Free To Speak

Let’s start with a number of disclaimers: first, I’m writing as an individual and not as a representative of any organisation; second, I’ll be talking about freedom of expression and culture, specifically relating to the performing arts in Malaysia; third, there’s nothing I will tell you that you don’t already know.

You know, I’m sure, that there are major constraints to what can be articulated in the arts. You know that there is censorship. You know about the actions taken by the authorities on recent films and plays — you’ve heard about what happened to The Last Communist, written and directed by Amir Muhammad.

Thanks to the Home Ministry, I haven’t seen this film, a documentary that road-maps the small towns where Chin Peng, leader of the long-defunct Malayan Communist Party, lived and fought against the British.

The Last Communist, or Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, was originally passed by the Censor Board without any cuts. In fact, Special Branch officers were given a screening of it. Something never done before — but hey, why not, to be on the safe side? After all, Malaysian artists have always worried about what the SB thinks — and the consequences of these thinking. So, before they come after you, get their approval first.

Speaking as an artist, I’d say that’s pathetic. But it is a fact that the Special Branch can make or break you. I speak from personal experience:

In 1986, I was the actor in a one-man play called The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole, written by Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun. It was a story about a man who had problems burying his grandfather. All funeral plots had to be of standard size — but his grandfather’s coffin was a huge traditional Chinese one. So the grandson battles with the authorities to make an exception. Not a play to upset anyone, wouldn’t you say?

But to stage plays in this country, one needs to obtain a permit. In Kuala Lumpur, it is City Hall grants these permits –­ but they, of course, must have the approval from the Special Branch, first. (Maybe the authorities consider policemen as the most cultured people. How dare we dispute that? The producer of The Coffin dutifully submitted an application, together with a copy of the script.

More than two months passed, and there was still no word about the permit. We panicked. Money, time and effort had been put into the project. Opening day came. Still no permit. Our producer went to see City Hall that afternoon, and was informed that the application was denied. No reason given. That night, people who came to see it had to be turned away.

We followed the proper procedures. We didn’t screw around with Special Branch. And yet.

Doing the Right Thing

So, our Censor Board probably did the right — albeit pathetic — thing by arranging a special screening of The Last Communist for the Special Branch. Guess what: the cops thought it was okay. One of them even noted that people might be bored, watching it.

Two weeks before The Last Communist was to open at the cinema, however, something happened. A Malay-­language newspaper published a series of articles denouncing the film as a glorification of Communism. One of its editorials advised Amir to document the lives of Malay heroes, instead. According to Amir, none of the journalists had seen the film, nor did they ask to see it. Neither had the historians or politicians they interviewed for those articles. They hadn’t seen it — but they had a lot to say about it. These were intellectuals or, at least, thinking people.

Well, as they say, Malaysia Boleh.

After the attack by the newspaper, the Home Ministry retracted the Censor Board’s approval. The Ministry said it did so because there was a public protest. When other members of the public protested — later, against the ban – they were ignored. They, apparently, didn’t count.

Even the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage had felt the film was inoffensive and should not be banned. To prove his point, the Minister arranged for a special screening of the film and invited Members of Parliament to view it — who also found it innocuous.

The Home Minister was not swayed by his esteemed peers in Parliament. The ban stayed. In an interview with The Star, he revealed that the ban was partly because the timing the film’s premiere, a week apart from the celebration of UMNO’s 60th anniversary, was inappropriate. He had earlier said that the movie needed the approval of the UMNO Supreme Council, not the Cabinet.

Even the Minister of Culture thought it was inappropriate — that a political party decides on a matter that concerns the Film Censorship Act. It should be the elected Government that decides. Interestingly enough, UMNO Youth had also been on The Last Communist’s case, a year earlier — they protested the making of Amir’s film, even before it was shot.

Paranoia and Pornography

Why has it come to pass that politicians are interfering in the making of culture?

I have dwelt, at length, on the banning of The Last Communist because it says a lot about the kind of society we have become. We are supposed to be embarking on an exciting journey towards developed nation status, by the year 2020, but we are obviously insecure, obviously paranoid — and, far worse, obviously confused.

What happened to The Last Communist demonstrates the narrow agendas and petty fears of politicians and journalists. If you bring in, as examples, Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet and Gubra — both films that have been reviled for non-artistic reasons — you will meet another set of people who haven’t realized that the world is bigger than their coconut shell: racists and religious extremists.

The all-important question is this: do these people represent the majority of Malaysians? If not, do a handful of individuals have the right to determine what art is approved, and what art is not?

It is this power — a power disproportionate to numbers — that allowed the banning of The Last Communist. It also explains the closing down of the KakiKino Film Club, which screened films at Finas — until a member of the public complained that it was showing pornography. Sure, the films screened sometimes contained scenes of nudity. But this is the same sort of misjudgment that calls Renaissance paintings of nude women in classic Renaissance paintings — paintings proudly exhibited in famous museums and art galleries throughout the world — pornography.

It allows the censor’s black marker to blot out any part of a piece of art that gets them wild — either with moral indignation or delight. I’m not sure which. They’re vandals, all the same.

Take The Vagina Monologues, a critically-acclaimed feminist play, written by American playwright Eve Ensler, that speaks out on issues relevant to all of us, such as rape and violence against women. In 2002, two theatre groups in KL collaborated on a performance of the play that ran for five shows. They had managed to secure a permit from City Hall.

Encouraged by the success of the show, the producers decided to extend their run, but now found their application for an extension denied.

Why? A scholars’ association in Kedah read about the workshop of this performance in the newspapers, and filed a complaint against it. An objection raised by people, all the way from Kedah, who had not even seen the play. It seems to have become a Malaysian habit to denounce something one has not seen, hasn’t it?

