Country Report: Malaysia
Yik Koon Teh, School of Social Development, University Utara Malaysia
Copyright Yik Koon Teh to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made.
a. Introduction and prevalence of transsexuals in Malaysia
In Malaysia, ‘transsexuals’ generally refers to male transsexuals although there are female transsexuals around. The number of female transsexuals is, however, very small compared to male transsexuals as observed in Khairuddin's study (unpublished). Moreover, they are less noticeable than the male transsexuals who cross-dress since wearing jeans and T-shirts are part of the female attire in Malaysia. It has been estimated that there about 10,000 male transsexuals in the country (Teh, 1998: 169). About 70% to 80% of them are Malays and the rest are Chinese, Indians and other minority ethnic groups.
The locals term the male transsexuals as Mak Nyah (‘mak’ meaning mother) which refers to those who have not undergone sex change operations as well as to those who have (Teh, 1998: 169). This term was coined by the male transsexual community in 1987 when they tried to set up a society for the community, but was denied by the Registrar of Societies. This term was coined as they do not want to be called by other terms like pondan or bapok which generally refer to men who are effeminate and, therefore, could also include homosexuals. As for the female transsexuals, they are sometimes known as Pak Nyah (‘pak’ meaning father) or they are usually known as ‘tomboys’ and ‘abang’ - meaning brother or man.
b. Religious and cultural context
Since the majority of the mak nyahs are Malays who are Muslim, they are generally influenced by Islam, the official religion.
In Islam, gender can be divided into four groups, that is male, female, `khunsa' and `mukhannis' or ‘mukhannas’ (Abdul Aziz, unpublished). `Khunsa' are basically hermaphrodites. `Mukhannis' or `mukhannas' are males whose behaviour is similar to that of females. ‘Mukhannis’ want a gender identity that is different from that which they were born. They loathe their male identity and want to be female. In contrast, a ‘mukhanas’ is one who is effeminate, but does not want to change sex (Wan Azmi, 1991; 6).
Islam permits `khunsa' (hermaphrodites) to undergo a sex change operation so that the person can be either a female or a male. However, Islam forbids `mukhannis' or `mukhannas' who are males to behave like females in terms of cross-dressing, putting on make-up, injecting hormones to enlarge their breasts, undergoing sex change operations, etc..
In 1983, the Conference of Rulers in Malaysia decided that a ‘fatwa’ prohibiting the sex change operation should be imposed on all Muslims as it was against the Islamic religion. Cross-dressing was also prohibited. However, the Conference of Rulers agreed that in the case of a hermaphrodite, such surgery is permitted. Thus, Muslim mak nyahs are essentially non-entities in the Malaysian society. Many of them have accepted the fact that Islam does not accept transsexualism as stated in the Hadith. For example, the Hadith in Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book72, Number 774, states that:
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas:
The Prophet cursed effeminate men and those women who assume the manners of men, and he said, "Turn them out of your houses."
The Hadith in Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 32, Number 4087, states that:
Narrated Abu Hurayrah:
The Apostle of Allah cursed the man who dressed like a woman and the woman who dressed like a man.
Muslim mak nyahs have been brought up with this in mind. Although many of them feel that they would be happy or happier if they undergo the sex change operation, they are reluctant to do so. They believe that if they have the sex change operation, nobody will carry out the burial rites for them when they die as they are not considered as females and neither are they accepted as males. Some even believe that their souls will float aimlessly when they die because their bodies are not what God has originally given them. Their beliefs are being substantiated by the enforcement of the religious edicts by the police and the Islamic authority as Islam is the official religion in Malaysia. The mak nyahs could be charged for indecent behaviour, which includes cross-dressing, under the Minor Offences Act 1955 or under the Syariah Law. Although this has not put the mak nyahs off from cross-dressing, many would not have the sex change operation for fear of their religion. Therefore, many have accepted having a penis and will not have the sex change operation even though that is what they have desired.
The non-Muslim mak nyahs are mainly Buddhists, Christians, or Hindus. In Malaysia, transsexualism is not acceptable to Christianity while Buddhism and Hinduism could accept the phenomenon. However, since Islam is the official religion, it is the only religion that has religious rulings against some of the practices of the transsexuals. Since there are no official restrictions imposed on non Muslim mak nyahs like their Muslim counterparts, even though their religion may not accept transsexualism, many do lead the life they wanted, including going for the sex change operation if they could afford it. They also have fewer problems with their family members on their chosen lifestyle compared to their Muslim counterparts. Occasionally, they could be caught by the police during their raids for indecent behaviour under section 21 of the Minor Offences Act 1955.
c. Freedom to be who they are
As mentioned above, the Muslim mak nyahs are non-entities in Malaysian society. As Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, the religious edicts are being enforced by the police and the Islamic authority on Muslim transsexuals. As for the non-Muslim mak nyahs, they could be charged for indecent behaviour, which includes cross-dressing, under the Minor Offences Act. In a study on 507 mak nyahs carried out in 2000, about half of the respondents mentioned that they had been caught by the police and also by the Islamic authority for cross-dressing and indecent behaviour (Teh, 2001).
