Since March 2020, Malaysia has been placed under several movement control orders (MCOs) that restrict movement and business operations in order to curb COVID-19 infections. However, the MCOs have also resulted in rising unemployment, business closures and increased food insecurity. Cash aid from the government has been disbursed in several stages, with the next one only due to arrive in August 2021. As the country faces increasing economic difficulties in the wake of the pandemic, mutual aid funds have sprung up around Malaysia to provide food and cash aid to affected communities.
However, LGBTQIA+ people face an extra hurdle when it comes to accessing aid. Fears of discrimination, being dead-named and an increasingly hostile environment toward queer people prevents them from accessing aid from public COVID-19 funds.
In this episode, Deborah Augustin speaks to Nisha Ayub from SEED Foundation and Connie Connor, an organiser with the Queer Solidarity Fund, about the need for LGBTQIA+ specific mutual aid funds that are more gender-inclusive, and how the queer community in Malaysia has organised themselves against the backdrop of an increasingly hostile environment.
For the sake of full transparency, we’d like to disclose that the presenter has previously donated to both SEED Foundation and the Queer Solidarity Fund.
Minor edits have been made to the following transcript for clarity.
Hello everyone, I’m Deborah narratives membership engagement manager. Since March 2020, Malaysia has been placed under several movement control orders, or MCOs, that restrict movement and business operations in order to curb COVID-19 infections. However, the MCOs have also resulted in rising unemployment, business closures, and increased food insecurity. Cash aid from the government has been dispersed in several stages, with the next one only due to arrive in August 2021. As the country faces increasing economic difficulties in the wake of the pandemic, mutual aid funds have sprung up around Malaysia to provide food and cash aid to affected communities. However, LGBTQIA+ people face an extra hurdle when it comes to accessing aid. Fears of discrimination being dead-named, and an increasingly hostile environment toward queer people prevents them from accessing aid from public COVID-19 funds. In this episode, I speak to Nisha Ayub, from Deed Foundation and Connie Connor, an organiser with the Queer Solidarity Fund, about the need for LGBTQIA+ specific mutual aid funds that are more gender inclusive, and how the queer community in Malaysia has organised themselves against the backdrop of an increasingly hostile environment. For the sake of full transparency, I’d like to disclose that I have previously donated to both SEED Foundation and the Queer Solidarity Fund. If you enjoy what we’re doing, please support our work by becoming a member of New Naratif at newnaratif.com/join. Memberships start at just $52 a year. That’s just $1 a week. Or you can donate at newnaratif.com/donate. And check out our website at newnaratif.com for more stories from Southeast Asia.
And now here’s the interview.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the show. How are you doing?
I’m doing good. Thank you. And how are you?
I’m very well and I’m excited to talk about today’s topic, which is LGBTQIA+ mutual aid. So Nisha, maybe we can start with some introductions. You co-founded SEED Foundation, which aims to empower people who are socially excluded in Malaysia. One of SEED’s previous projects included setting up a home for the most socially excluded community in Malaysia; elderly homeless transgender people. Can you tell us more about yourself, and what led you to dedicate yourself to this line of work?
Okay, so this has been my passion since the beginning, to assist the community, from all from all angle, [regardless] of their background, age, or whatsoever. And what led me to this is because of my own personal experience as a transgender person in Malaysia. And as we are all aware, the situation of the LGBT community, the transgender community, is not recognised here recognised in the system in Malaysia itself. And we are constantly being being attacked, or are being used. Being used as a political tool, being used as as as a religious tool. And we become [victims] and we become ostracised from society. So, with that situation itself, and with my own personal experience, been discriminated, being put in jail for being who I am, I wanted to do something and I wanted to help the community to speak up on the situation that they’re facing right now. As time passes by, I’ve noticed that it’s just not about speaking up. But at the same time, I noticed there are other needs of the community, including social welfare, a community support house, and all those stuff. So, that’s where myself and Mitch Yusmar, he’s a trans man. So we both engaged together and we said we need to do something about this. And we basically set up SEED. And from that drop-in centre located in Chow Kit, it’s basically known as a red light area, we had a drop-in centre where we were open to homeless (inaudible) and we are also open to not just transgender women, but to also female sex workers. So, because our tagline is “nobody gets left behind”, so we are very inclusive. And later on I started to realise that there are a lot of elderly trans women who needed shelter. They mostly have been abandoned by their family. And that’s where I told myself that, you know, we need to open a shelter. I wouldn’t call it a shelter, I call it a home. A home for the community and it’s been four years already. And until today, we have managed to give shelter to nearly 40 people. (Inaudible) nearly 40 people that have actually access to that shelter till today.
