Silencing the Lambs

The media here of late have been reporting and commenting upon a number of issues to do with perceived moral shortcomings and the manner in which those perceived shortcomings are addressed by the moral guardians of the nation. Indeed the media has in some cases decided to act as a moral guardian itself and triumph a variety of differing but nonetheless dogmatic moral certainties.

It is there in their coverage of raids on supposed black metal concerts and it is there in their divided and partisan support or condemnation of the moral, spiritual and aesthetic worth of a film such as Gubra. It is displayed in their active participation in police raids upon venues deemed by some to be havens for licentious behaviour. That those raids have failed to produce any standing charges against the employees and customers of those venues did not stop the media from publishing photographs of people taken away for questioning, thereby condemning those citizens, even if the courts of the land have failed to do so.

Journalism has a role to play in the defence of the moral calibre of the society it aims to serve. It also has an important role to play in disseminating news and in providing an array of contrasting ideas and opinions. It does not however need to act as a complicit agent in the enforcement of either the law or the broader moral salvation of the nation or sections of that nation. By being in collusion with law enforcement agencies in raids on venues, certain media outlets may believe that they are in fact supporting the moral policing of their society. But at what cost to journalism itself? Does a profession need to abandon its ethical responsibilities in order to uphold its partisan and proscribed moral certainties?

With so many competing certainties the overall mood I am attempting to unravel appears to be slightly chaotic. Such moods are often made manifest as much by reality as by perceptions of those realities. They take on a life and momentum of their own and appear to be ungovernable and leaderless. But let’s not be fooled.

Malaysians need less information

It is a healthy thing for society to debate its values – shared or otherwise – and I am not arguing that the media do not have an important role to play in those debates.

Indeed I am arguing that there needs to in fact be more exposure to the sources of truth and argument in order to best facilitate such debates.

So it is with sadness then that I see the media reports of closures of film screenings and of a call for more censorship. I am saddened also to read that a Minister in the government – the Information Minister no less – articulating views that support the idea that Malaysians in fact need less information, as they supposedly do not have the capacity to assimilate information without it being a threat to the nations stability.

The Minister was of course explaining why the nation’s Parliament should not be screened live on national television. I come from a nation that does broadcast its lively and tumultuous version of the Westminster parliamentary system to its citizens, but apparently I am from a First World nation that can absorb such conflict and debasement without it having an unsettling effect upon the peace of my land. I must confess that there have been times when I have watched my parliament broadcast live and wished in fact that it wasn’t, for nothing shames a people more than infantile behaviour in those we see fit to elect to govern us – and my own parliament reinforces such shame on an almost daily basis.

Does the Minister for Information seem to be implying that the Malaysian parliament is also a forum for infantile behaviour? How can witnessing the debate of the laws of the land being determined by those that the citizens pay to serve them have any possible effect upon the stability of a multicultural society – other than perhaps making certain members of the electorate reconsider their choices when they are next invited to the ballot box? While many of us cynically joke and say that we need to all be spared the indignity of our politicians, we are in fact only joking. No people – third, second or first world – should be protected from those they elect to serve them.

I think that what upset this Matt Saleh when he read the Minister’s comments this week was the inference that Malaysians still had a third world mindset – whatever that in itself might mean. The argument that viewers might not be able to process the information in a civilised fashion and that Malaysia was not ready yet for the sort of media that we associate with the independent and impartial reputation of the BBC scared me somewhat.

I am privileged to have the opportunity to teach a diverse array of young Malaysian university students here in Kuala Lumpur and never in my teaching experience anywhere have I encountered a group of people more ready for the challenges of a democratic and engaged society. They are intelligent, critical and creative and they honour their country and show great hope and promise for the future of it. If the visions and sentiments at the heart of Dr Mahathir Mohammad’s Vision 2020 are ever to be fully realised, I believe it will happen because of the talents and creativity of this generation of young people. It will be those young people – of all races, religions and political allegiances – who determine whether the 9th Malaysia Plan will indeed herald the dawn of a new Malaysia.

But those young people, with all their talents and all their critical faculties and intelligence, will be impeded in that struggle if they are deemed to be unworthy of the truth and are told that they need to be protected from information. Their capacity to engage globally and to strengthen Malaysia’s place within an increasingly competitive and intelligent global environment will be stymied if they are not allowed to critically engage with their culture, their politics and their society.

