This is the second of two articles published by The New Straits Times Of Malaysia today.
New Straits Times – Persekutuan, Malaysia
Spotlight: Speaking up for their gender
By : Chai Mei Ling
The rude stares, jeering and often the butt of sexual jokes. For a
marginalised group of Malaysians, life is a continuous struggle at
asserting their identity, writes CHAI MEI LING.
WHEN Khartini Slamah strolled into a bank last week to learn about
personal insurance, she was told flat in the face that there is no
policy available for “people like you”.
No amount of money will get her insured.
That’s because as a male transgender, Khartini is automatically
granted a membership to the “high-risk group”.
But what is a high-risk group, questions the 45-year-old mak nyah
(woman trapped in a man’s body).
“How do you assume the person is high risk? By her appearance?
“I asked the bank officer that if she thinks my community translates
to being high-risk, what about heterosexuals who do not practise safe
It was a question met with silence.
But if you’re a transgender, you get used to that – the resounding
silence that speaks volumes against you, because life for you is
chartered by unanswered questions.
You question who you are, why you’re born this way, if your parents
still love you, whether you’re still a child of God, and why you, of
all people, are made to face this ambiguity.
If you survive that stage, you begin to question societal norms and
the system that works around it.
When Khartini flew into China a couple of weeks ago, the immigration
officer at the Beijing airport did a double take of her and pointed to
the letter “M” in her passport.
“I said, ‘That’s my passport, you ask for my sex, I never lied.
There’s only male or female, no (column for) transgender. So they put
me as male’. The officer just looked at me.”
Khartini was granted entrance into the country, one of the 40 nations
around the globe where advocacy work and conferences had taken her to.
“I’ve no problems going into these countries.”
That’s Khartini, board of trustees and founder of the Mak Nyah
Programme at PT Foundation (PTF), a co-ordinator under the Asia
Pacific Network of Sex Workers banner, and the first transgender to
work with the United Nations in Asia.
But how many other transgenders are empowered enough to question the
system and not buckle under the strain of interrogation, asks Raymond
Tai, acting executive director of the MSM programme under PTF.
Most, he says, will panic when faced with similar situation.
Living on the fringes of society
For the estimated 30,000 transgenders in the country, dealing with
rejections from the “normal” members of society is a daily
preoccupation. And the first rejection is almost always from family
At the age of 8, Khartini realised she was a female trapped in a male
body, but it wasn’t until she was 18 that her family accepted her for
who she is.
“My father almost threw me out of the window. It took my family 10
years to accept me.”
She is one of the lucky few.
Many receive zero acknowledgement from family, let alone support and
Turned away from home, most mak nyahs do not finish schooling and
would later find it hard to nail a job due to lack of paper
qualifications, and harder still to hold one down because of
A research commissioned by the Malaysian AIDS Council and carried out
by Dr Teh Yik Koon of Universiti Utara Malaysia in May last year shows
that about 30 per cent of mak nyahs in Malaysia live below or around
the poverty line.
One question is whether they are educated enough to be put in the
employment market, says lawyer So Chien Hao, who is a volunteer lawyer
with the PTF legal aid clinic, run in partnership with the Bar Council
legal aid centre of Kuala Lumpur for the past 11 years.
So says: “Even if they are qualified, many prospective employers
refuse to hire them. And those employed might not have a good working
environment. They face continuous discrimination from their
Pushed to the brink of survival, many transsexuals have no choice but
to resort to sex work, which exposes them to a high risk of
A message which rings loud and clear on a poster hung in a corner of
the Mak Nyah Drop-in Centre in PTF is, “HIV/AIDS does not kill,
What breeds discrimination is the fact that mak nyahs are not
recognised as members of society, says So’s colleague Preetam Kaur.
“We have been conditioned to think of them as an ostracised part of
society, like social pariahs.”
Their greatest desire is to be able to become who they are, and so
they don women’s clothes, put on make-up, let their hair grow and some
undergo sex change operation.