Connie, what about you? You are part of the organising team of the Queer Solidarity Fund in Sabah. Could you tell us more about yourself and the work that you do?
Okay. Hello, my name is Connie Connor. Yes, I am one of the organising team member of the QSF (Queer Solidarity Fund). I am from Sabah. So what do I do? I sort of do things here and there, you know, like freelancing, and most of them are about advocacy, like for queer people in Sabah. So, in this fundraising, this mutual aid fund we did, my role was contacting the beneficiary person. I ask them, what can we provide for them. What they need, basically. Yeah, that’s the thing I do.
Both SEED foundation and Bentarakata, along with Gender and Sexuality Alliance Kota Kinabalu or GSAKK, have created funds that are targeted towards LGBTQIA+ people. So let’s delve deeper into the work you both have been doing during this pandemic. Connie, fundraising for the Queer Solidarity Fund was launched on 9th May 2020. Why did your organisation feel the need to start a solidarity fund, specifically for the queer community in Sabah?
So actually, Queer Solidarity Fund was organised by GSAKK, Bentarakata, and basically a group of friends. So when the first MCI happened, we all know how it was right? So everyone was restricted from going out, and shops were closed. So, many of the transgender women in Sabah, they lost their jobs, and they don’t have enough savings to sustain themselves. Also, actually, most of them are sex workers and undocumented. So [the] undocumented, they cannot apply for funds from the government. So, for them who are sex workers, they cannot go out and do their jobs. So, if they apply for funds from the government, they can be criminalised. So, how did this funding happen? Some of us are actually in [a] crisis response group chat, together with Justice of Sisters, (inaudible) and SEED. So SEED actually has been organising a fundraiser specially for queer people. So in this MCO, they share with Sabahan trans [people] community tools. So that is how it happened.
Are there factors that make LGBTQIA+ people in Sabah more vulnerable than say, people from the community in Peninsular Malaysia?
Yeah, of course. First of all, we don’t have enough readings about LGBTQ in Sabah. Also like language, you know, most of the LGBTQ readings are in English or [mostly in] English. And then, same with what I said just now, most of the trans women here are working as sex workers or working in saloons, [jobs] like that. I think every one of the transgender women in Sabah need to be empowered more.
Sabah is also a state with the highest number of stateless people in Malaysia and you mentioned that some of the people you were helping were undocumented. How does a person’s documented status complicate receiving aid? Could they apply for aid from other organisations or NGOs?
Okay, I think one of the reason why is because most of them are in rural areas, so for them to get out and go to the city to buy groceries and stuff, it’s hard. Because they’re scared to get caught by the authorities or something like that. So my team, we actually drove to their place and actually meet them face to face, so that they feel safe and to receive the groceries and everything.
And for listeners outside Malaysia, what should be noted is that there has been increased police presence in public areas since these MCOs started. So that could definitely make people more afraid to go out and get help, as Connie mentioned. Nisha, before the pandemic, SEED Foundation provided hot meals for people at its drop-in centre. Were you able to continue this once the first Movement Control Order was instated?
Okay, when the MCO started last year, at the beginning we had some issues, because, you know, everybody was not allowed to do anything, including NGOs. So, but we managed to engage with the local authorities to get approval, to continue our food, cook food for the community around that area. And thank God, we also managed to get support from people out there that constantly, you know, whether they sponsor food, daily food, or whether they financially support us. And we managed to continue the food distribution. And one thing I just want to share here is that there has been [an] increase of numbers of people coming to our centre. It started with 30 to 40 people. And the next thing you know, now we are giving out daily from 200- 250 cooked food for the community there.
