

*6 The percentage distribution of the Malaysian population by religion is as follows: Islam 61.3%, Buddhism 19.8 %, Christianity 9.2%, Hinduism 6.3%, Confucianism and Taoism 1.3%, and others 2.1%. From the "Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristic Report 2010 (Updated: 05/08/2011)", The Department of Statistics Malaysia Accessed: November 13, 2017.

Shimada: Oh, really?

Pang: To be honest, I was quite shocked.

Shimada: In a good way.

Pang: Absolutely. The Sisters in Islam*7 also wrote for us, I think. Even a few progressive Muslim groups defended us.

*7 The Sisters in Islam is a Malaysian non-governmental organization working towards empowering women in Islamic communities.

Shimada: That's very interesting.

Pang: And the Assistant Deputy of the police, who banned us at that time, is now the Chief. But, I think, he's now realized that he has to be careful because the whole debate and conversation is about human rights and he even used the phrase "freedom of speech" in one of his arguments. He said something along the lines of being for freedom of speech, but he still maintained that this [LGBT] is immoral, or something like that. When they banned our event, they very cunningly used the Police Act, which has since been repealed.

The Police Act basically stipulates that the police have the right to ban any event that may jeopardize national security—by causing religious or racial tension, for instance—so they used it to justify their ban by saying we are teaching "deviant" lifestyles. And the term "deviant" is commonly used in religious contexts, right?
So because we are promoting the rights of LGBTs, their claim is that we are suggesting that Islam approves of homosexuality. And, by extension, if we are suggesting that Islam and homosexuality are compatible, then our understanding of Islam is a deviant form of Islam, and this will cause religious tension which will then lead to our national security being jeopardized. So it's quite amazing how they arbitrarily but cunningly leap from one logic to another.

Seiya Shimada interviewing Pang Khee Teik

Shimada: It seems they're a good storyteller.

Pang: Yes, I was impressed at how they tried hard to come up with their argument.