Playing Catch Up

Malaysia has a long history of conflicts over arts and culture, pitting artists against the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation, against the British during the Communist insurgency and anti-colonial movement that followed World War II, and, since independence in 1957, against the Alliance government.

Over the past 49 years, the space for freedom of expression across the board has expanded and shrunk according to the ebbs and flows of the political tide, making it a kind of barometer of the health of the nation. As such, the increased suppression of free speech over the past year — in the media, in the arts, online and in public spaces –­ reveals a nation in crisis.

This report examines the shrinking space within which culture and the arts operate, looking specifically at acts of censorship in film, literature, popular culture and visual arts, as well as in the wider socio-cultural space, between January 2006 and March 2007. What follows is a first reading of sorts — an attempt to capture disparate acts of censorship across genres, over a diverse range of issues — in an effort to identify the fault lines underlying the constriction of free space in Malaysia.

Legal Framework

Under Malaysian law, there are several guarantees to freedom of expression, and rights to artistic and cultural expression, Article 10 of the Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of expression while the Rukunegara, or national credo, instituted in 1970, espouses a “liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions”. Other laws and policy statements that either explicitly or implicitly support freedom of expression include Vision 2020’s “strategic challenge” that all Malaysians be “free to practice and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs” and the Multimedia Super Corridor Bill of Guarantees, which states unequivocally that there will be “no internet censorship”.

However, amendments to the Federal Constitution made by the Executive over the past decades have been such “as to completely truncate the safeguards put in place in the original Constitution”. The state has at its disposal several statutes, and policies, with which to silence its critics, suppress dissent and maintain its hold on power. Key amongst these is the Internal Security Act of 1960 — which allows for detention without trial — the Sedition Act of 1948, the Official Secrets Act, the Police Act and the Penal Code. Laws and policies which intersect directly or indirectly with  the cultural and artistic sphere include the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, the Universities and University College Act of 1971 which impacts on both students and faculty, the Film Censorship Act of 2002, the National Cultural Policy of 1971, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Act 1998, the Content Code and the Entertainment (Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur) Act 1992.

These are regulatory laws that create an atmosphere of fear and promote self-censorship. Their very existence engenders a censorious culture. It is however important to note that they are not the only mechanism available to suppress and silence. The government can and does limit free speech without legal enactments, making it clear that censorship is ultimately a function of power; in this context, not only the power to define what is and is not permissible, but to change that definition at will. In addition, acts of intimidation and suppression are not exclusive to the authorities. As we shall see, non-state agents have proven to be highly effective players in narrowing the space for freedom of expression.

The Politics of Silencing

Silencing its critics continues to be a priority of the state, and various repressive actions have been taken against the print and electronic media, bloggers and opposition publications, from the suspension of publication permits to threats of using the Internal Security Act. Where necessary, the government will extended its reach beyond its borders. Danny Lim’s documentary “18”, which is about a series of anonymous political graffiti alluding to a list of 18 companies cited for corruption, was selected for the EBS International Documentary Festival in Korea. It was however dropped at the request of the Malaysian Embassy in Seoul on the grounds that it featured a political activist, former Internal Security Act detainee Hishamuddin Rais. The documentary had won an award at the 2006 Malaysian Video Awards and had been screened at various venues in Malaysia, prior to the Seoul invitation. Its implied criticism of the Malaysian government’s failure to prosecute these 18 companies was perhaps something the government did not desire to be showcased on an international platform.

Independent research or information, which differs from official versions, was also quickly quashed, as the government sought to ensure that its hold on power was not compromised by mere facts. In October 2006, the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI), a government-linked think tank, published a report which placed bumiputera capital ownership higher than both government-cited figures and the target set by the New Economic Policy (NEP). An affirmative action policy launched in 1971 in the wake of the 1969 riots, the NEP was designed to redress imbalances in the economy in favour of the bumiputera majority, who were economically and socially disadvantaged. Although the NEP formally ended in 1990, UMNO — and by extension, the Barisan National government — has cited statistics that showed the objectives of the NEP had yet to be met, and continues to pursue programmes and policies which privilege bumiputera interests. This stance earns the government considerable political currency amongst its main voter base. Under mounting political pressure, ASLl’s President, Mirzan Mahathir withdrew support of the report, leading the head researcher, Dr Lim Teck Ghee, to resign in protest.