And this is ongoing right now. And you do this every day?
Yes. Sorry, not every day. We are giving out daily cooked food from Monday to Friday, not just lunch. But depending on how much of sponsors that we get on daily basis. So sometimes we give lunch, and after lunch, if we have more food to be given, we will be giving it out around tea time, for instance.
And you’re you’re distributing 200 to 250 meals Monday to Friday. Wow, so that’s a huge increase in number of people who need help during the pandemic.
And just want to share if you don’t mind. What I’ve noticed, the increased numbers is just not from the community, not from the transgender, or the female sex workers or, you know, people around the area. I’ve seen also, you know, cisgender people, especially elderly people, coming to our centre to seek assistance. And not just that, we also open our doors to the undocumented community in that area. Because again, in SEED, we don’t discriminate people. Anyone that comes to our door, sick, for assistance, whether it’s food, or whether it’s groceries, we will help them as much as we can.
Yeah, I really love that “no one gets left behind” ethos of SEED. Maybe could you talk about some of the challenges you faced while distributing aid during the pandemic? So you said that not everyone was allowed to distribute aid. Could you talk a little bit more about those challenges you faced?
Yes. Because at the beginning when they started the MCO, everyone was clueless you know? There was not much information on what we can do, how we can continue our work and so on. So there is lack of information, and not just that. At the same time, we, our team at SEED, were unable to actually travel from their house to the location itself. So it was a difficult moment at the beginning within [that] one month actually. We were hustling each other, trying to find out, trying to figure out. But thank God that we managed to get in touch with the local authorities and get approval from them and not just approval. Even we have some policemen that tends to come there sometimes to help us to actually manage the crowd. Because again, yes, there is need to assist them but we have to ensure that everybody is also protected.
And you’ve continued giving out cooked meals and you’ve been able to increase the number of cooked meals you’re giving out. So why did you feel the need to start a trans solidarity fund in 2020?
Unknown Speaker 14:45
Okay, first of all, when the MCO started, same thing what Connor mentioned earlier on, when pandemic started, when the MCO started, the most affected was the sex workers. The transgender sex workers, female sex workers, and they were not able to work. And of course, they were not able to get assistance. So, we started locally in that area per se, and started to fundraise. And, you know, as is social media, it worked wonders, and we started to get requests from other community in other states and in other areas. And that’s where I told myself, because I’m also the co-founder of Justice For Sisters, so, I told team in JFS, Thilaga, that we need to do something about this. Let’s combine each other and let’s make a fund where we can support everybody. So, from there, from one state to another state, we ended up reaching out to Sabah and Sarawak. I mean, honestly, it may sound like a success, but for me, it was kind of sad, because to see that the community is always being left out, you know. Why I say so? Because as the government is saying that they are giving aid for this and this, but however, because again, we are not recognised here, therefore, we are not a part of the system. And even cisgender people are not receiving the aid that they’re supposed to receive, then you can imagine, how about the marginalised community, too? So at the same time, it was a success that we managed to reach out to everyone. But at the same time, I feel sad to see that this is happening to the community, even in [during a pandemic].
Yeah, I think that while it is heartwarming to see people contributing to the fund, I think you’re right, Nisha. It does reflect the systemic failure that means that this kind of grassroots organising is necessary. And yeah, you said, the Trans Solidarity Fund is meant for people all over the country. How have you coordinated aid distribution for the community outside of Kuala Lumpur, where you’re based?
Again, social media. We managed to get in touch with local focal points in each state, and we had Facebook groups and so on. Basically, we have our own transgender Facebook group too, so that’s how we managed to engage with everyone in each state. And I must say, among the community ourselves, we are very strong in mobilising within the community all around Malaysia. And that’s how we basically engaged to get data from each state from the community. And for instance, in 2020, when we reach out to Sabah, most of the time, I was only connected to [Kota Kinabalu] because a friend of mine was based there. But with the situation of COVID pandemic, all of a sudden, we had tremendous requests from the community in Semporna. And I must say, based on the numbers, the highest request was from Semporna, Sabah, and Sarawak. And the other state is Terengganu. So this pandemic, yes, if you look at it, it’s a horrible situation. However, it has also brought the community together. This is one thing I noticed. And not just that, we also managed to empower the community to actually mobilise themselves to get data, right, and to distribute those groceries to them. And I’m just amazed with them all around the other states, because, you know, without them, we are not able to assist anyone in those states.
