Government Response

The Malaysian government is not uniformly hostile toward transgender people. Government bodies, including the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), and the police, have been somewhat receptive to dialogue initiated by trans people and their advocates. In some cases, dialogue is initiated by the authorities themselves, most notably JAKIM, but government approaches that fail to recognize transgender people’s right to be who they are can end up reinforcing stigma and perpetuating mistrust.

JAKIM and the State Religious Departments

Government religious authorities in Malaysia maintain a relationship with transgender people that is mired in contradictions—perhaps due to diverse beliefs, within JAKIM and in the different states, as to what constitutes an Islamic approach to gender diversity. A JAKIM official, who only agreed to speak to Human Rights Watch on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that “arresting or punishing anyone is not going to change them.” However, he also claimed that the phenomenon of mak nyah is “new to Malaysia—not more than 20 years,” that it comes from absorbing American media, and that mak nyah can be convinced to “stop being transsexual.”[173]

JAKIM has organized a program called Mukhayyam, a form of outreach to the transgender population in which trans people are invited to participate in camping outings combined with courses on spiritual development. Karima, a transgender HIV activist in Kuantan familiar with the program, explained that the program appears to be aimed at changing transwomen into men:

We don’t want [Mukhayyam] here. We saw that in Penang and Selangor, they were using it to try to change people. … Their approach is not relevant. We are not men, and can’t be changed into men. If you ask me to wear a military uniform, I’m still a transgender.[174]

Manis, a transgender woman in Kuala Lumpur, said:

Their intention is to brainwash us. They do cross-country running, climbing hills, trying to change us—to them we are sissies who haven’t done any physical activity. They think this will toughen us up. Like I’ll climb to the top of the hill and suddenly become Alexander, or Peter. They don’t understand what gender identity is.[175]

In some states, the state Religious Departments also do outreach to transgender people. In Kuantan, Karima said, the state Religious Department has reached out to transgender people, inviting them to meetings that she finds less problematic than JAKIM’s:

They don’t touch on changing us. They say, ‘As good Muslims you must have some sort of belief.’ They encourage us to pray. They don’t call us sinners. It’s not acceptance, but tolerance. [176]

In Perak, according to one transgender outreach worker, the state Religious Department is planning to launch a program to train transwomen in doing make-up, tailoring, and running a small business.[177] While better than a punitive approach, the program seems to be based on the flawed premise that they are only transgender in order to make money, and that economic alternatives will allow them to abandon their gender identity.

Ministry of Health

The government of Malaysia recognizes transgender people as a most-at-risk population in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Malaysia’s Country Coordinating Mechanism, the body that coordinates the national HIV response, includes a transgender representative and a sex worker representative—critical to ensuring that at-risk populations’ real needs are recognized and addressed. The National Strategic Framework on HIV/AIDS (2011-2015) includes a commitment to scale up HIV prevention efforts targeting transgender people and men who have sex with men (MSM). It also pledges to develop strategies to address barriers and challenges that prevent the efficient and effective delivery of HIV prevention services to at-risk populations, including transgender people.[178] The Ministry of Health provides some funding to the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC), an umbrella organization working on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment throughout the country, and MAC uses some of these funds to conduct outreach to transgender people and to sensitize local authorities on transgender issues.  A report from the Ministry of Health states that prosecutions of transgender people under laws prohibiting “cross-dressing” have a negative impact on the fight against HIV/AIDS by driving the transgender community further underground.[179]

However, the Health Ministry has taken a less proactive stance in addressing sexual transmission of HIV—which would involve deeper engagement with transgender people, sex workers, and men who have sex with men—than in responding to transmission related to the use of intravenous drugs. To address drug-related transmission, the ministry has established a National Task Force on Harm Reduction, and Malaysia has been at the cutting edge compared to many of its neighbors in introducing programs like needle and syringe exchanges and methadone clinics. In comparison, Malaysia has lagged behind in addressing transmission among trans people, sex workers, and men who have sex with men.[180] While trans people and their allies have engaged with health departments in particular states in order to address concerns regarding discriminatory treatment from health workers, HIV activists are unaware of any coordinated effort from the Ministry of Health to address what appears to be a national problem.[181] The Health Ministry did not respond to an email from Human Rights Watch, dated June 11, 2014, inquiring what steps it is taking to address HIV prevention among transgender people.

Stakeholder Meetings with Local Government

In some parts of Malaysia, organizations that work with transgender women have actively reached out to public officials, seeking to build dialogue and reduce discrimination. Early indications suggest that in some cases these meetings can be effective.

In Seremban, the director of the public hospital organized such a meeting in November 2013 at the request of an HIV outreach organization that works with transgender women. Health workers, religious authorities, and the police were present, as were three transgender outreach workers. According to Nurul, one of the transwomen who attended the meeting, treatment by hospital workers has improved since the meeting took place.[182] Izzati, another outreach worker, said that raids targeting transgender women decreased after the meeting, although a massive raid in June 2014, in which 17 trans people were arrested, calls into question whether the change is durable.[183] In Penang, organizations like FHDA have conducted workshops to sensitize religious officials and other government bodies about gender identity, leading to a decrease in arrests, according to one transgender activist.[184] According to several sources, outreach appears to be more effective in addressing police conduct toward transgender people than in reducing raids and arrests by Religious Department officials.[185]

Non-Discrimination Initiatives

In June 2014, the National Unity Consultative Council, a government body, announced three draft bills: the Racial and Religious Hate Crime Bill, the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill, and the National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill.[186] The bills have been developed with the primary aim of addressing racial and religious intolerance. However, the draft National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill would prohibit “unfair discrimination” on numerous grounds, including gender and “sexual orientation and identity.” The draft has generated some backlash among conservative legislators, and at the time of writing, it was unclear whether such provisions would be included in the final draft.[187] A bill prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of both gender and sexual orientation and identity, although the draft does not explicitly address gender identity or gender expression, would go a long way towards establishing legal protections for transgender people in Malaysia.