MetLife’s Gay Rights Support Draws Criticism of Malaysia Partner

By and Claire Obusan | November 17, 2014

MetLife Inc.’s support for gay rights in the U.S. is drawing criticism to the insurer’s partner in Malaysia. A group in the nation called for a boycott of AMMB Holdings Bhd.’s AmBank, citing MetLife’s recognition as among the best places to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

MetLife, the largest U.S. life insurer, reached a $249 million deal in December with AMMB to expand in the country, where Islam is the most practiced religion. AmBank yesterday distanced itself from the New York-based insurer’s support for gay rights.

“AmBank Group are not involved in promoting or encouraging lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender practices as reported in the media,” AmBank said in a statement on its website. “AmBank Group would like to clarify that we respect the Shariah laws of Malaysia.”

The opposition highlights the challenges for CEO Steven Kandarian, who is seeking to generate at least 20 percent of operating profit from emerging markets by 2016, compared with 14 percent in 2012. MetLife said this month that it scaled back investments in Russia amid sanctions imposed by the U.S. tied to the conflict in Ukraine.

MetLife “respects the local laws, traditions and culture of the markets it serves,” the company said in a statement yesterday when asked about Malaysia.

MetLife received a perfect score in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s corporate equality index, which evaluates how welcoming workplaces are for LGBT employees.

‘Particularly New’
“This is particularly new to me, to see a company’s CEI rating making it vulnerable to criticism in the international space,” Ty Cobb, director of HRC Global, said in a phone interview. “MetLife has a tremendous track record of supporting its LGBT employees.”

MetLife struck a deal in December to take a stake of just more than 50 percent in AMMB’s AmLife Insurance Berhad, and just less than half of AmFamily Takaful Berhad. Takaful refers to insurance products that are compliant with Muslim law and involves policyholders contributing to a common pool of money that can be used to pay claims.

The deal, which was completed in April, includes a 20-year agreement for products to be sold via AMMB’s bank subsidiaries. At the time, MetLife said AMMB’s bank operations were the fifth- largest in Malaysia.

Jaringan Melayu Malaysia, the group pushing for a boycott, also called on Malaysia’s government to reconsider allowing the MetLife venture to offer the takaful products.

‘Subtly Deceiving’
“It is clear that the entire time MetLife has been promoting LGBT, subtly deceiving the Muslim people in this country,” Jaringan Melayu Malaysia said on its website. “This looks like a bigger agenda that has malicious intent that obscures the vision of banking, especially Islamic banking in this country.”

The stance has drawn attention from the country’s media and a response from Khairy Jamaluddin, Malaysia’s minister for youth and sports. Jamaluddin criticized the group’s take in a message on Twitter, citing Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, who recently announced that he’s gay.

“If that’s the case, then using an iPhone can be seen as promoting LGBT because of Tim Cook,” he tweeted, adding in English, “Clearly stupidity has no boundaries.”

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