How the onstage stunt of British band The 1975 caused more harm than good in Malaysia

Good Vibes Festival

Screenshot of YouTube video teaser of Good Vibes Festival

Matty Healy, the vocalist of the British band, The 1975, opened their performance in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 21 by ranting against the country’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws in a profanity-laden speech and kissing his bandmate onstage. Supporters believe the provocative action was intended to promote LGBTQ+ rights, but it led to the blacklisting of the group in the country, the cancellation of the three-day Good Vibes Festival (GVF), and the initiation of a police probe against the organizers of the show.

An excerpt of Healy's controversial speech was uploaded on YouTube:

I made a mistake. When we were booking shows, I wasn’t looking into it. I don’t see the fucking point… of inviting the 1975 to a country and then telling us who we can have sex with….I’m sorry if that offends you, and you’re religious… but your government are a bunch of fucking r*****s. I don’t care anymore. If you push, I’m gonna push back. I’m not in the fucking mood….

Malaysia has a Muslim-majority population and enforces colonial-era laws that criminalize homosexual acts. In recent years, conservative hardliners have called for stricter implementation of laws that became the basis for banning movies and performers for their endorsement of LGBTQ+ rights. Earlier this year, police summoned organizers of a women’s march for displaying pro-LGBTQ+ banners. The police also raided a watch store, Swatch, for selling watches designed with rainbow colors associated with the LGBTQ+ community.

GVF is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year by showcasing Malaysian and foreign talents. But Healy's stunt caused the sudden cancellation of the festival, which would have featured various performers and boosted sales in local businesses. Numerous local musicians who were set to perform at the festival are seeking legal repercussions against the band due to the cancellation.

Authorities justified the decision to ban The 1975 and the cancellation of the GVF. “The Communications and Digital Ministry will not tolerate any party that provokes and engages in disrespectful behaviour while performing in Malaysia.”

While many pro-LGBTQ+ supporters applauded the sentiment, they say the speech and kiss was a misguided way of expressing their support, as it could only end up hurting Malaysia's queer community and the local LGBTQ+ rights movement. This tweet from a local artist reflects the sentiment of those who are critical of The 1975's move:

Local vendors reported losing significant income because of the abrupt closure of the music festival

Another Twitter user underscored that The 1975 might have had good intentions, but the repercussions of their actions will gravely affect the work of LGBTQ+ groups

SUHAKAM, the country’s national human rights institution, welcomed the government’s decision as it advised the public to be more “responsible” in exercising their freedom of expression.

While SUHAKAM advocates equality for all and freedom of expression, it is important to stress that these rights must be practiced responsibly and within any restrictions imposed by local laws and cultural considerations.

Justice for Sisters, a group advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, criticized The 1975’s “problematic behavior” but acknowledged the justness of their protest.

To be clear, sans the criticism against the government and the on-stage kiss, we are not excusing the band’s problematic behaviour, including the use of ableist language on stage.

However, it is important to note that the band’s criticism against the government and their protest is valid. It is the result of the state’s own actions of increasing restrictions on LGBTIQ people.

The group also condemned the disproportionate response of the government, which undermined the welfare of those directly and indirectly involved in the music festival.

These short-sighted restrictive actions will not only further invite criticism by all persons, but it also has a ripple effect on promoters, event organisers, and further diminish the already struggling creative industry.

Zaid Malek, director of Lawyers for Liberty, also raised suspicion that the government's decision to ban the whole event could be intended to get the support of conservative voters in the upcoming state elections on August 12.

This raises the question whether the rush by the Govt to ban the entire event is related to the upcoming state elections, in hopes of garnering the votes of conservative voters. If so, this only further solidifies extreme conservatives by pandering to their sensibilities and encouraging their tendency to impose their narrow world-views on the entire country.

There is a genuine fear that the political grandstanding of the government to showcase their hard stance on this issue will only legitimise the vilification of the LGBTQ community, especially now with the upcoming state elections.

Healy has made similar remarks and kissed both audience members and bandmates in Dubai, the UK, and the US. After leaving Malaysia, The 1975 cancelled their shows in Taiwan and Indonesia.

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