Ah, the games politicians play

IMAGINE this: Men in drag dancing to the Weather Girls’ hit, It’s Raining Men.

Welcome to the Boom Boom Room.

To quote comedian Joanne Kam Poh Poh, the place “… was kind of like Sodom and Gomorrah”.

The Boom Boom Room was Kuala Lumpur’s first cabaret club. It was THE place to party in in the 1990s.

In an interview a year ago with arts portal Kakiseni for its series “Missing Places”, Kam, who headlined quite a number of the club’s shows, said: “It was almost like an era where you are allowed to show your truth. You are allowed to party. You are allowed to wear what you want to wear and be what you want to be without having to worry about social stigma or that you will be caught or having to be worried that certain societies will judge you.

“Honestly, it was a freer world. Everyone came to Boom Boom Room. We had the gays, royalty, Datuks and Datins, socialites, fashionistas and fashion designers.”

The “everyone” also included me, a rookie reporter with The Star who can testify to the fact that Kam and her crew certainly entertained us all with their raucous comedy and extravagant drag show when we covered night spots.

And today?

One of the biggest stories in the country this week was on “Thai Hot Guys”. Politicians from both sides of the political divide protested against a KL nightclub’s plans to host a show by cross-dressing Thai men as part of its March 30 opening.

In 2018, Thai Hot Guys went viral on social media after a group of men began serving customers at a restaurant in Bangkok dressed in revealing women’s clothes.

“If organisers refuse to cancel the show, we will go to the event ourselves and cancel it. We don’t need people who don’t know how to respect our sensitivities,” said Umno Youth chief Dr Muhammad Akmal Saleh.

PAS’ Dewan Ulamak chief Datuk Ahmad Saad @ Yahaya claimed that the homosexual community’s “attraction” to the Thai Hot Guys would contribute to an increase in HIV cases.

Eventually, bowing to pressure from both the government as well as political parties like PAS and Umno, the nightclub cancelled the event.

To my mind, this raises a question: Why could the Boom Boom Room – in which I used to see government politicians – exist in the 1990s while Thai Hot Guys, a one-off event, can’t go on today?

Let me recall the political mood in the early 1990s.

At that time, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahahtir Mohamad had almost absolute control of the country. There was not much political freedom but, on the other hand, there was no political instability.

Dr Mahathir’s political worries came not from outside Umno but from inside.

Especially towards the end of the decade when Dr Mahathir sacked his then deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president, one Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim when the latter’s popularity threatened the PM’s position as Umno president.

At that time, there was even less press freedom. Dissent against the government was only whispered about because people feared being sent on holiday to the Kamunting Detention Centre in Perak under the Internal Security Act.

When joking about politics, comedians like Kam would tone down the political truth by exaggerating the facts. And yet Boom Boom Room existed.

Probably – and this is if memory serves me right – it was because Dr Mahathir was politically so strong that the Opposition couldn’t play racial and religious politics. As Umno president, he would never have allowed his Umno Youth chief to independently make statements about cancelling shows.

Now it is 2023.

We have a new government which was voted in by voters who are supposed to be mature and sophisticated – a unity government is, after all, a sign of a maturing democracy, everyone says. And yet it seems Malaysia was more tolerant in the 1990s than in the 2020s.

Is political instability driving this?

If the Boom Boom Room existed today, would Umno Youth close it down? Would PAS say it would contribute to an increase in HIV cases?

By the way, when I patronised the Boom Boom Room regularly back in the old days, I didn’t turn gay by watching men in drag perform. For me, it was just a place where you went to unwind and be entertained, and no one worried about being “infected” by an alternative sexuality.

Did all these decades of politicians playing the religion card get the Hot Thai Guys event banned?

Only nine MPs separate Pakatan Harapan, which leads the government coalition, and Perikatan Nasional, the Opposition bloc: Pakatan has 81 MPs, while Perikatan has 72.

Perikatan has to rock the political boat with issues such as the Thai Hot Guys to topple the government since it can’t seem to find legitimate issues of governance to bring up. And to remain in power, the government is worryingly seen as dancing to the Opposition’s tune.

It’s raining incendiary political rhetoric, and it would be more entertaining if a raucous dance performance accompanied it.

Please bring back the good old days of the Boom Boom Room when we were less sensitive because we didn’t manufacture controversies just to play political games.