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Matty HealyPhoto by Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

‘White saviour’ Matty Healy adds Malaysia to list of enemies

The 1975 singer kicked off yet another controversy when he launched into a speech about Malaysia's LGBTQ+ rights record during a gig in Kuala Lumpur – but critics argue it’s likely to cause more harm than good

Never a stranger to controversy, Matty Healy can now add the nation of Malaysia to his ever-expanding list of enemies. 

Last Friday (July 21), The 1975 played a gig at the Good Vibes festival in Kuala Lumpur, which was cut short after Healy launched into an impromptu speech against Malaysia’s record on LGBTQ+ rights. “I don’t see the fucking point of inviting The 1975 to a country and then telling us who we can have sex with,” Healy said during the set. “Unfortunately you don’t get a set of loads of uplifting songs because I’m fucking furious. And that’s not fair on you, because you’re not representative of your government. Because you’re young people, and I’m sure a lot of you are gay and progressive and cool.” 

After Healy shared a smooch with bandmate Ross MacDonald, the band were ordered off the stage by officials and the remaining two days of the festival were subsequently cancelled. This decision came at the behest of the Malaysian government, which cited its “unwavering stance against any parties that challenge, ridicule or contravene Malaysian laws”. The following day, it was announced that The 1975 are officially banned from the country. 

The band have since cancelled two further dates, the first in Indonesia and the second in Taiwan, although it’s unclear how this relates to the incident in Malaysia. Homosexuality is stigmatised, but not illegal, in Indonesia (with the exception of one province), while Taiwan’s record on LGBTQ+ rights is considered among the most progressive in Asia. An official statement from the band failed to make this any clearer: “The band never takes the decision to cancel a show lightly and had been eagerly looking forward to playing for fans in Jakarta and Taipei but unfortunately, due to current circumstances, it is impossible to proceed with the scheduled shows.”

@thenewsmovement Matty Healy was headlining a festival in Malaysia when he made this speech criticising the country's anti-LGBT laws 💥 It's illegal to be gay in Malaysia and punishable by 20 years in prison 🚨 The day after he made this speech, organisers cancelled the festival #the1975 #mattyhealy1975 #matty #kualalumpur #lgbt🌈 #fyp ♬ original sound - The News Movement

In the wake of this controversy, it seems that Malaysia’s queer community is just as pissed off as its conservative government. On the one hand, Healy’s comments were well-grounded. Malaysia’s record on LGBTQ+ rights is terrible: “sodomy” is a crime (under a law which, first introduced under British colonial power, is still strictly enforced), LGBTQ+ people face high levels of violence and persecution, and the country was recently ranked the second worst in the world for trans rights. Those defending Healy have argued that he was right to draw attention to this situation, that he was taking a brave stand against injustice and providing a voice for the voiceless.

But many queer Malaysians don’t see it that way, suggesting that Healy’s intervention is likely to provoke an even harsher clampdown from the government. Speaking to the BBC, Kuala Lumpur-based drag queen Carmen Rose described Healy’s actions as “performative” and “unruly”, and accused him of failing to think through the consequences. In a viral Twitter thread, Malaysian music industry professional Joe Lee wrote, “If anything, what Matt Healy and The 1975 have done, is discount and disrupted YEARS of work by local activists who have been pushing for change and understanding AND endangering our vulnerable minority communities.” 

It’s entirely possible that some queer Malaysians felt inspired by Healey’s actions, and footage shows members of the crowd cheering, but the reaction on social media has been far from positive. This extends to the artists who were due to play the festival: Malaysian singer Talitha, whose set was cancelled, wrote an Instagram post accusing Healy of “reckless ignorance, selfishness & inability to adjust or respect different cultures (white saviour complex)”.

@akidnamedrufus #stitch with @cabi ps: that’s not to say that Malaysian’s are all homophobic, as there is a queer community and I believe a lot of Gen-Z/Millenial Malaysia’s are more woke and accepting of LGBTQ+ folks, but Malaysian are all aware of what our government systems are like and how acts like thse can actually hurt marginalized communities more than help them. #the1975 #goodvibesfestival #gvf2023 ♬ original sound - a kid named rufus

The “white saviour” accusation, which has come up repeatedly, gets to the heart of the matter. Queer people in the Global South have long criticised this kind of unilateral, top-down activism as a form of cultural colonialism: earlier this year, for example, Peter Tatchell inspired similar criticisms from queer Qataris after pulling off a gay rights stunt at the World Cup. Even if Healy’s outburst was well-intentioned (which I’m sure it was), it doesn’t seem like he thought it through – and while we might normally enjoy that kind of chaotic unpredictability from a rock star, it’s different when the wellbeing of a vulnerable minority group is at stake. 

In spite of the repression they face, there are LGBTQ+ activists and organisations in Malaysia. If Healy had checked in with them beforehand, asked how he could help, and listened to what they had to say, then it would be a different story. But charging in like a bull in a tea shop is not solidarity. Instead of thinking tactically, all he offered was a gesture of individual defiance, kicking against a hypothetical limitation of his own freedom (“I don’t see the fucking point of inviting The 1975 to a country and then telling us who we can have sex with”). He can’t be described as a “voice for the voiceless'' if he didn’t bother to speak to them first, at which point he would have discovered that they are not voiceless at all. 

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