Swiss watchmaker Swatch says that Malaysian authorities raided its stores and confiscated 164 watches from its Pride Collection as part of a crackdown against LGBTQ visibility.
Swatch claims officials from Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs seized the watches from 11 different shopping malls across the country on May 13 and 14. The watches were collectively valued at $14,000.
The watches come in six colors, matching those on the gay Pride flag, with two rainbow loops on their straps.
Swatch, based in Biel/Bienne, had initially released the Pride-themed watches to “celebrate the unity and diversity that make our society — and Swatch — so strong,” according to the company’s website.
In a summons notice against one of the 11 outlets cited by the Agence France-Presse news agency, officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs admitted to seizing “22 Swatch watches with LGBT elements” at one outlet.
According to the notice, the seizure was justified by the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, a law that has been criticized as draconian for allowing the Home Affairs Minister to censor or restrict news or information if doing so is deemed to be “in the interest of security or public order.”
A ministry official, who did not want to be named, defended the seizure to the U.K.-based newspaper The Guardian, saying the watches bore the letters “LGBT” and had six colors instead of the seven that naturally appear in a rainbow.
Swatch Group Chief Executive Nick Hayek expressed concern over the raids.
“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 said in a statement.
“On the contrary, Swatch always promotes a positive message of joy in life. This is nothing political. We wonder how the Regulatory and Enforcement Division of the Home Ministry will confiscate the many beautiful natural rainbows that are showing up a thousand times a year in the sky of Malaysia.”
The company said it has resumed selling the Pride Collection watches and that its legal department is investigating the seizure.
Sarah Kok, the marketing manager for Swatch Malaysia, told The Guardian in a statement, “As per instruction from Switzerland HQ, we will still replenish the stock and display them on-shelf.”
The LGBTQ rights group Jejaka slammed the government’s seizure of watches, saying it shows “a deeply unsettling level of intolerance.”
“It is more than a matter of colorful watches. It’s about respect for diversity, freedom of expression, and, most importantly, love,” Dhia Rezki Rohaizad, the deputy president of Jejaka, said in a statement.
“We must remember that a more accepting society begins with embracing all colors of the rainbow. … In a world full of colors, it’s a shame that we still have to fight for the right to be ourselves. It’s time we strive for understanding, not just tolerance. And most importantly, it’s time we celebrate our differences instead of punishing them.”
Jejaka also called on the government to promote a culture of acceptance rather than repression of LGBTQ people.
“As a society, we need to ask ourselves: What kind of message are we sending when a rainbow, a universal symbol of hope, becomes controversial?” the group said in a news release.
Same-sex relationships are criminalized in majority-Muslim Malaysia, and those found guilty of same-sex intimacy can be punished with caning under Sharia law for Muslims, or prison sentences of up to 20 years under colonial-era anti-sodomy laws.
Recently, the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party demanded the cancellation of a scheduled concert in November featuring the British band Coldplay, due to the band’s support of the LGBTQ community.
Last October, religious police raided an LGBTQ-friendly Halloween party in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, and arrested 20 Muslim men for cross-dressing. On Tuesday, two members of parliament from that party said that LGBTQ people should be classified as suffering from mental illness.
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