In a similar vein, a book “March 8” by K. Arumugam, which investigates the 2001 ethnic-based clashes at Kampung Medan, was banned in December 2006 by the Ministry of Internal Security, along with 56 other books. The book highlights eyewitness reports of the 2001 incident, which claim that the police did nothing to stop acts of violence committed in front of them; to date, no one has been charged with the deaths of six Kampung Medan residents.

Arumugam has initiated legal action against the Ministry, saying the ban “can be interpreted as the wish of the government to suppress the truth and to exclude itself from any responsibility for said incident.”

The Politics of Religion

The normative aspects of Islam in Malaysia appeared to be at the heart of a number of acts of censorship in the period under study, be it over issues of religious dogma and concepts of morality, or contestations over its position in the evolving narrative of nationhood.

One of the outcomes of the revivalist Islamic movement of the 1970s was the re-energising of Islamist-based opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which in turn led to the politicisation of Islam in the battle for power. As part of a comprehensive strategy to bolster its Islamic credentials over PAS, the Barisan National government launched the Islamisation of Government Policy (1983), which incrementally altered the character of the administration and the nation over the next 30 years. Current Prime Minister Badawi’s Islam Hadhari initiative (Islamic Civilisation), launched in 2004, was presented as a platform for moderation, and one that would protect the interest of non-Muslims. The reality is more closely reflected by Meredith Weiss’s observation that “the contest between UMNO and its rival for the Malay vote has increasingly come to revolve around which party will do the most to advance Islam as a way of life and a political programme”.

In its efforts to present itself as an administration that upholds the moral and spiritual well-being of the country’s Muslim-Malay majority, the government has been diligent in acting against elements deemed incompatible with the state’s version of Islam. The year began with a police raid on an alleged ‘black metal’ music concert on New Year’s Day. Lurid and inaccurate reports in the media, including descriptions of supposed black metal rituals of animal sacrifices and satanic worship, followed. In response, the National Fatwa Council, the highest Islamic authority in Malaysia, announced a ban on ‘black metal’ and threatened to prosecute Muslim followers under Islamic law.

In February 2006, the National Art Gallery requested that parts of an art installation, including an image of a nude woman, be removed from an Australian show held on its premises, “Open Letter”. The Australian exhibition manager Asialink complied with the request without the prior consent of the artists. Ironically, the images of the removed pieces remained in the exhibition catalogue, uncensored.

The Weekend Mail’s publication permit was temporarily suspended by the Internal Security Ministry following a November 2006 issue that focused on the sexual mores of young Malaysians. While the tabloid’s often salacious news and its objectification of women has previously gone unchecked, this particular issue appeared to incur the wrath of the authorities for the absence of moralising in articles describing the open attitudes towards sex expressed by those interviewed. Early in 2007, a Malay-Muslim actress became the target of criticism over a casual remark on relationships. In response to accusations of being a ‘cradle-snatcher’, the actress, appearing on the TV programme “Sensasi”, implied that Prophet’s wife Khadijah, who was older than him, could be accused of the same crime. While the ‘live’ studio audience appeared amused and even applauded her, she was later severely criticised in the media by members of the public, politicians and Islamic groups. The actress was banned from appearing on all state-owned media for a year by the Ministry of Information, while “Sensasi” was banned under the Multimedia and Communications Act 1998, on grounds that it should have “contributed to the national aspirations and not offended the sensitivity or values of the community” (as reported in The Star newspaper, on 24 February 2007).

The state also held a firm grip on interpretations of Islam, censoring a number of publications on the religion, including Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam”, as well as books about the banned Islamic sect Al Arqam. Significantly, in a step that echoes the creationism versus evolution argument also current in parts of the US education system, an Indonesian translation of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was banned, although the English-language version is not. A wide range of books published in Bahasa Indonesia are routinely banned as the language is similar to Malay, the primary language of the Malay-Muslim majority in Malaysia. These books were amongst 56 books banned in 2006 under the Printing Press and Publishers Act. Also censored by the Act was a two-page report on supernatural practices amongst Muslims in Somalia and Afghanistan from The Economist’s December 2006 issue distributed in Malaysia. The Economist article, like an exhibition on the supernatural in a state-owned gallery that drew thousands of visitors, and a popular investigative series on supernatural phenomena in South East Asia screened weekly on private TV channel TV3, were all criticised for their focus on subjects considered deviant or ‘un-Islamic’. The latter two were not banned.

