Essays

Malaysia’s New People Power

Last month, Reporters Sans Frontiers released its Press Freedom Index 2007, a report card of sorts that ranks 169 nations according to their level of press freedom. Malaysia has dropped by 32 points to number 124, over its previous year’s ranking of 92. Unsurprising, given the sustained threats to bloggers, the suspension of several publications, and the overall increase in media censorship over the past 12 months.

The RSF is one of several trans-national bodies that monitor the press as part of a movement to protect freedom of expression at the local, regional and international level. While focusing on the press, these reports and indexes serve as an indicator of the overall state of democracy, equality and civil society in a country. Potentially, they may dissuade future encroachment by the state, ostensibly out of a government’s fear of public shaming on an international stage. When expedient however, these rankings can also serve entrenched political alliances, becoming deal breakers in the hands of geo-political power brokers. Nevertheless, such initiatives provide valuable archive and data that help in our understanding of censorship of the press and its impact on the overall state of a nation.

There are organizations, such as PEN, Index on Censorship, the US-based National Coalition Against Censorship, as well as independent websites, which conduct similar research on censorship of literature, visual arts, film, theatre, radio, TV — areas which broadly fall under the rubric of arts, culture and entertainment. These art-focused reports and indexes however, are seldom viewed as representative of a more general state of freedom of expression.

In many societies where the press and other forms of public discourse are closely monitored, the arts is often one of the few spaces that remain relatively open to alternative views and dissent however. When this space is constricted, it signals the onset of a more insidious level of control and suppression. Furthermore, designations of national culture are seldom neutral, embodying as they do the principles of the ruling elite. Conflicts over linguistic, artistic, cultural and religious practices are deeply political, as different groups with competing desires seek to exert their influence over these areas of symbolic capital. As Bourdieu demonstrates, culture serves to legitimize and reproduce the dominant/subordinate structure of power and class in any society rather than to transcend them. Refocusing our lenses onto the realm of arts and cultural practice can reveal certain aspects of freedom of expression, which are less apparent when censorship of the media is the only standard of measurement.

While censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia cannot be described as rampant, it has, over the past two decades, moved to the forefront of national consciousness in increasingly vexed ways. What is censored, how it is censored, and when it is censored produces a narrative of the nation that reveals the complex interplay between state and polity over issues such as religion, culture and identity.

 

 

Censoring citizens: three stories

Early incidents of arts censorship were, almost exclusively, perpetrated by the state in its different manifestations: colonial, occupier or national. The Japanese Army for instance, enlisted bangsawan (traditional Malay opera) performances in its propaganda of the occupation of Malay as a pan-Asian defeat of Western colonialism. The British, when they returned to power in Malaya at the end of World War II, introduced the permit requirement to stage live performances in 1948 as part of efforts to put down the communist insurgency. The regulations were useful in their efforts to control the burgeoning nationalist movement as well, which used the pretext of live performances to rouse up anti-British sentiment amongst local audiences.

An intriguing report in the Straits Times (ST), dated 22 December 1955, tells of the banning of a performance of the Chinese folklore The Farmer and the Wolf at the Pan-Malaysian Students Federation Union’s Cultural Festival on grounds that ‘the killing of the wolf was too realistic’. It could well be that skilled special effects rendered the moment unpalatable. However, a report the following day revealed the anti-colonial sentiment of the Festival: the students refused to play ‘God Save the Queen’ at the event because their constitution ‘pledged to work for an independent Malaya’ (ST, 23 December 1955).

After independence from the British in 1957, the Alliance Government assumed the language of the colonizer, citing communist elements as its reason for censoring several art events in the 1970s. A government White Paper issued by the Minister of Internal Affairs in December 1974, noted that the Communist Party of Malaya has infiltrated the Chinese Language Society of University Malaya, and was using ‘dramatic activity’ to promote communist ideals. The paper revealed that a total of 106 individual songs and theatre pieces from four performances organized by the Society between 1972 and 1974 had been ‘expunged’ before the performance license was issued. The tempestuously named Spring Thunder Grand Amalgamated Cultural Performances, organised in May 1974, was refused a license outright (ST, 20 December 1974).

