Fear Factor

Fed up with pesky reviewers? Think critics have just too much power? For that shiny positive feel after every movie, follow the lead of an irritated actress from a recent local horror flick. A freelance critic found himself suspended for a month by a local English-language daily simply because the actress called and complained about his review.

Didn’t like a controversial play? Ask someone else to complain for you. Ideally a religious association. You don’t have to subject yourself to watching the play: Maintain your purity and have someone else watch it for you. Then ask them to complain, as we understand a northern religious association did about a KL-based production of a famous feminist play (with a famous anatomical title) a couple of years back, leading to it being banned in the city.

We’d love to tell you the names of all those involved. But we’re concerned that if we do, we’ll be subjected to a lawsuit as one local journalist was, when she was (allegedly) overheard making derogatory, but private remarks about a performance by a local diva to another journalist. So please excuse us for the proliferation of ‘allegedly’ henceforth.

We’re lucky in Malaysia because the newspaper editors, the police and other authorities have the powers to protect our interests. As members or observers of the arts community, we can only be grateful. Not only do we never need to be subjected to opinions different from our own, under the new administration, the arts community is the happy recipient of major funding injections. Soon, we’ll be as glitzy as Singapore. With just as much vibrancy, just as much soul.

But we are being assured of openness under Pak Lah, assured that we are witnessing the end of the post­ colonial censorship. The problem is that after every announcement that the media is being liberalised, an announcement immediately follows that indicates just how it isn’t happening. On 23 April, the information minister announced that there would be no restrictions on the media. Three days later, he’s telling them not to publish racial issues, or face having licenses revoked. Which has been compounded by instructions not to talk about rape, the haze, snatch thieves (and, if you’re in Five Arts Centre, this is extended to general elections) …

Why the schizophrenia? Perhaps there is a lack of understanding on the role of the media, the role of censorship. After decades of restrictions on performing, on printing, maybe people don’t understand what freedom of expression means anymore. In classic Doublespeak, the minister was quoted saying that “We issue permits and give freedom to the media, be it owned by an individual or a company, to make money because we encourage them to venture into the industry but we can also revoke their permit.”

Is the media’s only role to make money? By extension, is the role of the arts only to attract tourists?

Or perhaps the aim of this severe state control is actually a backhanded way to encourage some creativity. Look at Iran today, Russia yesterday. “Writing under threat of official censure concentrates the mind wonderfully. I have no doubt that the intensity, the pointedness, the seriousness of Russian writing from the time of Nicholas I is in part a reflection of the fact that every word published represented a risk taken,” says JM Coetzee in an interview.

Singer-songwriter and activist in religious, sexuality and HIV issues, Shanon Shah suggests that there are two responses to censorship: “it either makes them (artists) more radical or it makes them more conservative. The artist whose outlook and approach remains unchanged under the grip of censorship is a rarity.”

However, he is uneasy about the positive impact censorship is having in Malaysia. “Censorship… could either make the arts – and to some extent, society – more vibrant, or it could disable society’s collective intellect. It seems to be doing more of the latter in Malaysia because we have not experienced the same intensity of intellectual and artistic protest in this country.”

But protest could upset the rice-bowl. The suspended freelance critic did not protest his suspension, nor did his fellow writers in the paper. Journalists and artists haven’t made much noise too about the recent violent assaults on freedom of expression, including the physical attacks on three people, apparently for speaking up.

First, lawyer and human rights advocate P Uthayakumar was (allegedly) assaulted and threatened at gunpoint by three men outside his Bangsar office in early May. He managed to escape, but was left bruised, and his car’s windscreen smashed. Uthayakumar has long been highlighting deaths in police custody and police shootings. He had been (allegedly) receiving constant death threats advising him not to investigate the police. So there is basis to fears that officers are involved in his assault.

Second, Burmese journalist Minn Kyaw was abducted on his way to a press conference with the visiting Burmese Prime Minister at KLIA. He was held by people that (he says) identified themselves as working for the Malaysian Special Branch, accompanied by somebody who seemed Burmese. All day, he was kept in a tinted van and questioned on his activities and who was funding his pro-democracy movement. When he refuses to answer, he was repeatedly beaten, denied food and water and, 12 hours later, released south of Kuala Lumpur.

Also, earlier in February, a young visual artist, Fahmi Redza, helped designed posters and banners for a peaceful demonstration against police brutality at Bukit Aman, which quickly descended into more police brutality. Amidst the chaos, Fahmi was allegedly brought down and beaten up by a few policemen in public sight. He was among the dozen and a half people detained, and then released some six hours later. According to Fahmi, when he was taken in, they threw his posters at him and asked, “lni kerja kamu ya?”

If we close our eyes, ears and other orifices we can ignore that the recent violence is being met with profound silence from Government ministers, and ridicule from their mouthpiece. And that despite the assurances, censorship isn’t going away. Our movies, our books, our music, our theatre and our heritage are continually being mauled and revised, a snip here, a snip there and all is a shade of puce. And we’ll have internalised the colour scheme so well that we like it.

After all, if we believe them, there must be limits on freedom of expression: no sex (unless it could involve coercion, ala Noritta), no violence (unless it is tasteful or artistic, as in a Van Damme movie), no religion (we may be a pious people, but it seems a little rude to discuss these things openly. Or at all). We must not publish, stage or screen anything that could be interpreted as involving these.

Artist and women’s rights activist Nor Hayati Kaprawi, however, finds this problematic, giving the example of figurative drawing. “Figurative drawing and painting are not taught in some art schools, which has a grave impact on the art scene. We thus see that most Malay or Muslim artists paint landscapes or decorative pieces and do not feel safe painting figures.” Go ahead, deny the artists the skills to challenge the prejudices and preconceptions of their teachers.

Look at journalism to see just how low you can go. The award-winning union secures excellent compensation for the workers, occasionally venting on safely foreign platforms about a lack of freedom. Stories are censored, the truth is obscured, and no one says a word, for fear of economic fallout. For fear of making matters worse.

Censorship is of a piece. It debilitates and deforms our perceptions of the world we live in, whether through art or through the media. It deadens our critical faculty. There needs to be dialogue and interaction between artists and journalists to combat censorship in all its forms.

Most importantly, these two communities need to talk to each other. Journalists groups such as the Centre for Independent Journalism, Inisiatif Wartawan, the Campaign Against the Takeover and others are pushing for media reform. They are trying to stop the back-sliding (represented by proposed legislation such as the Media Council Bill). Some arts practitioners, such as members from Five Arts Centre, Dramalab and Instant Café Theatre, have tried forming committees to talk with the DBKL. But work is being duplicated, resources are not being shared. Joint events, joint statements, assistance at times of crisis – only if we start talking can we start looking at these things. And we will have to start talking, to work together if censorship is going to be lessened or (gasp!) eradicated.

Sonia Randhawa is the director for Centre for Independent Journalism.


  1. Sin Chew Jit Poh online, ‘Kadir: No restrictions on media’; 23 April 2004. Link may expire.
  2. Bernama, ‘Don’t publish stories on racial issues, media told’, 26 April 2004. Link may expire.
  3. Published in ‘Doubling the point’, ed. David Attwell, Harvard University Press 1992, p299. He also notes in the same interview that “Being subjected to the gaze of the censor is a humiliating and perhaps even enraging experience. It is not unlike being stripped and searched.”

First Published: 06.08.2004 on Kakiseni

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