The government has to walk a fine line, however. It desires to present itself as a moderate force, both internationally for its aspirations to being a model Muslim country to the West, and domestically to retain the support of its non-Muslim constituency, which makes up more than 40% of the population. At the same time, it must come across as an administration unafraid to champion Islam. Malaysia is currently the head of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and mindful that its behaviour on the international stage is closely monitored by its Malay-Muslim voters.

The Danish cartoons debacle illustrates the delicate juggling act the state has to play between these conflicting masters. The Ministry of Internal Security suspended three newspapers in early 2006 for reproducing the cartoons. In February, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar announced that his Danish counterpart, Per Stig Møller, had called, seeking Malaysia’s help in “containing the situation from … causing a divide between Muslims and non-Muslims”. The request seemed to support Malaysia’s view of itself as an influential and moderating intermediary between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. Soon after, this ability to ‘contain’ the situation was tested when the New Straits Times (NST) published not the original Danish cartoons, but a cartoon about the cartoons. A PAS-led group of over 500 people demonstrated outside the NST office, demanding the closure of the daily. The government however chose to let the NST off after it published an apology. While it cannot be overlooked that the NST is a pro-government newspaper and enjoys government patronage, the government’s refusal to bow to the Islamist demands can be read as an example of how local and international concerns intersect and influence freedom of expression as it relates specifically to Islam in Malaysia.

The PAS administration’s controversial rulings in the northern state of Kelantan, such as the making of headscarves mandatory for Muslim women and the limiting of liquor licenses, have given the federal government a chance to display its more moderate side in the past. In February 2006, another opportunity presented itself when the Kota Bahru Town Council rejected an application for a Mak Yong performance permit, saying that the ritual theatre form was incompatible with Islam. The ban came four months after the ancient art form was declared an Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Tourism spoke out against the ban, promising the Ministry’s support for the art form.

But the complexity of the Malaysian situation goes beyond a government oscillating between two divergent political imperatives. A disturbing trend first discerned in the 1990s is the emergence of private citizens, civic groups and the media who take on the mantle of censor, particularly over issues touching on Islam. In recent years, several high-profile cases involving conversions to and out of Islam have tested the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion for all Malaysians. These cases put the battle over Islam’s position in the nation at the forefront. While Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, the country is not an Islamic state governed under syariah law. However, in 2001, under mounting political pressure from the opposition, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made the “929 Declaration” (named after its date of announcement, 29th September) that Malaysia was in fact already an Islamic state. This was a politically expedient statement, for the country remains, constitutionally, a secular state. But as the Democratic Action Party’s Lim Kit Siang notes, it “hardened the tone towards the Islamic direction”, resulting in “greater intolerance in the public place”.

This was made clear in May 2006, when a mob of 100 people disrupted a public forum organized by Article 11, a coalition of 13 NGOs working towards upholding the Federal Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion. In a disturbing display of punishing the victim, Article 11 was accused by politicians and a wide range of Islamic-based groups of undermining the place of Islam in the nation. Article 11’s position was made even more precarious by the erroneous conflating of its objectives with a controversial Interfaith Commission proposal, which was also seen as a threat to the perceived Islamic status of the country. Article 11 was barred from holding further public forums while the Minister of Information threatened to censor the media for its coverage of the controversy. Eventually, the Prime Minister weighed in on the side of silence, declaring a ban on all discussions which touched on religion. The Prime Minister’s statement — unencumbered by specific parameters of duration, scope and locale — had the effect of an all-encompassing decree.

In controversies involving religion, minority rule appears to be on the rise, as a single complaint is at times enough to shut down an entire event. Some newspapers and selected journalists have played a crucial role in amplifying these individuals and groups, giving their voices a platform that turns them into highly efficient agents of suppression.

