When you hear the words “asylum seeker”, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
Do you imagine desperate children trying to escape civil war? Or perhaps members of a minority group running away from murderous genocide?
You’d probably think of people who are poor or starving, those who had no option other than to flee their homes. When it comes to asylum seekers, we all think about people from war-torn countries like Syria or dictatorships like North Korea.
So why is everyone talking about an asylum seeker coming from Malaysia?
The Story of Nur Sajat
At first glance, 36-year-old celebrity and cosmetic entrepreneur Nur Sajat seems to have it all.
In 2015, she founded cosmetic company Nur Sajat Aesthetic. By 2018, she even had her own online reality television series called Nur Sajat Xtra! By all rights, she should be enjoying life as one of Malaysia’s one-percent.
There’s only one problem: Nur Sajat is transgender.
Over the years, she’s gone through several brushes with the law. To be fair, not all the charges against Nur Sajat seem to be linked to her gender.
In October 2020, she was fined RM14,500 for selling cosmetic products that weren’t registered with the Ministry of Health. In July 2021, a bankruptcy notice was filed against her for failing to pay RM200,000 as part of a company lawsuit.
But then we come to the more… interesting charges.
Arrested for Wearing the Wrong Outfit
“They didn’t treat me with any compassion or humanity.”
Over the years, Nur Sajat has been accused of insulting Islam, blasphemy and other similar charges. In 2020, she even raised a controversy for performing the umrah pilgrimage while wearing women’s clothing.
Things came to a head in January 2021, when Nur Sajat was taken to court and charged with cross dressing at a religious function… in February 2018.
I never expected to see Malaysia’s stereotypical lateness in our courts, yet here we are.
During this court process, Nur Sajat once again went viral after a video was released on social media showing her in tears while being handcuffed. She claimed that she had been kicked, pinned down and molested by state religious officers while in custody.
“Long story short, I was treated unfairly even though I gave testimony and cooperation to the JAIS (Selangor Islamic Religious Department),” she said.
When the officers were confronted by her mother, they insisted that it was fine to touch her private parts as she was “a man”. Despite her complaints, no further action has been taken against these abusive officers, and JAIS itself has refused to comment on the matter.
Personally, I’m not sure why any of them believed that saying “she’s actually a dude!” would make the situation look better.
I’m honestly curious why these religious officers are so keen to touch another man’s private parts. Does this kind of thing happen with all male prisoners? Do they think it’s alright because they say “no homo” afterwards?
When A Millionaire Seeks Asylum
This incident appears to have been the last straw.
Shortly after this court fiasco, Nur Sajat vanished. Her whereabouts were unknown until 8 September, when she was detained in Thailand.
Despite an extradition request from the Malaysian police, she was able to leave Thailand by 30 September and go to Australia, where she was granted asylum.
“I just want to be free to be myself… to have human rights,” she said.
Not Everyone Gets a Happy Ending
Nur Sajat’s troubles are probably far from over. But at the very least, she now has a chance to enjoy life without the discrimination and prejudice she’d face here in Malaysia.
Unfortunately, most of Malaysia’s LGBTQ community aren’t rich enough to run to another country. Those who’ve come out of the closet often face discrimination from religious extremists and moral busybodies.
Although Malaysia has developed rapidly in a lot of ways, when it comes to gender and sexuality it seems that many of us are still living in the Dark Ages.
This archaic attitude can be plainly seen in September 2021, when Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Senator Idris Ahmad offered Nur Sajat the opportunity to “repent” for her actions.
“Insya-Allah, if he (Muhammad Sajjad) is willing to come to us, if he has admitted wrong and so on if he wants to return to his true nature, there is no problem,” he said. “We do not want to punish him, we just want to educate.”
Why Is Our Government So Obsessed with Punishing LGBTQ People?
Despite Senator Idris’ words, our government has made it clear that they really want to punish LGBTQ people.
Not even a global pandemic is enough to distract them from this all-consuming need to hurt the dreaded gays!
In January 2021, then Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Ahmad Marzuk Shaary came under fire for suggesting harsher sentences for LGBTQ individuals.
“All state religious agencies and enforcers have been instructed to take action against those (LGBT) who do not behave accordingly,” he said.
In July 2020, Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad declared that he would give “full license” to Federal Territory Islamic Department (JAWI) officers to arrest transgender people. While Zulkifli claimed that his actions were necessary to “return to the right path”, the people he targets have a very different view.
“In Malaysia transgender people live in fear of being targeted and prosecuted just because of who we are,” said transgender activist Nisha Ayub. “Aren’t we part of the society? Aren’t we supposed to be protected by the laws just as others?”
Bear in mind that these events were happening even as COVID-19 cases were rising nationwide. I wonder how fast we could have ended the lockdown if they’d decided to chase anti-vaxxers with such fervour!
Discrimination Isn’t Just Wrong. It’s Embarrassing.
Cases like Nur Sajat are shining a spotlight on some very uncomfortable parts of our country on the international stage. After all, it’s hard to convince others that you’re a developed country when everyone is laughing at your 18th-century attitudes.
Over the past month, local groups like G25 Malaysia have warned that the government’s ‘paranoia’ over trans people like Nur Sajat would thrust Malaysia back into the world news cycle again “as a country that followed its own standards of human rights”.
Afiq Harraz, secretary-general of Parti Aspirasi Sains Malaysia added that it was “sad” how a Malaysian citizen had to flee and seek asylum for her own safety.
“We hope that with the recent news that Malaysia has been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the coming term we will see an improvement in upholding human rights for all of its citizens and also the migrant population,” he said.
Do These Actions Really Represent Modern Malaysians?
Throughout this whole sordid affair, one of the government’s harshest critics has been Lawyers for Liberty Coordinator Zaid Malek, who pointed out how ridiculous it was that no less than 122 JAIS officers had been tasked with hunting down Nur Sajat.
“This bullying show of force is emblematic of the problem we face with regards to religious enforcement in the country; only caring about whether we appear on the surface as Islamic instead of exhibiting the humanity and compassion that Islam espouses,” he said.
“The lack of mercy or humanity shown to Nur Sajat is an embarrassment to the religion and is counter to the oft-spun narrative that we practice religious moderation in Malaysia. Is the endless hounding of Nur Sajat by a massive state apparatus our version of moderation?”
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Nur Sajat’s case may be making headlines today, but she is just one example.
In this day and age, there are still far too many of us who cling to outdated ideas about sexuality. Every day, thousands of ordinary Malaysians face discrimination and prejudice from those around them simply because their love is different from the norm.
If you want to learn more about these toxic beliefs and what you can do to change them, be sure to check out: