The most-radical band in Malaysia right now has a pretty vanilla origin story. Shh… Diam! (it's name means "shut up" in Malay) is one of the conservative country's few openly queer bands—a truly radical and brave idea in a nation that only five months ago caned two women for allegedly attempting to have sex. Today, Shh… Diam! is something of a poster child for the LGBTQ rights movement, but nine years ago they got their start at… a pool party?
“It was queer people playing games in a swimming pool and we played an acoustic set. We covered a Cranberries song. We only had one original song back then,” the band told VICE. “We had two weeks to get our shit together. We were terrible … We were so bad that we had to continue as a band so that we would improve."
The band would later evolve from performing simple love songs at a lesbian pool party to become the local independent music scene’s poster boy fighting against LGBTQ persecution. Their popularity grew by word of mouth, reaching far-flung places like Borneo and Europe.
Now the band are on the front lines of what's become the latest stage of the ongoing culture wars in Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Indonesia. In both countries, societal attitudes toward the LGBTQ community are far from progressive. In Indonesia, conservatives treat LGBT like it's a slur as the state continues to embark on a campaign of state-sponsored homophobia. And in Malaysia, where sodomy is illegal, censors cut same-sex encounters from movies, and local authorities are caning lesbian couples, the situation is just as grim.
In one recent attack, a trans woman was brutally assaulted by a group of men, landing her in the hospital’s critical ward with broken ribs, head injuries, and a punctured spleen. When interrogated, one of the eight suspects allegedly said it was because of her sexual identity.
Shh… Diam! are a band that exists with an openly trans singer in this kind of very repressive environment. When Faris Saad takes the stage, he loves to openly toy with the idea of sexuality and gender, even in some of Malaysia's most-conservative states.
When the band was invited to play in Kelantan in 2011, a Malaysian state governed by a hardline Islamist party, the four-member group received an unusual treatment. Organizers chose to hold the event in a hotel, a private property, so religious authorities would not be able to raid and arrest the audience (men and women are not allowed to be in close proximity in the state). When they were introduced to the crowd, the emcee intentionally called them an “all-girl band,” for fear of stoking any discomfort.
“It was a surreal experience,” Faris told VICE. “I think if we go there now it will be a bigger risk. I don’t think we will be able to play there."
Despite the hurdles at being a queer band in Malaysia, Shh… Diam! might have come along at the best possible time. Today, the country's LGBTQ community has become visible in ways unimaginable even 10 years ago.
In a country where both secular and religious laws criminalize same-sex relations, the community has recently recorded milestones, like when the government minister’s acknowledged that a trans woman had the right to use the female toilet. The minister in charge of Islamic affairs in the new government has even gone as far as suggesting that Islamic authorities should stop arresting transgender people under Sharia laws that criminalize “a male person posing as a female” (though he still thinks that the LGBTQ community is a problem).
The Director-General of the Health Ministry has also reaffirmed that Malaysians won't face discrimination on the basis of sexual identity when accessing health services.
In many ways, there has been progress. Bands like Shh…Diam! and later Tingtong Ketz, a band led by a trans woman, get to play regularly in venues around Malaysia, with no need to hide that some of them are queer and Muslim at the same time.
Their lyrics explicitly diss the labels slapped by local tabloids on them, like being “mentally ill,” lesbians as “men-hating social recluses,” or that they were lost souls who had to “return to the right path.” In “GIESO”, a song by TingTong Ketz that stands for "Gender Identity, Expression and Sexual Orientation," the lyrics proclaim: “Gender bukan di celah kangkang anda" (or "Gender is not between your legs"). Their existence is spoken of as a sign of a more progressive future for sexual minorities in Malaysia.
But the incident in Kelantan, and recent events, provide sobering reminders that those days remain far in the future. Malaysia is, according to at least one organization, the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s (IHEU), the "eighth worst country for freedom of thought." For all the promises of a New Malaysia, the report pointed out “increased discrimination, harassment and violent hate crime against the LGBT community” has continued in recent years.
Nisha Ayub, a transgender activist, believes the increase in violence against transgender people is linked to the rise of powerful Islamic preachers and politicians piggy-backing on the religion for popularity. She referred to tweets by PU Amin, a contestant on a local reality show to find the best Islamic preacher, who actively encouraged others to “change” the sexual orientation or gender identity of those in the LGBTQ community. If they are unwilling to change, “we fight,” he said.
Figures like these are the “main causes of transgender folks being oppressed and subjected to discrimination and violence in Malaysia” Nisha said.
“In all religion, they preach about love and compassion but these people are preaching about hatred, violence and discrimination towards the community,” Nisha said. “They have been given too much publicity and acknowledgment, making the public believe whatever they say as right.”
On the other hand, there are few channels to resist. Nisha applauded Shh…Diam! for even being as visible as they are but, at the same time, one band alone won't be enough to change or even shift Malaysians' attitudes about the LGBTQ community overnight.
“It still wouldn’t be enough but I believe if everybody, from all backgrounds, whether it’s a musician, singer, or dancer… if we all come together, it will make us stronger," she said.
Bands like Shh…Diam! are relegated to playing in small independent venues, usually to an audience that already agrees with their politics. Denied a bigger stage, their radical messages and image that LGBTQ folks are just like us, are not yet reaching the masses, a critical component for activism to be truly effective. And no one knows this better than the members themselves.
"Playing at places that have different, opposing or unknown points of view will bring the band to another level, in terms of creating a space for dialogue,” the members of Shh… Diam! said.
“Pop culture is a microcosm of all things in life," they said. "If queer people are included in pop culture, in as accurate manner as possible, then people will think that yes, queer people are part of life whether they like it or not."