The following information was obtained from the Central Registration Department in Malaysia.
Before 1996, the Registration Department allowed transsexuals who had undergone sex change operation to change their names on their identity cards to their new names without the original names appearing.
However from 1996 until today, the regulation is that anybody could add another name to their original name in his/her identity card. For example, for a male transsexual named Ahmad who has undergone a sex change operation and who wishes to change his name to Aini, the name on his identity card will appear as Aini binti Hassan @ Ahmad bin Hassan. The female name will appear first followed by the original name. However, removing the original name and substituting with a new one is no longer part of the regulation. The reason is that before 1996, the Registration Department has had other government agencies like the Employees Provident Funds, Social Security Organisation, Islamic Department and the Immigration Department enquiring the gender of some of their clients who appeared to be of the different gender from their names in their identity cards. For example, there were cases where the Muslim male transsexuals had sex change operation and wanted to get married. In Islam, it is prohibited by the religion for a male transsexual to marry another man. When the Islamic authority was not sure if the person was a male transsexual as his identity card had only a female name before 1996, they had to enquire from the Registration Department.
The policy of the Registration Department today is to accept only what appears in the birth certificate of the person as the information in it could not be altered even though the person has undergone sex change operation. The only rare case where the information of the birth certificate of one person was changed was that of a hermaphrodite who was brought up wrongly as a female. With the report of a doctor, the person was able to change the original female name to a male name in his early twenties. In normal circumstances, the particulars in the birth certificate of anyone could only be changed within one year after birth. After that, the particulars could not be changed.
Transsexuals who want to add a new name of the opposite sex to their original name must prove that they have undergone a sex change operation. They must get a letter from a doctor in a government hospital to certify that they have undergone the operation. Letters from private hospitals or clinics will not be acceptable. With the certificate, the process of adding an extra name to their identity card is quite simple and easy.
As for the Immigration Department, transsexuals who have added a new name in their identity cards find that the two names will appear in their passport. However, their gender will still be listed according to their birth certificate.
In the study carried out in 2000, about 62% of the 507 respondents mentioned that they had difficulties trying to find a job (Teh, 2000: 118). Many cited being discriminated because of their sexuality. Some had to revert back to wearing male clothes and have their hair cut short if they wanted to work at their chosen workplace. In the study, over 50% of them ended up as sex workers and about 30% of them lived below or around the poverty line of RM450 (approx. US$118).
In general, about 65% of the male transsexuals in Malaysia worked as sex workers, 25% worked as entertainers and in clubs, hair salons, beauty clinics and boutiques, 2% operated food stalls and 8% worked in the private sector (Teh and Khartini, 2000; 240).
As mentioned earlier, in Islam, it is prohibited by the religion for a male transsexual who has undergone the sex change operation to marry another man. This is because the male transsexual is still considered as a man. There were cases of mak nyahs, who had undergone the sex change operation and who wanted to marry, who had to migrate to another country which recognized their new identity.
However, before the Conference of Rulers in Malaysia decided that a ‘fatwa’ prohibiting sex change operation should be imposed on all Muslims in 1983, there were cases of Muslim mak nyahs who had undergone sex change operation who were allowed to get married and adopt children. They have adjusted very well to their new role and family life.
Many mak nyahs would like to adopt children. They feel that they can be good parents. Although they are mak nyahs, they do not think that this will influence any of their male children, as they believe that transsexualism is something ‘natural’ and cannot fall under social influence. Those who manage to adopt children reported that their children were like children from heterosexual marriages. They usually adopt children who are related to them. Some manage to adopt children with the help of another relative. However, the regulations in Malaysia do not allow mak nyahs to adopt children easily, and there is much discrimination.
Many mak nyahs take hormones to enlarge their breasts, to have smooth complexion, to reduce body hair, facial hair or beard, and penile erection. The majority of them do not consult medical doctors on issues relating to hormone intake. This is because they can buy them easily from pharmacies without any prescription from a medical doctor. They obtain information on hormone intake from their mak nyah friends. Only a small percentage will consult a doctor. The two main reasons for not consulting a doctor are 1) it is expensive to see a doctor; 2) they are afraid that the doctor may not be sensitive towards their sexual orientation as they have heard stories from other friends. As such, many take hormones without any medical supervision and they have no idea what the side effects will be. They also do not know how much hormone to take per day. Many think that the more they take, the faster they would get the results. When they have side effects, they either self medicate or do nothing.
Those who do consult the doctors mention that there are good doctors who are sympathetic towards them and are non-judgemental.
