Four-piece Malaysian punk group, Shh… Diam!, are using music as their platform to discuss gay and transgender issues in a country where it is often seen as taboo, illegal and is banned under a British colonial-era law. Their name, which means “shut up” in the Malay language, is meant to mock critics for seeking to silence the country’s LGBT community.
“We never intentionally set ourselves up as an LGBT band,” lead singer Faris Saad, a 34-year-old transgender man who began transitioning in 2014, says before a performance on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur. “But eventually your life experiences make their way to your music so you can’t help it. You’ve got to be honest – so that’s what we are with our music.”
With 60 per cent of the 32 mil population being Malay Muslim, the community fears the climate for the country’s LGBT is further deteriorating after several homophobic and transphobic incidents that have occurred this year.
In August, government officials ordered the removal of portraits of two LGBT activists from an art exhibition and a transgender woman was attacked, sparking public outrage.
In September, two women in the conservative state of Terengganu were caned under the Islamic sharia law after being caught attempting to have sex in a car.
Shh…Diam! began nine years ago after coming together as a band to entertain a lesbian pool party event. Since then, they have built a steady fan base among the LGBT community while producing two albums and performing in several European countries.
Raised in a Muslim family, Faris knew from a young age that the female body he was born with was wrong. He decided to transition soon after turning 30. But to get the hormone treatment he needed, he first had to undergo a six-month psychiatric evaluation to be diagnosed with “gender identity disorder”.
“I feel more confident that I am now in my own body,” he said.
The recent surge in attacks on the LGBT community and anti-gay rhetoric from senior officials has dovetailed with what critics say is a rise in religious conservatism, which has eroded Malaysia’s traditionally tolerant brand of Islam. In particular, religious leaders are among those who have spoken out against the LGBT community.
Since Shh…Diam! began, they have not had any troubles with the authorities since they have stuck to performing in independent venues and in urban areas where their music is generally accepted. The band’s music is a mix of metal, punk and jazz. Their songs also touch on topics such as housemates fighting, Bollywood movies – and even toilets.
Yon, the guitarist, says the band aimed to give LGBT+ people a way to escape daily discrimination and just have fun through music.
“It’s our experiences and random things that we like which we put into our songs,” says Yon, who is bisexual. “The main purpose of the band is to have fun. We love to play music … the LGBT activism that comes with the band is just a reflection of who we are.”
Indie music fan Gary Tay, said he believes artists such as Shh…Diam! should be allowed to sing about what they believe in.
“I wish that one day in Malaysia in the near future, we can talk about these kinds of issues very openly,” he says.