Across The Border: Swatch Seized

In Malaysia, Swatch made the news not over the scarcity of the Moonswatch. Or, that disgruntled shoppers were still unable to score one. Rather, over 100 pieces of the plastic Swiss timepieces were confiscated earlier in the week for their depiction of a problematic symbol

‘Stripe Fierce’, one of the Swatch watches a Malaysian ministry does not consider fit for retail

If they have left them on the display wall or shelf, chances are, few shoppers would have taken serious notice of the plastic Swatch watches. They would not have stood out dramatically among the other colourful pieces that are very much a part of the Swatch Original timepieces. But the home ministry of Malaysia made a quick decision and seized the watches from what is dubbed the “Pride collection”, in an exercise described by the Malay Mail as a “raid”. Now, the impounded goods, reportedly “over 100 watches”, have made international news. Reuters said in a headline that the watches were ”confiscated”, so did The Guardian. Reportedly, between 13th and 15th of this month, a total of eleven shopping malls throughout Malaysia where Swatch outlets are found, including in Kuala Lumpur, were raided. A Google search suggested that there are at least eight Swatch stores in the capital alone.

It is unclear why the authorities considered the koleksi pelangi to be unfit for retail. It is speculated that the use of the rainbow ‘flag’—a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community—on the front/back-facing part of the free strap loop (and on the face of one model) was a red flag to certain sectors of Putrajaya. Swatch told CNBC that those watches “bore LGBT connotations”, which the Malaysian ministry probably found objectionable. According to local news, the ministry in question has not responded to questions about the reason behind the raid or if the seized merchandise would be released after review. But, as Sarah Kok, Swatch Malaysia’s marketing manager, told the media, “As per instruction from Switzerland HQ, we will still replenish the stock and display them on-shelf.” Swatch also confirmed to the Malay Mail that Malaysia is the only country in the world that has opposed the sale of the said watches. According to the paper, when asked “if there were also any raids or seizure of watches from Swatch’s Pride collection or similarly themed items in Swatch stores in other countries”, the Swiss watch company said, “no.”

Four of the Swatch “rainbow collection”. From left, Proudly Red, Orange, Yellow, and Green, each representing life, healing, sunlight, and nature respectively. Proudly Blue and Purple for harmony and spirit are not shown here

To see for ourselves if the Swatch watches warranted such a big reaction from individuals more concerned with lively colours than living costs, we headed to the Swatch store at ION Orchard. When we walked in, we missed those timepieces Malaysia didn’t want on their retail shelves. We only caught sight of them when we turned to face the entrance. The watches did not stand out in any particular way. When we looked at one named Stripe Fierce (top photo), a sales staff told us in Mandarin that it was a new item and a limited edition. We asked her if the watches before us were selling well. She replied, “还可以 (haikeyi or well enough)”. Beside us, two men were totally unaware of what we were discussing. When they caught the attention of the staff, they asked her about the availability of the Moonswatch they wanted. Later, another guy walked in. He turned out to be a Malaysian working here. When we asked him if he knew about the Swatch raid in Malaysia, he said, “Yes, but, you know, when I walked in, I didn’t even see those colourful watches. I mean, Swatch always makes colourful watches, don’t they? No big deal.”

Swatch probably thought so too if they allowed the release of the watches in Malaysia. On their website, the brand announced: “This year, we are celebrating Pride with a vivid collection of watches inspired by the iconic Pride flag”, with a single reference to “rainbow loops” that “bring the colors together to celebrate the unity and diversity that make our society—and Swatch—so strong”. The Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek said cheekily in response to the authority’s action taken forcibly “We wonder how the home ministry’s enforcement unit will confiscate the many beautiful natural rainbows that are showing up thousand times a year in the sky of Malaysia.” In fact, Swatch made no mention of LGBTQ+ anything in their public materials, preferring to urge users to “say it proudly: Love is Love.” However, on one of the watches in question, the Strip Fierce, there is the even longer abbreviation LGBTQIA2S (arranged in an arc on the face), which can be read as the combined initial letters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), intersex, asexual, and two-spirit. The sequence of letters is synonymous with a movement still considered taboo in Malaysia. But as the shopper we spoke to said, “It’s just a watch.”

Update (25 May 2023, 6.30pm): the Malay Mail confirmed that 172 pieces were seized and estimated the value to exceed RM62,000 (or about S$18,800)

Photos: Jim Sim