When is a watch not just a device strapped to one’s wrist designed to tell the time? Apparently when it bears “LGBT connotations,” according to the Malaysian authorities, who raided 11 outlets of the Swiss watchmaker Swatch in the country and seized over 160 watches worth approximately $14,000, purportedly because they featured LGBTQ imagery and lettering.
According to AFP, a ministry official who did not want to be named defended the seizure by explaining that the watches bore the letters “LGBT” and featured six colors instead of the seven in a “normal” rainbow.
The furor occurred, presumably, because same-sex sexual activity is still illegal in Malaysia under Section 377 of the country’s Criminal Code – an archaic piece of legislation that dates from the British colonial period. Section 377 criminalizes acts of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” and “gross indecency,” which can carry a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment and a vicious caning.
Yet, despite its brazen and misguided intentions, at least the Malaysian watch seizure was transparent in its intolerance of the LGBTQ community.
Across the pond, in neighboring Indonesia, increasing intolerance around LGBTQ issues is often cloaked in a veil of plausible deniability, at least from a legal standpoint.
Take, for example, the country’s new draft Criminal Code, which is to be phased in over the next three years to replace the previous code – another dusty relic of the colonial period, Dutch this time, which dates from 1918.
When the new code was first passed back in December, it originally caused something of a celebration, or at least minor relief, when it was revealed that mooted plans to include a new ban on same-sex relations appeared to have been scrapped. In drafting sessions in parliament over the years, Islamist groups had fought to prohibit same-sex relations by law.
In 2016, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court threw out a case calling for the criminalization of same-sex relations, leading to a renewed call for this to be included under the legal umbrella of the new Criminal Code. Then in September 2019, street protests across the country caused the drafting of the new code to be delayed as the public voiced disapproval about a number of articles that threatened to curtail personal freedoms.
However, while outright criminalization of same-sex relations failed to gain traction in parliament, look a little more closely and it is clear that many of the articles in the new Criminal Code could still affect LGBTQ Indonesians, despite the best efforts of civil society groups and public sentiment to avoid this.
The new code features a slew of laws that look set to police people’s private lives, including articles that make sex before marriage and cohabitation illegal if the person is reported to the police by a parent, spouse, or child. This means that the aforementioned family members can report someone to the police if they suspect that they are having sex or living together without being married. Under the new code, sex before marriage and adultery (which was already a crime under the present code) will be punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine while cohabitation will potentially be punishable by six months in prison and a fine.
The obvious problem with such legislation for the LGBT community is that same-sex marriage is still illegal in Indonesia, with no apparent political will or significant public pressure to change this anytime soon. That means same-sex couples will be left with no option, once the new legislation takes effect, but to either cohabit illegally and hope that no one reports them, or forever live separately from their partner and never engage in sexual relations.
In a withering report following the unveiling of the Criminal Code in December, Human Rights Watch stated:
While the crimes of sex or cohabitation outside marriage can only be prosecuted on the complaint of the husband, wife, parents, or children of the accused, it will disproportionately impact women and LGBT people who are more likely to be reported by husbands for adultery or by families for relationships they disapprove of.
As such, it appears as if the legislation will have the desired effect of criminalizing the LGBTQ community without overtly making same-sex relations a crime – something that would have perhaps tarnished the Indonesia’s image as the world’s largest democracy and a positive example of a secular nation that practices a tolerant form of Islam (87 percent of Indonesia’s population is Muslim).
While it may not be as superficial as a raid on a series of watch stores, and while lawmakers have shied away from actual criminalization, Indonesia has shown that it is no more tolerant of LGBTQ rights than its closest neighbor across the pond.