As for sex reassignment surgery, there used to be a couple of doctors who could carry out this surgery. However, as one of them is a Muslim, he was not permitted to do so after the fatwa was issued by the Conference of Rulers in 1983. The other doctor has since retired. At present, mak nyahs who seek sex reassignment surgery have to do so in Thailand or Singapore. Those who are affluent usually prefer to have it done in Europe. The danger of having it done overseas is that there may not be pre and post counselling for the mak nyahs. The pre-counselling is to ensure that sex change operation is the best solution for the particular mak nyah’s case and the post counselling is to ensure that the mak nyah could adjust to her new identity. There were cases where the mak nyah who had sex reassignment surgery overseas eventually had mental problems back in Malaysia as she could not adjust to her new role.
If the mak nyahs have to see a doctor, they usually prefer the private doctors as they would have more privacy. However, they will need to pay for their treatment. They could see a doctor at the government run hospital/general hospital, but they could be subjected to rude stares and remarks from the general public. The general hospital will treat them like any other patient and the treatment is much cheaper than the private doctor.
d. Other matters
Many mak nyahs realise that they cannot have a decent life style, rather than becoming sex workers, without outside help. They would like to acquire skills in, for example, dressmaking, hairdressing, flower-arrangement, dancing, singing, in languages and in computer technology in order to get out of the sex trade. However, they do not have the finances to acquire these skills. Some who have small savings would like to set up small businesses of their own, but have no business skills. Moreover, they do not know where to seek advice from qualified people who would want to guide them. Those who are poor and cannot afford to set up businesses of their own hope that the relevant authorities, such as the Welfare Department, would treat them on the same basis as other poor groups deserving help and funding. Some would like to cultivate land, like those helped by the Federal Land Consolidation And Rehabilitation Authority.
In an interview with the Social Welfare Department, the department generally gives three types of assistance to the public who need financial help. The first type is the money assistance where RM75 is given to needy individuals who come to the welfare department to ask for financial assistance. The second type is the launching grant of RM2,000 to help poor individuals to start their own businesses. The third type is the community project grant of RM20,000 for a group of about 10 poor individuals to start a business project. As for the mak nyahs who are poor, there is no special policy for them as a separate group from the other poor people who come to the welfare department for help. If their case is a genuine one, they will be given financial assistance similar to the other poor individuals.
Housing is another problem for the mak nyahs. One of the reasons is that many landlords refuse to rent rooms or houses to them. They also find it difficult to purchase houses of their own, as it is not easy for them to get bank loans, especially if they are sex workers without a fixed income. The mak nyahs interviewed said that they should be given a chance to own low cost houses, as they were able to keep up payments to the banks. If they defaulted on the loans, the banks could repossess.
Most importantly, the mak nyahs want society to accept them as they are and not discriminate against them, especially in employment. They do not want to be forced into the sex trade and be looked down upon by society. They point to the irony that society shuns them as sex workers, but at the same time is not willing to help them by giving them proper jobs. One mak nyahs said, ‘Who wants to be labelled a pondan (a Malaysian slang word for effeminate men) if they can help it?’
Mak Nyahs in Malaysia basically share the same characteristics as transsexuals in other parts of the world (Teh, 2001). Although the Muslim mak nyahs in Malaysia who form the majority in the transsexual community share similar characteristics as transsexuals in other parts of the world, many of them have accepted the fact that they are not allowed to have the sex change operation due to their religious beliefs. To many of them, cross-dressing and the deep feeling that they are females are enough for them to have the identity of transsexuals.
There is still extensive debate whether transsexualism is a biological or a social phenomena - or both. However, mak nyahs are human beings whose rights should be the same as those of all citizens. At the moment they are discriminated against, and thus pushed to the fringes of society. For some, the only way to survive is through vice.
Abdul Aziz Haji Hanafi (1987), "Islam Sebagai Ad-Din", Seminar Mak Nyah Ke Arah Menentukan Identiti Dan Status Mak Nyah Dalam Masyarakat, Law Faculty, Universiti Malaya.
Khairuddin Yusof (1987), "Social And Health Review Of Transsexuals", Seminar Mak Nyah Ke Arah Menentukan Identiti Dan Status Mak Nyah Dalam Masyarakat, Law Faculty, Universiti Malaya.
Teh, Yik Koon (1998). Understanding The Problems Of Mak Nyahs (Male Transsexuals) In Malaysia. South East Asia Research, Vol.6, No.2, July 1998.
Teh, Yik Koon and Khartini Slamah (2000). Mak Nyahs (Male Transsexuals) In Malaysia. Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment of Malaysia Research Report (IRPA).
Teh, Yik Koon (2001). Mak Nyahs (Male Transsexuals) in Malaysia: The Influence of Culture and Religion on their Identity. The International Journal of Transgenderism, Vol.5, No.3, July-September 2001.
Wan Azmi Ramli (1991). Dilema Mak Nyah: Suatu Illusi. Kuala Lumpur: Utusan Publications.