Ahead of attending the ITB Berlin travel fair, Tourism Minister Mohamaddin Ketapi told German reporters that he wasn’t aware of gay people in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country.
He also sidestepped a question concerning the safety of LGBT and Jewish travelers in the country, according to the broadcaster.
Mohamaddin later posted a statement on Twitter stating that his response to the reporter’s question referred to the non-existence of specific LGBT-focused tourist campaigns in the country.
He added that the country adopts an open policy in welcoming foreign tourists and would “never (place) any unnecessary obstacles to our guests based on their sexual orientation, religion and cultural practices.”
The statement added that the country has, as a sovereign nation, its own views on both the LGBT community and Israel, and expected other nations to respect the country’s sovereignty.
The aide, who was not named in the report, added: “Tourists coming to Malaysia like any other country are welcome regardless of their creed, sexuality, religion or color.”
Gay rights campaigner Thilaga Sulathireh told CNN that the remarks were “outlandish (and) completely disconnected from reality” but not entirely surprising to hear.
“With the exception of a few politicians, the rest hold varying degrees of discriminatory and exclusionary position on LGBTIQ people and issues, willfully or otherwise.”
She added that it was “also an embarrassingly ignorant comment which carries high socioeconomic costs,” should it impact LGBT tourism to Malaysia.
German Green party politician Volker Beck had sought to exclude Malaysia from exhibiting at the Berlin event, one of the world’s largest tourism expos, saying that its government has specific policies which are discriminatory to gay people and Jews.
“(A country embracing) homophobia and antisemitism cannot be a partner country,” he said, according to Malaysiakini.
He expressed disbelief at the minister’s controversial response to what he said should have been a straightforward question to answer.
“He was asked by a reporter if Malaysia is safe for homosexuals. All he needed to say was that Malaysia is a safe country and every tourist is safe here,” he said.
Homophobia is ingrained in Malaysian politics and culture, and homosexual sex is illegal throughout Malaysia under colonial era criminal law.