But that’s as far as they can go.
Where the legal framework is concerned, everything comes to naught.
There is no avenue for mak nyahs who have undergone sex change to
change their sex stated in personal documents.
“Despite many attempts, the National Registration Department (NRD) is
quite adamant about not changing the gender because they are supposed
to live with the gender they are born with,” says Preetam.
In the 1970s and 80s, transgenders were given the liberty to change
their name and bin to binti in the identity card, says Khartini, but
the practice was stopped after 1990.
Now, a mak nyah can add a female name to her IC, but the male name
will be maintained.
Further dialogues with the NRD have allowed a transsexual to change
her name to a female one, but the alteration is put under the “error
in name” clause, meaning the parents had misspelled her name when they
applied for her IC.
“But what’s the point of being known as Azlina when the IC shows you
are a male?” asks Preetam.
“It’s your identity as a person. If that itself is questionable,
everything else you face in life will be a stumbling block –
employment, buying a house, marriage, adoption, getting a bank loan,
EPF (Employees’ Provident Fund). It’s already dodgy from day one and
it has a domino effect.”
Under watchful eyes
Transsexuals are wary of anti-vice enforcers, and for those who are
Malay, they have to be doubly cautious with the religious authorities.
If caught with more than two condoms in their possession, they can be
charged for soliciting business for sex work. Detained mak nyahs might
be subjected to body searches.
Currently, they are searched by male police officers because
policewomen feel that mak nyahs are not men, so they are not
comfortable doing body search on them, says So.
So far, PTF has received many cases of mak nyahs who have been
subjected to violation of their basic rights while under detention.
Sexual harassment is one common complaint, says Preetam.
“We’ve heard incidents where mak nyahs had their breasts groped at and
were continuously taunted with the question, ‘Ini betul kah’?”
One doesn’t have to be touched to be sexually abused, says Khartini,
as vulgar language aimed at mak nyahs is a form of abuse, too.
“At some religious anti-vice raids, mak nyahs are asked to strip just
to see if they are wearing female underwear, so that they can charge
the mak nyahs. Isn’t that crazy?”
“In a rape case, they’ll ask – how can a mak nyah be raped?”
Requests for sexual favours, money extortion, and wrongful arrests are
other grouses received.
Sometimes, family members of the transsexuals are scolded for “failing
to bring up their son the right way”.
The advocates understand that the police have a duty to perform, but
what they ask is for mak nyahs to be treated equally and not be
In recent years, tenacity in advocacy work by PTF and the legal team,
such as holding dialogues with the authorities, has carved inroads.
For example, KL police in Dang Wangi, Sentul and Hang Tuah have agreed
to place detained mak nyahs in a cell separate from male and female
A life with an identity
The term mak nyah was coined by a group of male transsexuals in a bid
to define themselves in 1987 with the formation of the Federal
Territory’s Mak Nyah Association, of which Khartini was one of the
“Transgender is a Western term and we wanted to adopt our own. That’s
how it came about,” she says.
Lumped under the umbrella of gay men then, together with other sexual
minorities like transvestites, drag queens and cross-dressers,
transsexuals wanted to break away.
“We don’t accept just about anyone into our group, not gay men. If you
want to become a mak nyah, you have to believe, think and want to be a
The identity accorded transsexuals some form of dignity as it was
meant to replace derogatory labels such as bapok, pondan and bantut.
Because of the formation of the association, which has since been
closed down, mak nyahs in Malaysia are given more visibility compared
to other sexual minorities.
Now, PTF has taken over the lead in empowering transsexuals – one way
is by ensuring that they know their rights as citizens of Malaysia.
“Mak nyahs are ‘boxed’ already, their self-esteem is very low. That’s
why we have to reach out to them,” says Khartini.
“I don’t want to be born like this if I know I’m going to face all
sorts of discrimination. I’d rather be a man, a ‘normal’ man. I tried
to change, but I can’t. I’m what I am. No one forced me.”