Yeah, I’m glad to hear that, you know, despite all the challenges there, there are some positive things that are coming out of this. And so yeah, I mean, I think I’d like to talk about the response to the fundraising. What was the response to your fundraising appeal like and both of you can answer this. I’d like to know, how did the public respond to your appeal for funds?
I must say, it was positive. From my side, we did not have any negative feedback or whatsoever from anyone. And I was also shocked at the beginning that we were able to, you know, because we had a certain target at that time. So the first MCO, we targeted if I’m not mistaken, it was RM 40,000. And in within a month, we managed to get that RM 40,000 . And for this second target, we targeted for RM 50,000. But we managed to get around RM 68,000. And it was in a very short time. Yeah. So I’m just thankful and we are still continuing to seek support. But at the same time, we are also hoping to get local support at each state, because it’d be so much easier if we have local support to give support to the community. It’s just not about, you know, giving groceries, but it’s also about being there for them. And I’m glad that Connor is there for the community. And you know, at least the community knows that there is a support system in Sabah. But there are other states where we don’t have that support system.
Yeah. And what was the response like in Sabah to the Queer Solidarity Fund, Connie?
So the response was, there were people’s saying that the Queer solidarity Fund, that the word is very specific only for queer people. And then, at first, it was hard for us to get funds, because we only got like RM 4000 something. So we asked friends from Queer Lapis, JFS and SEED to share our fundraiser. So we asked for them to share our fundraiser in their social media. So that actually boosts our amount of funds we get from that point. Yeah, so just like what Nisha was saying Semporna, yes, we had like 99 pax of people applying for the fund. That’s all I think the response we got.
And why was Semporna more hard hit, or why were there more requests coming from Semporna?
Okay, so why I think because most of them are undocumented. And then because of that, it’s hard for him to apply for funds from the government. The place they are living at was not hard to get to buy things. I mean, the shop was near their house, but they don’t have money because they don’t have jobs. And also they cannot apply for funds from the government, right? So that’s why Semporna has the most application for the fundraising.
Okay. You know, it seems from what you said, Connie, there were some critiques about the fact that you were creating a queer solidarity fund, a mutual aid fund specifically for queer people. So could you maybe explain why was it necessary to create a mutual aid initiative that targets LGBTQIA+ people?
Okay, just like when I said, most of the LGBTQ people are not eligible to apply for fund from government because some of them are undocumented, mostly, in Sabah. And then some of them are sex workers. And they can be criminalised. So that’s why they are not eligible.
And Nisha, you mentioned this as well earlier. You said that LGBTQ people are not recognised in Malaysia and that was part of why you felt the need to start SEED Foundation and also start the Trans Solidarity Fund. But, maybe could you talk about what are like the practical obstacles or challenges people face trying to get aid when they are trans or, you know, other LGBTQIA identities.
Okay. I think the most difficult part will be within the community is specifically when it comes to the appearances. Because when you are, example; a transgender person, you know, whether trans men or trans women, when we do not reflect [the identities] in our ID card, that becomes the main obstacle. For us to even apply for any aid from the government, you know, whether it’s social welfare, whether it’s just even groceries, right? And at the same time, it’s also not just the system, but also the, I would say the environment in certain areas, whereby people will just judge a person based on appearances. So, when a trans person tends to go, let me give an example, you know, if she or he wants to apply for social welfare, automatically, we will not be given the priority because, first of all, if you want to get social welfare, you have to be either married, whether you have kids and so on. Even to apply for government housing, there is a certain clause where you have to be, again, married, have kids, so it’s specifically for the cisgender people. But when it comes to communities like us, automatically, we are not being recognised as a part of that, whether it’s part of a system and so on, so that becomes the main obstacle. And if you talk about even the environment itself, when a transgender person goes to the hospital, as soon as he or she, whether it’s trans men or trans women goes to the hospital, and people were to realise that, you know, we are different, or someone were to read our IC, automatically, it becomes an obstacle or barrier where people will tend to then discriminate us based on who we are. So that kind of basic obstacle that trans people have to face just because of our expression and our gender identity. So this is why as what Connor mentioned, and I mentioned earlier. Because the situation here in Malaysia, where the LGBT issue has constantly been used, whether from the political side or from a religious perspective, the public tends to react in certain ways towards the community. And even in such a pandemic situation, the community is then afraid to actually reach out because they know that we are not being recognised in our own country. And this is where we at SEED and I believe Connor too, right, [realised] that we need to do something. We need to reach out to help the community because of this situation here.
Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, how government aid is really structured around the family in Malaysia, and how that can seem innocent on the surface, but ends up really discriminating against people. And another way in which I think I’d be interested to hear from you both, is the way aid has been given out during the pandemic. So as part of its pandemic response, the Malaysian government has allowed people to withdraw from their employees provident fund or EPF, which is a national retirement scheme. And as you mentioned, I think both of you mentioned, the communities you serve, many of the people are engaged in sex work, some of them are undocumented. So is this even something that the community that you work with is able to do?
Yes, most of them are sex workers or undocumented. But a group of them actually are working in saloons, like hair stylists [and] wedding planners. So not just sex workers.
So sectors that have really been affected by the pandemic?
Yeah, I agree with Connor. Because even in within the community there are layers of, I mean, not to be discriminatory, but this this is the reality. Some of them are fortunate enough to have education and so on, so they are able to have employment. And they will benefit in this [EPF], which I think, is actually not helping anyone, they are just asking us to take out our own money. But there are also some of the community where they come from below B40. Because we have the B40, the M40. So there are some of the community which is below B40. They do not have that resources, they don’t even have daily, I mean, monthly income and so on. They are dependable on daily income, and they don’t have [EPF] and so on. So they do not benefit from all this kind of, what you call this, [I don’t really know whether we can call it an aid].
Yes, that initiative by the government to allow people to take out their retirement savings has definitely been very criticised because it’s eating into people’s future savings. So yes, it’s debatable whether we could call that aid. This is something we touched on earlier, and I would like to go back to that. Malaysia is always a hard place to be LGBTQIA+, it’s, you know, there’s often very intense homophobia and transphobia. But we’ve seen an increase in anti LGBTQIA+ rhetoric by the authorities. Most recently, Ahmad Marzuk Shaary, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s department in charge of Religious Affairs, said sterner action would be taken against those who insult Islam and promote LGBT lifestyles online. How does this affect your work?
I mean, this is not the first time when we have someone from, you know, that level, or from the minister, give out such a statement. And as I always say, you know, when we have our leaders and ministers giving us a statement, it actually creates an environment which is more hostile towards the community. And when it comes to my work, you know, as an activist, as a speaker, as a founder of an organisation, yes, I do fear. Fear of the safety of my community out there. Yeah. And I do fear for the safety of my team in SEED, for instance. Not just from the legislation part, but you know, when you have such leaders going out preaching, all the negative statements towards the community, it automatically curates a situation where you encourage hatred towards the community. And these can actually make some of the people out there, [the] transphobic or homophobic people out there feel that they have the power to actually act towards the community. And this is what fears me the most. With that kind of statement itself, it then clearly shows to the whole world that this is a situation the communities [are] facing here in Malaysia, and this is the reality. Because most of the time, people tend to talk about the situation in other regions and so on. But Malaysia has always been, you know, may I use the words ‘left behind’ here? It clearly shows it’s just not the system, but it’s also the governance and the leaders that is actually fuelling that kind of hatred towards the community.
And do you have to consider the current climate when you’re creating mutual aid funds and aid distribution for the communities you work with?
