Dennis Ignatius: Nur Sajat – Fleeing Malaysia to live free

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Sajat’s decision to flee her homeland to live free speaks volumes about the kind of country we are fast becoming.

It was reported recently that Nur Sajat had landed safely in Australia and was granted political asylum by the Australian government. An obviously pleased and relieved Sajat said, “Now that I’m free, I can carry on with my life… For me, I’m happy being in a country that accepts who I am, and that’s what I really want.”

No doubt, all Malaysians who value human rights and human dignity will be pleased that Sajat, a highly successful entrepreneur, is now free to live her own life and chart her own destiny. That she had to take the agonizing decision to flee her homeland to live free surely speaks volumes about the kind of country we are fast becoming.

Sajat, a transgender, had run afoul of the religious establishment for dressing as a woman at a religious event some years ago. She was charged under section 10(a) of the Syariah Crimes (Selangor) Enactment 1995 which provides for a maximum fine of RM5,000 or imprisonment not exceeding three years or both, if convicted. Sajat was also wanted under the Penal Code for obstructing a public officer and using criminal force to obstruct a public officer. She had pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Whatever the allegations against her, it is clear that this was always about her transgender identity.

In January this year, she was called in for questioning by religious officials apparently in response to reports that had been lodged against her. She complained that she was kicked, groped, and then placed overnight in a male detention facility. Fearing that the worst was yet to come – a not unreasonable fear given the attitude of religious officials towards transgenders – she fled to Thailand.

State religious officials reportedly deployed 122 personnel and enforcement officers to find and arrest Sajat. After she fled to Thailand, Malaysian immigration authorities voided her passport in an effort to force her to return home. Now, thanks to the Australian government, Sajat will be free from harassment and intimidation. Thank you, Australia, for giving sanctuary to another Malaysian in need of refuge.

For Malaysians, the Sajat affair is another reminder of the heavy hand of the religious establishment. The gentle, caring and tolerant culture that once defined Malaysia is being twisted into a rigid and intolerant one that frowns on diversity and is unaccepting of anything outside its own narrow framework. It is driving Malaysia’s ethnic communities further and further apart and making life impossibly difficult for people like Sajat.

Many in Malaysia very likely have strong views about Sajat’s so-called “lifestyle choice” but regardless of whether we approve of her choices we do have an obligation to respect her right to live her own life. As well, our Federal Constitutions confers on all Malaysians certain inalienable rights irrespective of gender; when those rights are trampled upon, our collective freedom is imperilled. And for that reason, if for no other, we must stand up for Sajat.

Our nation is facing so many challenges – rampant corruption, a dismal education system, institutional decay, fraying inter-ethnic relations, religious extremism, and mounting economic problems and here we are, pursuing a citizen who just wants to live free. And when we are not doing that, we are fussing over the name of some brand of whiskey or insisting that the name “hotdog” is inappropriate or that some cross somewhere is too high. What is wrong with us?

The Sajat affair also comes soon after Malaysia was elected to a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for the term 2022-2024. In welcoming Malaysia’s election to the council, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah declared that Malaysia will continue to advocate strongly against human rights violations and prioritise the rights of vulnerable groups. He added, “As a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and democratic society, we believe Malaysia will be able to share the values of inclusivity, acceptance and understanding as captured under the Keluarga Malaysia concept.” Share the values of inclusivity, acceptance, and understanding? Empty words.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri, for his part, declared that “Malaysia will work closely with the UN Member States to advance the global human rights agenda, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” More smoke and mirrors.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” and that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. Article 18 even declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance”.

If the Prime Minister is really committed to advancing “the global human rights agenda as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, he ought to start at home. And he can begin by respecting the rights of citizens like Sajat so they will never again have to flee their homeland to live free.