So this mood of restriction, of moral fear and reaction that I discern appears to be at odds with the stated aims of Vision 2020. How can one create a truly Malaysian citizenry, a bangsa Malaysia, if the things that still divide people are upheld rather than diminished? I note with a degree of depression a recent report and survey from the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research that suggests that slightly more than 50% of Malaysians do not trust the other races and that the stereotypes that perpetuate such mistrust – that all Malays are ‘lazy’, all Chinese ‘greedy’ and all Indians ‘untrustworthy’ – have helped to shape that overall racial mistrust. Those stereotypes are never going to disappear in a climate when truth is deemed dangerous and ideas are censored beyond any reasonable level of critical or intelligent engagement.

What is pornography?

In condemning the recent arbitrary cancellation of film screenings, I am in no way endorsing the idea that religious sensitivities and moral values need to be compromised. I am not endorsing the wholesale screening of pornography, but what I do endorse is a sensible, intelligent and adult debate and dialogue as to what pornography might and might not be. Cancelling the screenings put on by KakiKino (they regularly screen and discuss international and local independent films) at the Pawagam P Ramlee at FINAS based upon the opinions of either a misguided viewer or the sanctimonious ranting and raving of a journalist does not appear to be a very adult way of handling matters of either censorship or public debate.

Perhaps guidelines need to be set in place in a concrete way that determines what in a contemporary Malaysian context pornography actually is. In a telling and frank interview with The Star last week the Chairman of the National Film Censorship Board (LPF), Mohd Hussain Shafie, stated the board is now “moving with the times.” He also said that, ”we don’t give too detailed guidelines because we feel that the filmmakers are mature enough to know what our society will think of certain things.” In theory such sentiments are to be applauded – but in reality they are unworkable if a rigid but somewhat formless climate of censorship is to be ultimately maintained. Vague generalities still leave room for a climate of arbitrary censorship rather than censorship that pretends to serve the moral expectations of the citizenry.

The nation itself has not fully worked out what it collectively can agree upon about a range of issues – moral, or otherwise. There is no criticism in that – what society ever does reach true consensus on all issues after all? But there is discernible doubt at play here.

The media however, fans this doubt and has its own internal war to win the hearts and minds of moral certainty. Take the Malay press as one site for analysis. The viciously unintelligent campaign against Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet and now Gubra conducted by one press and opposed by another appears on one level to be nothing more than a competitive idealistic battle between two national dailies to both impact upon the moral climate of their readership as well as to capture a certain readership alignment in that battle. It is as much about one paper attempting to pitch itself as a hardline reactionary mouthpiece as it is about the other being a supposedly light, liberal and progressive one. It is as much a commercial battle as it is an ideological one.

The battle between the two papers does however only fuel the sense that there are contested visions of what a morally sound Malaysia might be – and in the process a film and a filmmaker becomes emblematic of certain values that are either to be defended or condemned. Who now can claim that film is not a powerful medium? Indeed the fact that censorship exists in any form only again confirms the power of art. How then can filmmakers truly know what their society expects from them in their onscreen representations when the society itself is still engaged in a vigorous debate about what is acceptable and what is not?

I said it was a vigorous debate, but I never inferred that it was always a well-informed one. The ‘debate’ purportedly chaired by that amiable and muscular thespian Rosyam Nor on television last week about the moral worth of Gubra only stands as an example of how most debates about values are mired in idealistically driven mediocrity. What I suppose are we to expect from a television program with the ridiculously populist and unintelligent title of Fenomena Seni? The lone voice of rationality was Hassan Muthalib who bravely confronted the idiocy he was surrounded by.

These sorts of programs, alongside the broader press war for the moral heartland, is indicative of the mood I alluded to earlier. It is a mood that seeks to withhold, to engender fear and doubt, to condemn that which is perceived to be different and new and challenging. It is a mood that sees the citizens faced daily with strange and disturbing stories about raids on nightclubs and saunas, of ear squatting abuses in police stations, of tales of migrant workers as the source of all the nations vices. It is a chaotic mood – a climate of moral policing that appears to have no one direct leader or overall purpose. Who is in charge of all this? Which Ministry? What department? Which news organisation is complicit and which news organisation is out of step and in need of full front-page apologies when they digress?

