On July 21, the latest iteration of the Good Vibes Festival (GVF) kicked off in Sepang, a suburban town bordering the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the festival had invited notable international headliners, with acts such as Ty Dolla $ign and The Strokes set to perform. What should have been a weekend to remember for the thousands of attendees ended abruptly on the very first night of the event, following a controversial performance by British rock band The 1975.
Halfway through their set, lead singer Matty Healy denounced Malaysia’s anti-LGBTQ legislation, resorting to slurs and derogatory terms, before kissing bassist Ross MacDonald on the lips. Under Section 377 of the country’s Penal Code, a remnant of British colonial law, consensual same-sex activities between males are prohibited.
The band’s set was cut short “due to non-compliance with local performance guidelines,” the festival organizers said in a statement released in response to the incident. Minister of Communications Fahmi Fadzil later ordered the immediate cancellation of the festival, stranding ticket holders, performers, and organizers after just one day of festivities.
Since then, GVF organizers have scrambled to issue refunds for ticket holders and support the local businesses, sellers, and artists showcased at the festival, who have launched a class action lawsuit against the band seeking compensation for the losses incurred as a result of the festival’s cancellation. The fallout from the performance and the ensuing response from the government also raised concerns for LGBTQ activists that the shrinking of queer-friendly spaces will only worsen in the foreseeable future.
“Healy could have spoken about [queer] rights after consulting with the community, with their buy-in, after taking cue from them,” said Mitch Yusof, executive director of transgender advocacy group SEED Foundation Malaysia. He said that the stunt “was nothing but a self-promoting gimmick without any real concern for the LGBT community that is already being victimized in this country.”
Mitch pointed to a potential backsliding of LGBTQ activism as a result, and expressed concern at the government’s response to launch investigations into the organizers under the Penal Code and tighten application processes for foreign artists for Malaysia’s Central Agency for Application of Filming and Performance by Foreign Artistes (PUSPAL), particularly “in a climate where the creative industry is already grappling to bounce back after the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Activists’ concerns further grew following a statement issued by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), which praised the government’s response to the band’s behavior at the festival, calling on foreign artists to embrace cultural sensitivity and diversity. Gavin Chow, co-founder and president of queer advocacy group People Like Us Hang Out (PLUHO), denounced SUHAKAM’s framing of Malaysian culture as LGBTQ-phobic as “wrong and inaccurate,” and “not aligned with the current human rights standard.”
“LGBTQ people are not a national threat to public order and security, these claims are unfounded and cannot be supported through evidence,” he said. “As a human rights body, SUHAKAM should be more careful with their framing of human rights issues. While we do not welcome white saviors to solve our issues, we also cannot condone the extreme measures taken by the state.”
In an online statement, grassroots advocacy group Justice For Sisters outlined the need for a nuanced understanding of the incident and its repercussions, simultaneously denouncing the ableist and derogatory language Healy used in his speech as well as the excessive response from the government and the SUHAKAM’s endorsement of these measures. The organization also urged the government to tend to the economic losses sustained by local vendors and artists at the festival as a result of its cancellation.
Dhia Rezki, activist with JEJAKA, a space for Malay and Muslim gay men in Malaysia, also emphasized the unfortunate timing of the incident, just a few weeks before the country’s state elections, held on August 12. “LGBTQ+ issues have always been used as a scapegoat during periods of political campaigning and Healy’s actions gave Islamists [grounds] to not only criticize the current government but to further their idea that LGBTQ+ issues are a Western import,” said Dhia, echoing the growing dominance of the right-wing Malay-Muslim Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition at the elections.
Dhia linked conservative sentiments expressed in this month’s polls to recent policy actions that have explicitly curtailed queer advances in the country, including a prohibition order issued by the Ministry of Interior threatening individuals in possession of LGBTQ-themed Swatch watches with up to three years in prison. “Though these incidents are separate, this confirms an alarming trend we’ve been noticing that LGBTQ+ rights are being rolled back, and another attempt to restrict LGBTQ+ freedom of expression,” Dhia said.
Amid the fallout from the performance and an apprehension of further government crackdowns on queer rights and spaces, activists nonetheless believe in the importance of community organizing in the face of growing conservative attitudes. “Reasserting the legitimacy of LGBTQ+ activism in Malaysia after Matty Healy’s incident requires a multi-faceted approach and it’s important to recognize that it is a long-term process,” said Mitch, emphasizing “sustained efforts, resilience, and the involvement of individuals from diverse backgrounds.”
The incident also serves as a reminder of the cleavage that exists between Global North and Global South countries when it comes to activism on social issues. For Chow, “this incident sparked the discussion around meaningful engagement and solidarity actions, coming from our LGBTQ allies, and especially from Western countries.”
He also added that to make queer activism meaningful, “media visibility may not be the only answer, because it can be a double edge sword to the issue.” Instead, he actively encourages international activists to consult with local LGBTQ groups and initiatives “before protesting or advocating on behalf of us,” mainly to avoid causing more harm than good, calling for the slogan “nothing about us without us” to drive foreign allyship.
Echoing Chow’s point, Dhia further added that the community “remain[s] diligent as Malaysia has been put under a spotlight recently with regards to the country’s human rights violations,” denouncing the depiction of Global South countries with anti-LGBTQ legislation as backward, regardless of where the law originated.
Nonetheless, he also hinted at the possibility for local activists to harness this increased visibility to draw attention to grassroots efforts at improving Malaysia’s LGBTQ score. “With this increased international pressure from media, and increased visibility of the people on the ground doing the work, we hope this has garnered some support from local as well as international allies to reach out and support our work,” Dhia said.
The hope is that, on the one hand, and despite the government’s response to the incident, local activists will remain able to campaign for the increasing visibility of LGBTQ people and their rights in Malaysia. On the other hand, the backlash and fallout from the performance serve as a reminder for Western organizations and activists of the damage that “white saviorism” can cause to marginalized communities in the Global South.