Intersecting Realities: How Matty Healy’s Malaysia Incident Mirrors the ‘White Savior’ Issue in Development Aid

SimpleJoy
3 min readJul 26, 2023
Matty Healey, 1975
Source: BBC, Getty Image

In our globally connected world, parallels can be drawn between the most unlikely sectors. This was what I noticed when I read about the recent incident involving Matty Healy, the lead singer of the British band The 1975, during a concert in Malaysia. Healy protested against Malaysia’s anti-LGBT laws by kissing a male bandmate on stage.

His act of defiance was met with immediate backlash: the concert was abruptly ended, the entire music festival was canceled, and upcoming performances in Jakarta and Taipei were scrapped.

While Healy’s intentions might have been well-meaning, critics argue his actions lacked cultural sensitivity and could potentially exacerbate the conditions for Malaysia’s already marginalized LGBT community.

This episode echoes a familiar issue in my line of work as a development aid worker: the “white savior” complex. This term often describes scenarios where Western agencies and individuals, typically white, act as the ‘rescuers’ or ‘saviors’ of people in developing nations. Even though they are frequently well-intentioned, these actions occasionally fail to take into account local cultures and norms, which can have a negative impact similar to the one Healy has sparked.

The incident involving Healy has also been described as an act of “performative activism”, a term that refers to activism carried out to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s commitment to a cause. If Healy’s action was indeed performative, it’s even more troubling. His selfish action could cause harm to the very community he claimed to support—the LGBTQ community in Malaysia.

But let’s consider another perspective. Suppose Healy’s action wasn’t an act of performative activism. Suppose it was genuinely intended to support the marginalized. Even then, it could still be harmful. Much like in development aid, good intentions can lead to harm if they fail to account for local contexts.

Drawing from this, here’s how I see the parallels between Healy’s concert incident and the “white savior” complex often observed in development aid:

Cultural Insensitivity: Both Healy’s protest and some development aid projects may disregard local norms and cultures. Healy’s action might not account for the complex cultural, political, and societal dynamics surrounding LGBT rights in Malaysia. Likewise, some aid projects overlook these social and cultural contexts in the communities they intend to help.

Imposing Western Values: Both Healy’s form of protest and some methods of development aid can inadvertently assume that Western values and solutions are universally applicable. This lack of cultural relativism can lead to solutions that are ill-suited to local contexts and potentially harmful.

Lack of Engagement with Local Communities: Development aid is sometimes provided without sufficient engagement with local communities. Similarly, Healy’s actions seem to lack consultation with local LGBT activists, potentially endangering their work and lives. This lack of consultation can exacerbate existing problems and stifle local activism.

Unintended Consequences: Good intentions can sometimes lead to negative outcomes. Both in the context of development aid and in Healy’s incident, attempts to help can sometimes lead to harm, creating tougher conditions for the very groups we aim to support.

In my own experience with a development aid project aimed at improving stoves in a rural Central Kalimantan community, I saw how a well-intentioned initiative can fall short if it fails to respect and understand local customs and practices.

Healy’s incident in Malaysia and the ‘white savior’ complex in development aid are stark reminders of the challenges we face in our globally connected world. They underscore the importance of cultural sensitivity, local engagement, and understanding local contexts in both activism and aid. These reminders should guide our actions and decisions, regardless of our line of work or business.

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SimpleJoy

Mother & aid practitioner 🌏 | Exploring cultural bridges 🌐, aid industry insights 🔍, and cherishing life's simple pleasures 🌸