Healy’s kiss drew mixed reactions among local activists, with critical posts shared thousands of times on social media over the weekend. Some said it ignored the context of the LGBTQ community in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where same-sex acts can be met with up to 20 years in prison and corporal punishment. The kiss also took place weeks before highly contested state elections and as conservative political forces have recently gained strength.
Thilaga Sulathireh, a founder of the LGBTQ group Justice for Sisters who uses the pronouns they/them, said Healy’s actions could lead to backlash against the local LGBTQ community in the lead-up to elections.
“One can appreciate the meaning of Healy’s protest, but I think the timing of it may not necessarily benefit folks,” they said. “Political parties are currently campaigning, and we know LGBT issues are often scapegoated.”
James Chin, an expert on Malaysia at the University of Tasmania, suggested Healy might have misunderstood the context in which his kiss would be seen.
“Among the Muslim communities of Southeast Asia, they see LGBT rights as part of this Western agenda to impose cultural values on other countries, especially Muslim countries,” he said.
“One of the problems with trying to promote these sorts of things around the world is that without the local context, you tend to get it wrong,” he added.
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Syed Saddiq, a former sports minister who is popular among young liberals, said on Twitter that he did not support Healy’s actions. “He disrespected the fans, organizers, and most importantly, fellow Malaysians,” he said.
A representative for the 1975 did not immediately return a request for comment on Sunday.
At the festival, Healy said he had made a mistake by coming to Malaysia to perform because of the country’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
“I do not see the point in inviting the 1975 to a country and then telling us who we can have sex with,” he said onstage to cheers and shouts, according to video footage.
“I’m sorry if that offends you, and you’re religious,” he continued, before using profanities to describe the Malaysian government. He also told the audience that they were “young people, and I’m sure a lot of you are gay, and progressive, and cool.”
The directive to cancel the music festival was issued by Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil. His boss, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim — who served two stints in prison on sodomy charges that he has insisted were trumped up — has been accused by right-wing political opponents of trying to make Malaysia more Westernized.
The political backdrop ensured that Anwar — who leads an unwieldy coalition government of liberals and nationalists — would shut down the festival, said Chin. His government faces strong opposition from rivals such as the ultraconservative Malaysian Islamic Party, which performed surprisingly well in last year’s national election.
“If the minister had not canceled the whole festival, the opposition … will have used this as a major political issue,” he said.
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Healy made headlines earlier this year when it was reported that he was apparently dating pop star Taylor Swift. Friday’s kiss was a repeat of sorts: In 2019, he kissed a male audience member while the 1975 performed in Dubai, where homosexuality is illegal.
Thilaga, the activist, said they hoped the 1975 would support the festival organizers, who are now facing a police investigation over the kiss.
“That would show they’re not just this White band that came in and have this White savior complex and have just left with people having to deal with all these consequences,” they said.