Swatch, the Swiss company famous for its colorful variety of designer watches, announced on Tuesday that Malaysian authorities raided its stores in 11 shopping malls across the country and confiscated 164 rainbow flag watches from its “Pride Collection” because they “bore LGBT connections.”
“We strongly contest that our collection of watches using rainbow colors and having a message of peace and love could be harmful for whomever,” Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek, Jr., said in a statement announcing the raids, which took place on May 13 and 14.
“On the contrary, Swatch always promotes a positive message of joy in life,” he continued. “This is nothing political.”
“We wonder how the Regulatory and Enforcement Division of the Home Affairs Ministry will confiscate the many beautiful natural rainbows that are showing up a thousand times a year in the sky of Malaysia,” he concluded sarcastically.
The Swatch CEO’s objections were understandable, if somewhat disingenuous. The gay pride rainbow flag is undeniably a political symbol, and all sorts of natural phenomena acquire political significance when used on flags and banners – eagles, for example. As it happens, Switzerland is currently debating a ban on materials from a notorious group that was noted for incorporating eagles into its political symbology, but no one expects the Swiss to ban the birds themselves.
The Malaysian Home Affairs Ministry did not seem well-prepared to deal with the controversy over seizing the rainbow Swatches. When asked for a statement, Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution said he was “waiting for a full report on the matter.”
A law enforcement citation handed out to one of the Swatch outlets said its inventory of “22 Swatch watches with LGBT elements” was being confiscated under the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, which empowered the Malaysian government to ban offensive or divisive material.
Same-sex relationships are illegal under both federal and state laws in Malaysia, although the bans are contentious, and some Malaysians have won court challenges against them. Punishment is rarely enforced but can nominally include jail time, fines, and, under Islamic sharia law, beatings with a cane. Secular Malaysian officials have defended these punishments as necessary to guide LGBT citizens back to “the right path.”
Swatch Malaysia marketing manager Sarah Kok defiantly stated on Tuesday that “per instruction from Switzerland HQ,” the company’s stores would replenish their stock of Pride Collection watches and put them back on display.
Bloomberg News worried that the controversy over the Swatches could tip the balance of power between hardline Islamist parties and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim – a former political prisoner who was jailed twice on sodomy charges, and a civil rights reformer whose surprise victory in November 2022 ended the 22-year reign of 97-year-old Mahathir Mohamad and broke his one-party lock on power.
Bloomberg speculated Anwar’s government staged the Swatch raids to shore up his flagging support and steal some thunder from a rising Islamist party called Parti Islam Se-Malaysia:
PAS, as it’s known, emerged as the single party with the most seats in parliamentary elections last November, on a wave of youth support, but declined to join a unity government led by Anwar.
It is “very obvious” that the raids are part of a political game the government is “playing to show they are as Islamist as the opposition Perikatan Nasional,” said James Chin, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, referring to a pro-Malay coalition of which PAS is part.
Yet some watchers were unsure why the government is getting involved at all. “Based on recent Malaysian history, the opposition always wins at these sorts of games as they can always propose something drastic or radical but the government can’t do that,” said Chin. “This is a very silly game for the government to get involved in.”
With state elections coming up this summer, PAS and its allies have been hammering Anwar with accusations that he secretly plans to legalize same-sex marriage. Observers of the Malaysian political scene speculated Anwar ordered the Swatch raids to defuse that criticism and regain some support from Muslim voters.
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