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PANG KHEE TEIK――Arts & LGBT Activism in Malaysia

Interview / Asia Hundreds

The Position of LGBT in the Society

Shimada: Is homosexuality clearly prohibited in Islam?

Pang: Well, the majority of Muslims believe that homosexuality is against Islam—or rather, Islam is against homosexuality. But, what I think is very interesting is how the authorities and politicians use any kind of discourse or logic to make homosexuality "wrong." For example, Nazri Abdul Aziz, who, I think, was the de facto Minister of Law at the time, claimed that homosexuality is unconstitutional because the constitution included a line that stipulated Islam is the [official] religion of the Federation of Malaysia.

People believe that the drafters of the constitution, originally, meant that Islam is the religion for ceremonies—you know, a "symbolic" religion—but not that the country is Islamic per se especially because, in the constitution, it states that Malaysia is a secular country. But since it also states that Islam is the religion of the Federation, how it is situated becomes very vague and, I think, this very vagueness, has allowed a lot of people today to (mis)understand that [that the constitution states that] Malaysia is an Islamic country.

So, this minister claimed that if the constitution says that Islam is the religion of the federation and if Islam is against homosexuality, then homosexuality must be unconstitutional. But, this is an illogical way of applying that particular line, because eating pork, drinking alcohol, and pre-marital sex then must also be unconstitutional. But that's not the case; people who aren't Muslim are free to eat pork in Malaysia, they can drink alcohol, and can have pre-marital sex. So their logic doesn't stand.

Shimada: Makes sense.

Pang: Right? But, what is even more interesting is how politicians are forced to use terms like, "constitution" and "freedom of speech" because more Malaysians are becoming aware of their rights. So the authorities, too, have to use the similar language to try to contain it. They're not really bothered about understanding the meaning of the constitution; they're simply concerned about what they think is immoral.

Yesterday or the day before, Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM), which is the national religious authority body, released a video, and, although I haven't seen it yet, I suspect it is based on a document they published a few weeks ago where they promoted heterosexuality and tried to convince Muslims who are LGBT to become straight. Their strategy was very interesting because throughout the whole document, their argument was we shouldn't punish people, but, instead, should win them over, we should persuade them. If they are on the "wrong" path, we should give them a chance to join us on the "right" side.

There are also two arguments that JAKIM use which I think is very interesting. The first is, if it is "natural"—in other words, if you are "born" gay—then you are being tested by Allah: God gave you this test, this burden, to overcome, and if you pass you will be rewarded. They also twist the rhetoric of LGBT rights. They claim that people who don't want to be gay should also have the right to pursue "correction." So, what they [JAKIM] are essentially saying is, you have the right to be gay if you want to: I mean, if someone has the right not to be gay, then it should follow that someone has the right to be gay. It's an amazing turn-around of how they try to use our language, don't you think? So now I am wondering if we can say to them, "You said that we have the right to be gay if we want. So can you stop arresting us?"

Pang Khee Teik during the Asia Hundreds interview

Shimada: I see.

Pang: No matter how "understanding" or "sympathetic" their argument may appear, as long as there are still laws that state that LGBTs can be arrested, then they are just hypocritical. As long as they are prejudiced against LGBTs, they will find ways to justify their argument by using legal languages or whatever is accepted as the "social norm."
Social norms of a country or culture is so well-constructed and having so many layers that even if you remove one layer, all the others will still remain or compensate for it. Nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, feudalism et cetera—all of these structures are placed so well in tandem that even if you dismantle one, the others will only unite to become stronger. It's very difficult to fight against these structures of power.

These days I don't like the argument of "being born gay" because it implies that I have no choice. It implies that if being a gay was a choice, I would not have chosen it.
It implies that being gay was the lesser choice, a negative choice, even. If being gay is indeed a negative choice, then what am I even fighting for? Why am I trying to protect gay rights?
I think the important argument is not about whether being gay is a choice or not. The point is, whether I choose to or not, being gay is not wrong; as long as I am not hurting anyone and it's between two [consenting] adults, homosexuality is not wrong.

About Art For Grabs

Shimada: Could you explain a bit about Art For Grabs?

Pang: Art For Grabs is something that emerged while I was working at the Annexe Gallery. It was initially just an art bazaar. We started with the idea that although there are many artists and visitors to galleries, most of the artworks are very expensive; you need to be very rich to afford art. So, we found that there were many young artists who wanted to make things, and many people wanted to have those works. So we just brought the two together; we created a bazaar for artists and craft makers.

Pang Khee Teik (left) and Seiya Shimada (right) during the Asia Hundreds interview

Pang: One important component for me is that Art For Grabs is also a form of activism. We also have a lot of booths about women's rights, animal conservation and so on. Even Bersih had a booth before and we always collaborated with them. Our model now is to collaborate with organizations that support particular causes or themes such as women's rights or refugees. That way we can mix the two types of audience: those interested in arts and others interested in human rights. They come together and generate a different kind of exchange.