The mood is also shaped by the movies – you only need to read the reactions here at Kakiseni to the three film reviews about Gubra (Toni Kasim’s, Ruhayat X’s and mine) to discern this mood. You only need to watch RTM’ s attempt at arts broadcasting to discern it and you certainly only need to read the musings of one Akmal Abdullah at Berita Harian to gauge this mood of contested visions and immorality fear mongering.

No collapsing civilisation

But I have digressed, so let us challenge this mood with some constructive debate and let us focus it on the movies. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether censorship in fact really works? And does the model now applied here in Malaysia help or hinder local filmmakers and the distributors and exhibitors of cinema from elsewhere?

There is of course an age-old argument that censorship merely forces what is banned underground – but you have to in all seriousness ask yourself how “underground” is pornography in Kuala Lumpur. I do not wish to purchase either pornographic magazines or hard-core porn films, but I must confess that on a tediously regular basis they are shoved in my face by eager sales people on all sorts of street corners in this fine city. Its licentious illegality may indeed be the very reason why the trade so flourishes.

It appears to me though that films of true worth – some of which seemed to have caused the problems for our cineastes at Kaki Kino – are tarred with the same brush as the sorts of material quite openly available illegally on the streets of the city. This is so manifestly not true and is so unfair. If this country had a sensible and mature system of film classification, then motion pictures that have artistic worth but adult content could be screened with due warnings of their content to discerning adult audiences. Those same audiences can then in all good conscience praise or condemn the films on whatever terms they feel free to in an open and tolerant society. Singapore, not ordinarily noted for its openness, has such a system of film classification in place and on my last visit to the island republic I did not discern any signs of a collapsing civilisation.

If there is to be an intelligent debate about what the nature of pornography is, then perhaps we need to start articulating what we see as acceptable or offensive behaviour on our screens. This does not need to be driven by religious, partisan or political agendas either. The debate could be truly inclusive if it was able to reach an accord across cultural boundaries. Rather than merely seeing representations of human sexuality as pornographic, a discussion could take place that looks at what is dignified or undignified in such representations.

We will of course all have differing opinions on what is or is not pornographic and what is and is not dignified. I for one find no offence in representations of human sexuality that honour and celebrate the God given joy of sexuality and that celebrate human beauty. I do find certain representations on screen pornographic – gratuitous violence and certain depictions and representations of women offend me on occasion. I remember last year reviewing for these pages an insidiously misogynistic piece of crass adolescent entertainment called Lady Boss that was directed by a Professor no less. That film asked its audience to cheer on a potential rape of a ridiculously one-dimensional female character. The audience roared with laughter and felt somewhat cheated that the rape and assault in fact did not occur. That to me is pornographic. I would not call for it to be banned – but the issues it raised should have been debated publicly and the Director should have been held accountable.

So let the debate on pornography commence if it is allowed to. On the other hand perhaps I should despair of any reform on this issue and any chance at improving the guidelines by which films are screened here. What can be done in an environment whereby the citizens are deemed in need of protection from their own parliament? If the democratic process also requires censorship then what hope is there for a humble little art film from China or a movie that might celebrate the universal capacity of all of us to love and to dream and to aspire.

But still I dream. I believe that if people, on their way to making the 9th Malaysian Plan work, were exposed more to quality cinema, and to different ideas, however exotic, they might also be exposed to visions and ideas and truths about the world that would no longer make so many of them still adhere to the debased clichés and stereotypes that see all Malays as ‘lazy’, all Chinese as ‘greedy’, all Indians as ‘untrustworthy’. They might in the process of being exposed to art, to cinema, to ideas and to information be strong enough to at least begin to believe that they have created a bangsa Malaysia that celebrates difference and diversity rather than fears and mistrusts it. Malaysians are mature, intelligent, reasonable people and such people do not need to be protected from either their parliament or their cinema screens. Having said that, all of us – no matter where we come from – need to be protected from the rigidly narrow sanctimony of obscurantism in all its ugly guises.

First Published: 05.05.2006 on Kakiseni

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