Let’s do the math on gays in Malaysia

According to Budget 2019, Jakim’s total budget in 2018 was RM871,615,400, with a planned increase to RM882,801,000 in 2019. What percentage of this money has Jakim actually been spending on LGBT-related activities, battling a non-existent threat with ineffective measures?

Nadia Gideon, Amelia Chung, FMT

On Oct 29, an officer of the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), Mohd Izwan Mohd Yusof, claimed that the number of gay men in the country had increased from 173,000 to 310,000 between 2013 and 2018, while the number of transgender people between 1988 and 2018 increased from 10,000 to 30,000.

Among others, he stated that Jakim had “helped” 1,450 LGBT persons under its “Mukhayyam” rehabilitation programme.

This piece documents some informal thought experiments we decided to run on these numbers. Our reasons for doing so are twofold.

Firstly, we thought that the numbers seemed odd – particularly those relating to the population of gay men and the apparent explosion in their numbers.

Secondly, Jakim was given a significant allotment in the 2019 federal budget. As citizens who paid some of those taxes, we felt this would be a useful opportunity to learn about how our tax dollars are being spent.

How did Jakim get the numbers?

When looking at figures from any study, the first and most important question is usually “How did you come up with this?”

After all, if you don’t know anything about where a number came from, why would you trust it? Aside from a definition of “gay” apparently borrowed from Blanch Consulting, we couldn’t find any indication that Jakim had provided the press at large with an answer to this question.

We also couldn’t find any year-on-year data pertaining to the population numbers that Jakim released.

For us to believe Jakim’s population numbers, we need to know, in detail, how they arrived at them. How did they determine whether a person was gay or not? Did Jakim actually survey any LGBT people, or simply estimate using some other metric?

The fact that we can’t immediately dismiss the possibility that they may have created their estimate based on nothing but the sales of men’s V-neck T-shirts is worrying.

First experiment

Without detailed data, we had only the two sets of numbers from news articles on which to base our thought experiments. Despite this significant hole in our available information, we decided to trudge on.

The first experiment we started with was a very simplistic one. We simply put Jakim’s estimates of the gay male population in a chart, then drew a line through them to see what kind of implication this would have had for that population in previous years.

Using this method, we found that the Jakim figures implied that there were no gay men in Malaysia before 2006-2007. Since we have rather confident assurances that gay men in the country are not all prepubescent, we suspected that the supposed spike in the population between 2013 and 2018 alleged by Jakim was probably inconsistent with the rate of growth in preceding years.

Second experiment

This brought us to our second experiment – if it wasn’t a straight line, what might the actual shape of the population over the years look like?

If we assume that the population of gay men grew by 12.4% every year, the resulting curve lines up with the population numbers that Jakim was claiming.

That said, the 12.4% growth rate seems almost absurdly high. By comparison, we understand that Malaysia’s year-on-year total population growth has never exceeded around 3.2%, and has mostly been less than 2% in the last eight years.

At time of writing, WorldPopulationReview.com estimates that Malaysia’s population grows by about 60 people every hour. If 30 of them are assigned male at birth, a gay male population growth rate of 12.4% would suggest that as many as one in six of those people born would be gay, which seems a bit unlikely.

The simulation also suggests that gay men numbered around 10,000 persons in 1988 – around the same as Jakim’s transgender population estimate for the time. This is unusual, since there are generally fewer transgender people than lesbian, gay or bisexual people in a given population.

Assuming that Malaysia’s LGBT demographic ratios are consistent with elsewhere in the world, this suggests that one of Jakim’s two reported sets of figures could be inaccurate.

Third experiment

Given that the 12.4% growth rate implied seemed unusually high, we decided to look at estimating the historic population of gay men in Malaysia. After all, if the initial population were higher, it wouldn’t need to grow quite as much over the years to line up with Jakim’s figures.

Assuming that the population of gay men grew roughly in step with the rest of the population prior to 2013, we crudely estimate that there may have been around as many as 47,600 gay men in Malaysia in 1960 (0.58% of the population).

However, that would mean that it took 53 years for the number of gay men to grow from that number to Jakim’s estimated 173,000 in 2013. This makes Jakim’s claim that the population somehow manage to balloon to 310,000 (an addition of 137,000 people) in just five years seem somewhat questionable.

What Jakim needs to do

Ultimately, if Jakim wants the numbers to be taken seriously, they must:
Explain in detail how the numbers were obtained, including any assumptions made.
Provide further year-on-year data to the public, dating back to at least 1980.
Provide full documentation of any changes in methodology over the years that may have affected this, such as changes in definitions of terms.
At least attempt a logically valid explanation of the supposed spike in number of gay men over the last five years.

Are LGBT people really a threat?

Regardless of how many LGBT citizens we have in Malaysia, the real question we need to ask ourselves is: does the community actually pose any threat to Malaysia? Jakim seems to be bent on saying that the growth of the LGBT community is a looming threat to our society, or “gejala sosial”.

Even if Jakim’s figures are valid, LGBT people still aren’t very populous. The gay male population described by Jakim comprises only 0.96% of the country’s population. Their transgender population estimate would comprise only 0.09% of the population. Even if we included the unknown population of lesbian and bisexual persons, we’d wager it wouldn’t exactly be a staggering proportion of Malaysia’s population.

That said, even if LGBT people comprised a larger proportion of the country, would that necessarily be a bad thing?

Malaysia has always been a melting pot of cultures and creeds, a land of diverse histories and traditions. We have always taken pride in this. As a nation, embracing the great diversity of our people has only ever made us stronger, wiser and more united. Why should we not take this opportunity to grow our strength, wisdom and unity further still?

The question of Jakim’s spending

Jakim’s rehabilitation programme claims to have “helped” 1,450 individuals. Compared to Jakim’s own population figures, this number amounts to only 0.47% of the total population of gay men.

This means that the programme has an effective reach of less than half-a-percent, according to their own figures. This is reduced even further, if you consider that their figures do not account for the population of lesbian and bisexual persons.

This raises an important question. According to Budget 2019, Jakim’s total budget in 2018 was RM871,615,400, with a planned increase to RM882,801,000 in 2019. What percentage of this money has Jakim actually been spending on LGBT-related activities, battling a non-existent threat with ineffective measures? This is larger than just an LGBT issue – this is about the usage of our tax dollars, and we have a right to know what our money is being used for (or misused, as the case may be).

The fact that the LGBT community is not a threat goes beyond a simple game of numbers. We do not have strong representation in the corridors of power. The laws of our own country, made supposedly to ensure our safety, work against our very existence as people. We are not assured the luxury of confidence that we will be safe walking our own streets – simply because we are who we are; or we love who we love.

Jakim has often claimed that the LGBT community is a problem; that they are the product of illness, or some kind of cult imported from the West, threatening everything from social morals to national harmony.

Even in our New Malaysia, some of our leaders seem to be of the belief Malaysia will somehow crumble by virtue of their existence. However, to believe that is to be blind towards our own heritage.

Indeed, a look at the history of various cultures from all over the world reveal that LGBT persons were accepted and even highly respected. Some of these cultures even included traditionally Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

We are not a threat to Malaysia, New or Old. We have no desire to be a threat, nor are we in any position to be a threat. We, like any other Malaysian, simply want to live our lives – without complications, without judgment, without fear.

We ask for two things. Firstly, for Jakim to be transparent about their LGBT population numbers. They must explain how they obtained the figures put forward and release the relevant data in full to the public.

Secondly, Jakim must provide a detailed breakdown of all their yearly spending and a percentage figure representing the amount of their budget spent on LGBT-related activities, so that citizens may understand how their money is being used.

New Malaysia was a promise of bigger and better things to come. As citizens of Malaysia, we are not enemies of our government. But it is up to us to hold them to that promise by asking the right questions and demanding answers, To deliver on that promise is then the government’s role.

Nadia Gideon is a Washington-based lobbyist; Amelia Chung is a Malaysian writer.