Swatch-store raids send out wrong signals from Malaysia

A long string of regulations when it comes to Islamic matters does impact its economy, both locally and globally

Vanitha Nadaraj

Updated: June 06, 2023 05:37 AM GMT

Malaysian dragon dance performers make their way during the Chingay Parade in George Town on Penang Island on March 11. The Southeast Asian nation has several restrictions when it comes to Islamic matters, which impact the economy, both nationally and internationally. (Photo: AFP)

Home ministry officials raided 11 Swatch outlets in Malaysia and confiscated their limited edition Pride collection watches, which, according to news reports, had the abbreviation LGBT printed on the dials. They took 164 watches worth US$14,000 in a series of raids from May 13 to 14.

Malaysia is one of the 64 countries in the world where homosexuality is illegal. A summons received by one of the outlets was issued under the Printing, Presses and Publication Act (PPPA), one of the more repressive laws in the country.

The wide definition of publications in the law could apply to the Swatch watches, according to lawyers, who added that the actions of the government can be challenged because a ban was not gazetted and a search warrant was not obtained before going ahead with the raids.

The Swiss watchmaker is preparing itself for a battle. The company said it would do so through legal means and has also taken a defiant approach by saying it would restock the watches.

The business community voiced their concern over the raids, saying they sent the wrong message to international brands looking to do business in the country. The Small and Medium Enterprises Association fears foreign companies may think that Malaysia is a regressive country.

The retail industry has been one of the largest contributing sectors to the country's gross domestic product for the past few decades. A broad range of retail outlets carry both national and international brands catering to locals and tourists. Tourism is another major income earner for the country.

PAS leaders called for all concerts by international artists to be banned otherwise they would hold nationwide protests

The last two years saw the Malaysian retail industry working hard to recoup losses incurred during the Covid lockdowns. Last year, it recovered to the 2019 level in terms of total sale value. The industry has enough challenges to wade through and probably feels it does not need the additional pressure of trying to second-guess the government's actions and reactions.

They are not the only ones who get jittery over sudden moves concerning the LGBT movement. The jaws of Coldplay fans probably dropped when the Islamist party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), demanded the government ban the British rock band's November concert.

On May 10, one of the party leaders posted on Facebook photos of frontman Chris Martin holding an LGBT flag in a London concert. He claimed the government was trying to promote hedonism and deviant culture. The previous day, Coldplay had announced that their first-ever concert in Malaysia was on and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim sent them a tweet saying Welcome to Kuala Lumpur.

The government decided to ignore the calls by PAS. The Communications and Digital Minister retweeted posts featuring initiatives by Coldplay, including a song performed in support of Palestine and a river clean-up effort in Malaysia. That stopped PAS from taking this any further.

In August last year, PAS leaders called for all concerts by international artists to be banned otherwise they would hold nationwide protests. This call came one day after American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish's concert in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia has its list of canceled concerts due to religious restrictions. In 2007, Beyonce refused to adhere to guidelines on her attire and canceled her concert.

What makes matters worse for Malaysia is the way the goalposts change with every religious outburst

In 2008, Indonesian Dangdut folk music queen Inul Daratista had her concerts in Malaysia canceled because her dance moves were deemed to be lewd. All this has caused promoters of concerts and events to be wary of including Malaysia in their itinerary.

Canceled concerts hurt the nation's pocket. They have a multiplier effect on the economy and are key tourism offerings, both nationally and internationally.

What makes matters worse for Malaysia is the way the goalposts change with every religious outburst. In December last year, the government came up with a detailed set of guidelines for international concerts, a move that shows the government wants to get a lot more organized and not leave too much room for interpretation.

The same ought to be done for businesses. There is a long string of regulations when it comes to Islamic matters because the federal government has its own set of rules and so do the different state governments. All these need to be clearly outlined for businesses, giving little or no room for differing religious views to influence government decisions and procedures.

Poor decisions and opaque enforcement methods can adversely affect plans to draw more foreign investments. At the same time, international businesses and investors need to understand that homosexuality will continue to remain illegal in Malaysia.

Anwar declared in January that his government will not recognize the LGBT community. The penalties are severe and the government will continue to go to great lengths to prevent the spread of elements that are harmful to morality in the community.

For businesses to comply, clearer regulations work better than pitchforks and torches.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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