As for now, yeah. Because everyone is constricted to move and so on. Again, I’m very thankful that with the organisation, SEED itself being recognised as an NGO, because we are [a] registered NGO. We are able to actually give out letters to the community out there to actually help to move around without any problem when it comes to giving out this aid. So far, touch wood, our fundraising aid and our community (inaudible) who are helping us to give out this aid do not face issues from, whether it’s the police, or so on.
And what about the queer solidarity fund, Connie? Was that affected by this increase in hate speech towards LGBTQIA+ people?
Yeah, I can say so because that kind of statement actually can spread hatred to people. And then yeah, I think it’s not a good statement to share like that. So that statement actually can spread misinformation about LGBTQ people, because seems like they are trying to make LGBTQ people bad or, you know, something like that.
And when there is a lack of clear information, like valid information, about the community, I can see how that would be really damaging. So has GSAKK and Bentarakata continued its queer solidarity fund?
And the moment, GSA and Bentarakata are taking mental health break for the fund, but we actually are still running for small mutual aid.
Okay, so there are smaller initiatives that are ongoing.
And so, Nisha, now that the original trans solidarity fund target has been met, what are SEED Foundation’s next plans?
Actually we have continued our next plan, which is vaccination. So we have managed to assist a lot of the community and not just the transgender community, the homeless, even undocumented, and foreigners in that area itself to get vaccinated, where we managed to engage with a centre for vaccination. And I’m just glad that you know till today, we are still taking in data of people who wants to be vaccinated to be given to the vaccination centre in Kuala Lumpur. So that is one thing that is ongoing. And we are planning, not planning, we mean, it’s something that’s ongoing, because the solidarity fund will be continued in this request. So we are still continuing to seek more requests and support from the public. And so it’s just not money per se, donation per se. If people want to sponsor groceries, that will be so great. I mean, that is still good for us. So we are trying our best to continue the solidarity fund, [and] at the same time to also continue whatever we are doing right now.
Great, and I’m so happy to hear that vaccination is also something that you’re helping out with because I think that has also been an area where many people have actually been left out of the national vaccination plan, or there’s just been a lot of difficulty getting to people who aren’t tech savvy or in urban areas. So, that’s fantastic to hear. What can listeners do to help the communities you are helping?
what they can do to help? First of all, whenever there’s any project or initiative done, please include us. Please include the marginalised community. And at the same time, try to reach out to the community in any way that you can. Because as much as most of the organisation is, I mean for instance, in Kuala Lumpur, there’s a lot of NGOs, but in other states in other rural areas there is lack of that kind of support. So, I really hope that people will be aware that you know, we exist in our region in all areas of Malaysia. So please yeah, please do include us in any kind of support or social aid that that you are doing. And keep spreading awareness in your own circle. I mean, if you have more allies or contacts, it’d be great. But you know, you can start small. Always start small from your own circle to educate people about the LGBT community, the issues that we face and so on, and to ensure that everyone is not left behind. That’s all.
And Connie, what about you is there anything, especially people in the Peninsular, can help people in Sabah with?
Okay, I think people should donate more and then they can self-educate about the queer people, or maybe ask from queer people about LGBTQ. Educate themselves. And then, I would like to thank [the organisations or collectives] that have been involved in this fundraising, like JFS, SEED and also CEMPAKA. So yeah, thank you, that’s all.
Any last messages either of you would like to leave our listeners with?
I would like to say, reach out for help if you need help, especially for queer people. And we here are waiting for you to reach out to us.
And you, Nisha?
I just want to say this, my message is to the community. Remember that you’re not alone. Again, as what Connor mentioned, reach out to us, don’t be shy. And for the public, my only message is that, remember that the enemy does not discriminate. it affects everyone, including the minorities. So please include us in whatsoever projects and programmes, or initiatives that you want to do. Because at the end of the day, we are all human beings.
Thank you for that really powerful message. Thank you to both of you, I think this is going to be a great episode. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about this, I really appreciate that.
Our thanks to Nisha and Connie for joining us on this week’s episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches. Next week, be sure to tune in to New Naratif’s Political Agenda, our podcast series on current affairs in Singapore. This is Deborah wishing all our listeners a great week ahead. Jumpa lagi