Farewell, sweet sodomy

The Abdul Samad Building, Kuala Lumpur, site of the court where Anwar Ibrahim’s first sodomy trial took place in 1998–1999

It’s been two months since the ‘climax’. By my own hand, I put my fingers to, found the right station, and felt overwhelming emotion against the hard-line, desperately bullying conservatism that looks to banish people from the pleasure dome. Among many others who stood in queues under the bright hot sun on 9 May, our shadows against the school building were a comforting presence: we, me and my vote, would surely matter.

Now, though tested by the calm of Ramadan and the joy of Raya, the change in play has been breathtakingly swift. The first Parliamentary session hasn’t been held yet, but already there is a new attorney general, a new chief justice and a new governor of the Central Bank. They have been appointed, with justice also being seen to be done, on merit. This is, of course, an Islamic value. But from the Islamic party that insists on especially stiff interpretations comes only the moan that two of these figures are not Muslims. This is the same party that made a pittance of comment about putrid corruption just to advance a bill that was yet another awkward thrust for an Islamic state in its own image. Any legal system deserves support that dares call out corruption by all its names.

Many heads of government-linked companies have also been douched in the name of removing the rot of 60-over years, especially the brunt of the last two decades. There are many promising, even exciting new members of parliament, though nothing like 30 per cent representation by women, including those of us who identify as such. The new minister of tourism, arts and culture is from Sabah, one of the two pariah Malaysian states on Borneo. This appears to be his single qualification for the post. As if coming from Sabah is all a person needs to change the world. For a Sabahan who has written several essays and plays that question peninsula-centric perspectives, this appointment is like being hoisted by my own petard. Time for a new harness.

Of course, a change of guard is to be expected from a new government in a two-party system. But there is pause for thought. Next time, it might be only the hardliners who get to be top. But hopefully, since so much insight can be gained from being bottom, a variety of more favourable positions can come together on difficult issues.

Certainly, it’s been 20 years — a generation — since the shock and the awe of reading about anal sex and masturbation in front-page news. It became part of breakfast for everyone. Prurient and salacious interest in “despicable acts”, no doubt, but it all required thinking of — or not thinking of — to understand court goings-on.

We had nasi lemak with the Penal Code’s 377A: “Carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” “Any person who has sexual connection with another person by the introduction of the penis into the anus or mouth of the other person is said to commit carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” And “shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 20 years, and shall also be punished with whipping.”

We had half-boiled eggs and kicap asin with the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997 about liwat (sexual relations between male persons): “Any male person who commits liwat shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding five thousand ringgit [$1,300] or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or whipping not exceeding six strokes, or any combination thereof.” In totes, then, that was 20 years, no fine and whipping versus three years, a small fine and six strokes. One of them was getting warmer to a sense of perspective and it wasn’t penal.

The prohibition of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and the prohibition of “sexual relations between male persons” might be examples of the “performative contradiction” that Helen Freshwater cites and Judith Butler writes in Excitable Speech. It’s a contradiction that is integral to any regulation that “states what it does not want stated”. Perhaps a better example is the Sedition Act 1948, although its use against dissent has been more willy-nilly. The point is that “vulnerability” exists in explicit acts of prohibition because, instead of shutting off public debate, they can lead to the proliferation of it. The Penal Code and Syariah Criminal Offences Act make sodomy and liwat more speakable, not less. (Yes, yes, I get the extra bin bags of horror and shame.)

Now that sodomy has been “removed”, thanks to a pardon from the Agong, it seems we must part company. But carnal intercourse is still in the Penal Code and liwat is still in the Syariah Criminal Offences Act. If Michel Foucault is right in Discipline and Punish, there are no relations of power without resistances, and these resistances are formed where power is exercised. Power is “productive”, not simply repressive. Here then to the hope and courage of me and my shadow, and friends and family in future entanglements.

Ann Lee is a playwright and PhD candidate in Southeast Asian studies

July 30, 2018
August 14, 2018