National Identity

The African American writer James Baldwin once wrote: ‘Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.’ Replace the word ‘justice’ with ‘culture’ and this observation is just as apt. We Malaysians are truly in the grip of the tyranny of a minority, dictating just what we can see and do.

Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet presents our society’s multicultural reality by showing slices of Malaysian life, centering on the love between a Chinese boy and a Malay girl. But — in Parliament, no less; through an MP, no less; with the titles ‘Datuk’ and ‘Dr’, no less — the film was said to not reflect national identity. This MP criticized the movie for ‘rojak language’ and ‘inappropriate scenes’ — for the latter he cited a scene of a young man in his underwear.

Do we Malaysians not speak ‘rojak language’ in our everyday life, throwing in bazaar Malay, English, Tamil, Mandarin, Cantonese, Iban, and so on? Don’t some of us go about in our underwear, at home? A more important question, though: what did the MP mean by ‘National Identity’?

I suppose that MP would also have concurred with the Malay-language press for denouncing Sepet for a scene in which the Malay girl meets her boy in a Chinese coffee shop. There was a stall selling pork rice. But she doesn’t actually eat the pork, or even touch it — and, so far, there are no laws that say a Malay girl can’t step into such a coffee-shop. Would National Identity be seriously jeopardized by such an innocuous act?

What we already deduce from this is that there are people who do not want to embrace pluralism, multiculturalism –­ the idea of Bangsa Malaysia. Well, that’s fine. If that’s how it is with them, they’re free to adhere to their own beliefs.

It becomes a problem, however, when they try to make their beliefs prevail over the activities of others who don’t share these beliefs — a blatant infringement of human rights. The repercussions of this have significant, negative effects on the arts, for the very fact that the arts have the potential to foster what is positive and life-affirming and progressive and democratic.

The State of the Union

It is not only the arts that have been short-changed by this tyrannical minority. Recently, a gag order was issued on discussion related to Article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution — that piece of writing upon which our nation is founded. This directive comes from no lesser authority than the Chief Executive Officer of Malaysia, himself. Such discussion, he says, can cause tension in our society.

Okay. As authority-fearing Malaysians, we won’t say that such an order goes against the spirit of Article 10 of that same Constitution, the Article 10 that guarantees Malaysian freedom of expression. We won’t say that.

But, thinking hard about it: isn’t the Government sending out confusing signals? We are all Malaysians, but our government does not seem to treat us equally. We are a democracy — yet not so. We are mature people — yet we cannot participate in mature discussions.

Is it because some sections of society are not mature enough? Well, then the Government is continuing to pamper spoilt children, children who are given to ranting and raving, throwing tantrums — children who threaten to erupt in violence.

We live in a globalised world. We are going towards Vision 2020. At the very least, the Government could tell these children: “Respect the rule of law, the principles of the Constitution. Don’t act like samseng. If you resort to violence, we’ll have to take action against you as stipulated by the law.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the simple logic in that.

Perhaps a rocket scientist would also point out that if the Government actually did that, it might not continue to be the Government. Such is democracy. That’s the rub: nobody wants to bell the cat. And yet this minority, which behaves in such an unreasonable and unruly way, needs to be pulled up before it gets totally unmanageable. It is already getting away with posting death threats on the Internet against one of the organisers of the Article 11 forums.

The Situation Now

I have been in the arts for 30 years, and I’m appalled: instead of improving, the situation has got worse for artists. The restrictions are still there. 16 years ago, I directed a play called Madame Mao’s Memories, about Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing but not at all about Communism. It was not given a permit. That same paranoia is still here today. In 2004, Huzir Sulaiman’s Election Day was rejected by City Hall because it contained the names of real people: Dr Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim, the lawyer Sivarasa Rasiah. Even the mention of Guardian Pharmacy in the play was contentious.

Now, apart from these restrictions, we artists also have to put up with the new, insidious phenomenon of not offending the sensibilities of the tyrannical minority — because a single complaint from them is all it takes to shut down our shows.

Why pick on the arts? Our reach is small — minuscule, compared to the exposure politicians get on national television. Now that’s the real theatre. The big stage is the political stage, where an event can be telecast live to millions of people, and made larger than life. Reality is being theatricalised by the politicians in power every day. They are the big-time actors, and their PR consultants are mega-stage managers. They know how to use the medium to theatrical effect. The brandishing of a keris, and all its threatening implications, are beamed to millions of homes to ram a message through.

If any censorship is required, it should be for divisive gestures like that. Instead, the incident was allowed to be a dramatic act on a big scale. When huge numbers of the public complained about the keris drama, they were told to be silent.

By contrast, puny theatre companies can have their productions closed down because a handful makes a complaint.

The Prime Minister, referring to our poor maintenance of public facilities, said we were a nation with first class infrastructure but a Third World mentality. Perhaps he should have extended it include the mindset of those Malaysians who disrupt activities, including cultural ones, because they feel that their beliefs are under threat.

It is the arts that are under threat. There is precious little that artists can do to defend their rights. The situation will not change — not while the Government and the people give in to tyranny.

Recently, we celebrated Merdeka Day, symbol of our freedom. But are we really free? Are we free from fear, free from ignorance, free from prejudice?

I don’t think I need to tell you the answer. You already know it.


Kee Thuan Chye, a theatre practitioner and playwright since the 1970s, is also an associate editor for national daily The Star.

This is an edited version of a speech Thuan Chye delivered at the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM)’s Malaysian Human Rights Day 2006 Conference on Human Rights and Culture, held on Sat 9, Sep 2006.

First Published: 19.10.2006 on Kakiseni

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