Shimada: What are some of the challenges you have in organizing Art For Grabs?

Pang: Money [laughs]. Funding it all is always a challenge.

Shimada: Do you charge the NGOs to set up booths?

Pang: It depends. We encourage NGOs that can afford it to pay, but others we don't. We always provide a few sponsored booths. What really excites me about, Art For Grabs, is the stage we put on at the same time as the art bazaar. I actually spend most of my time programming this stage.

Shimada: Where is the venue for this?

Pang: We move around; we've had it in Jaya One, a small mall in Petaling Jaya (PJ) in the state of Selangor, and we also sometimes have it at the Publika, another mall located in Kuala Lumpur. Basically, anywhere they will have us.

Shimada: Did you choose to move venues like that or did that just happen?

Pang: I chose to; I like to move around.

Shimada: Why is that?

Pang: I like the idea of taking what we do to different spaces and "occupying" public malls which are essentially capitalist spaces. It's probably the socialist side of me. But I also want to promote the idea of an art bazaar that is not always about competition. We tend to think of markets as competitive spaces—of making more profit than the rest—but, conceptually, I am trying to imagine our bazaar as a collaborative space. More importantly, I am trying to generate a platform where we can all discuss [socio-political] issues, whether you are for or against the particular topic we talk about.

Pang Khee Teik during the Asia Hundreds interview

Shimada: How often do you organize Art For Grabs?

Pang: Four times a year, every three months.

Shimada: And on average, how many stalls or booths do you have?

Pang: When we started out, I think we had about forty to fifty. Then it increased to about sixty to seventy, and recently, I think there are about ninety.

Shimada: More than double?

Pang: Yes. We have about eighty to ninety; usually around ninety now. In one of the installments, we had about one hundred, I think.

Shimada: I see. How many times have you organized Art For Grabs so far?

Pang: We skipped a couple of times, but I think we've organized it about thirty times. It's actually our ten year anniversary this year [2017]. And these days we have about six to eight thousand visitors. I think we once even had up to ten thousand or more visitors. One time, we worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and had the refugee crises as the topic, and just a month before our bazaar, there was the big news about how the [Malaysian] government denied the Myanmar refugees entry into Malaysia; they'd arrived on a large boat to Langkawi island.

Shimada: You mean the ethnic minorities from the southwest of Myanmar?

Pang: Yes, the Rohingyas. So although they were already arriving on the shores, the Malaysian government initially did not allow them to land. The general public was outraged at this because these people were on the boat and starving to death. Eventually, I think, the government allowed their entry and people rushed to help them. So we just happened to organize a refugee-themed Art For Grabs that month when the crises erupted in Malaysia. At the bazaar, we also featured a lot of refugees so it attracted a lot of attention, which, I think, was good for the cause.

Shimada: To support the cause.

Pang: Yes.

Shimada: Other than Myanmar, where else do refugees come from in Malaysia?

Pang: I think many refugees come from Myanmar or Iraq due to wars. There are also refugees from Afghanistan and Somalia as well.

Shimada: What do you think is the reason for them to choose Malaysia as their destination?

Pang: I have no idea. Maybe they've seen the "Malaysia, Truly Asia" campaign.*8 You know, the tourism campaign makes it sound like we don't have a war or any kind of problem. But, if they ask me, I would tell them not to come to Malaysia because we are going downhill. But maybe for those who are really desperate, it doesn't matter where they go as long as they can leave their countries behind. I also wouldn't recommend coming to Malaysia because it is a hotbed for human trafficking.

*8 Tagline used for the advertisement campaign by Tourism Malaysia.

Pang Khee Teik during the Asia Hundreds interview

Shimada: I see. So if your main activity is Seksualiti Merdeka and Art For Grabs, how do you cari makan [earn a living]?

Pang: I don't; I am waiting for a sugar daddy [laughs]. Working on Seksualiti Merdeka doesn't help me in terms of earning a living, unfortunately: I am not great at raising funds for myself; we are good at raising funds for other people [smiles]. Also, every time I try to bring up the topic of funding to an organization, they will come up with excuses saying, "We can't afford it" or "Malaysia is not an aid-receiving country" et cetera.

Even if we wanted to apply for financial support from international organizations, like the United Nations, their mandate is to work with governments, so the issues that we raise must be made "official" by the government; it is a prerequisite that they, the government, allow it. But the issues that we deal with or raise are not recognized by the government as "national" problems or crises, so it makes it difficult for us to ask for sponsorship from places like the UN. So our source of income are the few sponsorships we get for Art For Grabs and the money we raise from renting spaces at the bazaar.

Shimada: I am thinking of recommending the readers of our website to check your interview on the Malaysiakini, it's quite nice interview I think.