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PANG KHEE TEIK――Arts & LGBT Activism in Malaysia

Interview / Asia Hundreds

Experience in England

Shimada: How was your year at Birkbeck, University of London as a grantee of the Chevening Scholarship? That was in 2012, wasn't it?

Pang: It was amazing.

Shimada: How so?

Pang: Everything I understood until then changed; everything I knew about sexuality, myself; everything.

Shimada: How did it change? Comparing your current postings to those before your stay in the UK, you look more confident; you look as if you have a clearer vision now.

Pang: Now? Really? I actually thought it was clearer before, and now I am more confused. Because, in the past, my vision was very limited. For example, I used to think that gay people should all come out. Now, I don't think coming out is the most important thing. Actually, let me put it in another way: I don't think coming out is the only way to be gay. I think coming out is good, but it depends on the circumstances.

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

Pang: I learned, in the UK, that while sexual orientation is an innate identity, it is also a historically and socially constructed form of identity.
And this changes everything, I think, about how you think of yourself. It actually liberated me and allowed me to appreciate that homosexuality is far more complex than I had understood and that language itself will never capture it in its entirety. I think I've come to also appreciate art that explore the spaces in between words and meanings. We have to find ways to create platforms for stories, experiences, and relationships that cannot be "named."

Shimada: What was most meaningful or critical course you took during Birkbeck?

Pang: One particular course that stood out was actually one that I audited outside of Birkbeck. It was at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS) and the course was "Queer Politics in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East" offered by the Centre for Gender Studies. It was actually critical about how Western LGBT politics is trying to impose their ideas onto other countries—with a similar kind of zeal as the missionaries and colonizers had had in the past.

I was in London three weeks ago for a meeting with other LGBT organizations from the Commonwealth; it was organized by the Commonwealth Equality Network and the Kaleidoscope Trust, the secretariat for the Network. And this Commonwealth Equality Network consists of LGBT organizations located in the Commonwealth—such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, South Africa, and Ghana.

But I am also a little worried that the UK, as the host for the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018, might take advantage of the occasion to promote how "advanced" they are in LGBT rights. So I pointed out, at the Commonwealth Equality Network meeting, that even the UK, with their "progressive" LGBT laws, still have many LGBT problems. A large percentage of their runaway and homeless children are LGBT, and likewise a large percentage of homeless LGBTs are non-Caucasian and/or poor. There is also the issue of Islamophobia and how it is used to mask homophobia in Muslim communities. So the UK is not as advanced or progressive as they seem. I said, maybe, we should think of the commonwealth as a platform for mutual learning. And I also suggested that the UK shouldn't place itself as the leader because when a country claims to lead, nobody will follow.

Pang Khee Teik during the Asia Hundreds interview

Visions for the Future

Shimada: Where do you think you will be in ten years' time? What do you think you will be doing?

Pang: That's difficult. I honestly don't know. I'll be honest though, every year I struggle trying to decide whether to focus on just Seksualiti Merdeka or Art For Grabs.

Shimada: Why do you have to choose between the two?

Pang: Because I wouldn't be able to work enough on both of them; I would have to split my time between the two.

Shimada: I see.

Pang: There is a lot to be done for LGBT in Malaysia. One of the dreams is to do a countrywide research on LGBT in Malaysia and interview as many people as I can about their experiences of being an LGBT in the country.

Shimada: Do you have any idea of sponsorship?

Pang: Money? If I maybe even get five or six people to do this research together with me, it's going to be a quite full-time thing, for at least one year. Yes.

Shimada: It might be a good for you to secure a position in university, I think.

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

Pang: But I am too lazy [laughs], I don't have the discipline of working in the university.

Shimada: With Seksualiti Merdeka or Art For Grabs, do you have other networks in Asia that you work with?

Pang: Seksualiti Merdeka is part of a network called the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus (ASC). SOGIE stands for sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. But this is a caucus of only a few LGBT organizations.

Shimada: Which countries are the members?

Pang: The ten ASEAN countries and East Timor.

Shimada: Lastly, how do you find Japanese society from your point of view?

Pang: I like the idea of how the Japanese and Japan has very contrasting sides. On one hand, Japanese art and culture has a lot of craziness, a lot of wild experimentation and ideas that are incredible and mind blowing. But there is the other stereotype of how the Japanese are boring, only follow the status quo, work long, long hours et cetera. So there is a huge contrast of perception which I find very interesting.

What I am actually very interested in, at the same time, is to see the small pockets of resistance towards the conformist, Japanese society, which I think is a very strong force here—the idea of needing to conform. As an outsider, it feels overwhelming. You can't even leave work before 8 o'clock which I think, for some people, would be against morality.

Shimada: It is changing…

Pang: I know, but the change, to me, seems to come from artists that exposed and are critical of condition like this. What excites me, then, is to see how art has been a key factor in changing social perceptions in Japan, and despite this—despite art's ability to make people aware of the socio-political conditions—the government still continue to fund the arts. I think that is amazing. In Malaysia, if the government finds out that arts has a power to change public perception, they will stop funding.

Shimada: Thank you very much for taking time.

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

[At ZOU-NO-HANA TERRACE, on February 13, 2017]

More Information

Pang Khee Teik Facebook Page

Art For Grabs Facebook Page

"Discovering Pang Khee Teik—faith, sexuality, art and activism," Malaysiakini Interview (June 12, 2016).

Interviewer: Seiya Shimada
After obtaining his BA (Agriculture) followed by MA in Environmental Science (Cultural Ecology), Shimada joined the Japan Foundation in 1994. He was Director of the Cultural Affairs Department at the Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur (JFKL) from 2003 to 2009. While his service in Kuala Lumpur, he was one of judges for the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards (Dance category) in 2007 and 2008, and appeared in the Malaysian film Before we fall in Love Again directed by James Lee as a Japanese mafia or yakuza. Pang Khee Teik also appeared in this film. After returning to Japan, he served as Press & Cultural Attaché at the Embassy of Japan in Israel from 2013 to 2016. Shimada is currently Director of International Operations Section I, Arts and Culture Department at The Japan Foundation Headquarters.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto