Wearing a rainbow-themed Swatch watch in Malaysia could now land you three years in jail, after the government banned what it described as the brand’s “LGBTQ related” products — claiming they are “harmful to morality.”
Anybody who wears, sells, imports or distributes the Swiss watchmaker’s rainbow-themed products — including watches, accessories or related packaging — faces not only the possibility of a jail term, but also a fine of up to 20,000 ringgit ($4,375) if convicted, according to official gazetted documents seen by CNN.
Homosexuality is a crime punishable by fines and prison terms of up to 20 years in Malaysia, a Muslim majority country that has seen a rise in conservative attitudes in recent years.
“Swatch products have been banned as they are detrimental, or possibly detrimental, to morality, the public interest and national interest by promoting, supporting and normalizing the LGBTQ movement which is not accepted by the general public of Malaysia,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement on Thursday.
The ban comes under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the ministry added.
“The Malaysian government states again its commitment to ensuring public safety and peace by monitoring and controlling all forms of publications to curb the spread of elements, teachings and movements that contradict the local socio-cultural setup,” it said.
The move comes after Malaysian authorities in May raided Swatch shops across the country, confiscating 172 watches that were part of the brand’s 2023 Pride Collection, which comes in colors of the rainbow.
The watches were seized because they “bore LGBTQ connotations”, authorities said at the time.
The raids made headlines across the world and prompted a robustly worded statement from Swatch CEO Nick Hayek Jr.
“We strongly contest that our collection of watches using rainbow colors and having a message of peace and love could be harmful for whomever,” Hayek wrote.
“On the contrary, Swatch always promotes a positive message of joy in life. This is nothing political. We wonder how the Malaysian government will confiscate the many beautiful natural rainbows that show up in the skies above Malaysia.”
Swatch Malaysia has claimed the raids were illegal and has since filed a High Court bid to challenge the government’s actions.
CNN has approached Swatch for a comment. Lawyers for the brand said they were unable to comment due to the ongoing legal proceedings.
‘Political punching bag’
Rights groups say the LGBTQ community faces growing intolerance in Malaysia and accuse the government of being at least partly to blame.
“The LGBTQ community in Malaysia has suffered so much abuse from the government as well as the opposition from being used as a political punching bag,” Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, told CNN.
“In this situation, simply wearing a watch could result in prison sentences and abuse. It’s ludicrous (and tellingly) comes right on the eve of state elections,” Robertson added.
Other activists said the ban was an example of how gay rights in the country have been going backwards.
“The government’s decision to ban ownership of LGBTQ-themed Swatches is not just an overreaction, it’s a clear indication of broader state-sanctioned discrimination against the community,” said Dhia Rezki Rohaizad, vice president of the gay rights advocacy group JEJAKA.
“Gay rights in Malaysia unfortunately seems to be regressing,” Dhia added, referencing recent incidents including the government’s decision to ban the British band The 1975 from the country.
The ban came after its singer Matty Healy criticized the country’s anti-LGBTQ laws and kissed a bandmate on stage — an act that many Malaysian gay rights groups criticized at the time because they feared it would embolden conservative forces and make life harder for the LGTBQ community.
“It showcases an alarming trend where symbols of pride and acts of solidarity with the LGBTQ community are met with harsh and disproportionate government responses,” Dhia said.
“It’s a disturbing paradox. As more individuals and groups come forward in support of the LGBTQ community, the state’s pushback grows increasingly aggressive,” Dhia added.
“Every human being, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, has the right to express themselves. By creating an environment of fear and hostility, the Malaysian government does a disservice not only to the LGBTQ community but to every Malaysian citizen.”