A performance art symposium “Satu Kali” (“One Time or Once Off’), held in April 2006, was suspended by the police on the strength of a single complaint that some of the performances were insulting to Islam. This, despite the fact that “Satu Kali” was supported by local, international and regional organisations. The following month, Kakikino, an amateur film club which screens European and Asian art films at the government-owned National Film Corporation, was shut down, again on the strength of a single complaint carried in a local newspaper that the films screened were pornographic.

Amir Muhammad’s documentary “Lelaki Komunis Terakhir” (“The Last Communist”) was at the centre of a manufactured controversy that eventually led to its being banned in May 2006. The documentary, which touched obliquely on the exiled head of the now defunct Malayan Communist Party Chin Peng, was initially given a permit without cuts by the Film Censorship Board. Given that Chin Peng’s autobiography “My Side of History” is easily available in Malaysia and has spent time on the country’s best-seller list, it was not surprising that the film, despite its apparently controversial subject matter, was approved. Although Chin Peng is still barred from returning to Malaysia for his role in the communist insurgency following the end of World War II, there is a greater openness towards this chapter of the past, perhaps because as a movement communism is no longer seen as a threat. Amir was required to screen his film for the Special Branch however, which also approved it for release. Shortly before it was to be released however, Berita Harian, a Malay-language daily, began a sustained attack on the documentary, criticising the Board for not banning it. Neither the Berita Harian journalist, nor any of the people critical of “Lelaki Komunis Terakhir” in the articles, had seen the documentary. In response to the articles, a special screening was arranged for Members of Parliament. The general consensus was that the film did not need to be censored. Shortly after, however, the permit was withdrawn on grounds that “the public had protested”. Amir placed responsibility for the ban on the newspaper, saying that the paper, “whose cultural politics verges on the ethnocentric and semi-fascist’, seemed to object to the fact that the film centred on a non-Malay character. The paper had led similar campaigns against two other films, “Sepet” (2005) and “Gubra” (2006), both by Yasmin Ahmad. “Sepet” was vilified for its story of a Malay-Muslim girl falling in love with a kafir (infidel) and “Gubra” for its apparently un-Islamic portrayal of its central Muslim characters. In January 2007, Amir’s sequel to “Lelaki Komunis Terakhir”, “Apa Khabar Orang Kampung” (“Village People Radio Show”) — a documentary on exiled Communist communities in southern Thailand — was also banned by the Film Censorship Board. An appeal has been rejected.

Indeed, events that centre on the multiculturalism previously celebrated have now become the target of protests. Earlier in the year, the Penang Global Ethic Project’s request to hold an exhibition on commonalities between religions in Malaysia was rejected. In an educational World Religions Walk, which promoted interfaith understanding, Muslim students were prohibited from participating by the Penang State Education Department after receiving a complaint from a parent that it was un-Islamic for the students to enter temples and churches.

These are but a selection of the numerous incidents of censorship in the arts and wider socio-cultural space over the past months. The government has increased its policing of free expression in Malaysia, silencing criticism of its administration over issues ranging from corruption, to toll hikes, to police abuse, to education policies and the NEP, amongst others. Where Islam is a central factor however, it is possible to discern a shifting of power to the hands of a highly mobilised citizenry, who are unafraid to take matters into their own hands if the state does not react to their satisfaction.

Most troubling perhaps are those conflicts that have pitted ordinary citizens against each other in the battle over questions of religion. The groups that have perpetrated these acts of intimidation and suppression in the name of Islam are driven by the power of their religious convictions. In this, they are of the same ilk as fundamentalist of all faiths, be it the Christian right in the US or the ultra-nationalist Hindu factions in India. In Malaysia, however, these individuals and groups operating under the name of Islam are highly effective agents of suppression because they are empowered by their belief that such is their political entitlement — an entitlement the state has over-emphasised over the past 30 years in its efforts to maintain political power. The past year reveals a state pushed into playing catch up with the Hydra it might well have created.


Kathy Rowland co-founded and is the website’s managing editor.

This article first appeared in the May 2007 edition of FOCAS (Forum on Contemporary Art and Society), a Singapore-based semi-academic arts journal.

First Published: 05.10.2007 on Kakiseni

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