As a result of the revivalist Islam movement of the 1970s, concepts of religion and morality began to play an important part in arts practice. The absurdist movement, which flourished in Malay-language theatre in the early 1970s, was recast as incompatible with Islam, leading to its eventual decline by the end of the decade. Islam became increasingly politicized as both the government and the Islamist-based opposition, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) used it to gain political mileage with Malay-Muslim voters, who make up approximately 60 per cent of the population. In 1983, the Barisan National government introduced its Islamicization of Government Policy in an attempt to regain the moral high-ground from PAS. It sought to present itself as an administration capable of promoting the principles of Islam. Culture became, increasingly, the chosen site. Reports of a government art institution eschewing figurative art and sculpture, apparently in accordance with Islam’s prohibition of the graven image, began to circulate. Indigenous Malay forms, such as main patri, wayang kulit and menora, which bore pre-Islamic influences of Hinduism and animism, fell out of favour and the state led efforts to rehabilitate them into Islamic friendly forms.

Citizen as censor

In 1980, RTM, a public TV station, decided to broadcast a critically acclaimed stage production of Hamlet by students of University Sains Malaysia. However, after protests by some students that certain scenes in the play were un-Islamic, RTM withdrew its offer. This incident is significant because it is the first recorded case of non-state agents agitating or instigating the state to censor or prohibit content considered inappropriate. The voice of ‘the people’, often anonymous, often amplified by the media, began to assert itself. Other incidents followed — male dancers in a musical were criticized for performing bare chested; a concert by a pop singer Sudirman at a university was the target of students’ demonstrations because it was ‘konsert kafir’ (non-believer’s concert).

In 1994, a production of Tennessee William’s Streetcar Named Desire was censored following a front-page report in a local tabloid accusing the lead actress, who was Muslim, of behaving in an un-Islamic manner in her portrayal of the character of Stella. City Hall, which had issued the performance permits for the play earlier, reacted swiftly to the report. It censored certain scenes before allowing the productions to continue its run. In 2002 a production of The Vagina Monologues played to packed houses. The producer, Five Arts Centre, requested an extension to the performance permit to accommodate the public demand. City Hall however refused on grounds that it had received a letter protesting the use of Koranic verses in the play from a member of the public. The 2nd First Annual Bolehwood Awards by Instant Cafe Theatre Ensemble was issued performance permits for two runs, first in December 2002 and again in July 2003. In response to one letter of complaint published in a national daily, claiming the show was insulting to Malaysians, City Hall attempted to censor the script mid-way through the July run. Following ICT’s refusal to comply, City Hall announced that all future productions by ICT would be banned. A public outcry ensued, leading the Mayor rescind the ban. In the case of Streetcar, The Vagina Monologues and Bolehwood, the state was, in the first instance, permissive of the work, as evidenced by the granting of the initial performance permits. It was only in response to pressure groups or public controversy that the authorities subsequently acted to restrict or censor the works.

Recent Developments

Patterns first discerned in the 1980s have evolved further. The state remains vigilant, monitoring content critical of its administration, as well as that which might offend its main voter base. Over the past 24 months, several acts of censorship by the state have occurred. Under the Printing and Publishers Act, 56 books were banned, the majority of which dealt with religion. The documentary 18 by Danny Lim, which alludes to the government’s collusion in several corruption cases, was withdrawn from an international festival in Korea at the request of the Malaysian Embassy in Seoul. K. Arunmugam’s book, March 8, a critical account of the government handling of ethnic-based riots in 2001, has been banned. In August 2007, a student’s rap song, Negarakuku, caused an outcry because it featured a sample of the national anthem, Negara Ku. Its lyrics were highly critical of government policies. However, the song, in its use of racial and religious stereotypes, reveals itself a replica of the very thing it claims to challenge — the racism and bigotry that has, increasingly, come to define the Malaysian experience. The student publicly apologized, and appealed to his supporters to withdraw the video from Internet sites. The Cabinet however maintained that it could still charge him for sedition or detain him under the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial.

The state nonetheless found itself pushed even further by private citizens who have assumed the role of censor. 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. 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 Komunist Terakhir (The Last Communist) was at the centre of a manufactured controversy that eventually led to its being banned in May 2006. The film was initially given a screening permit by Film Censorship Board, and was also approved by both Special Branch and Parliament. However, sustained attacks on the documentary by a journalist (who had not see the film), and his criticism of the Film Censorship Board for approving the film, resulted in the permit being withdrawn on grounds that ‘the public had protested’. In Penang, an exhibition planned to celebrate the commonalities of religions practiced in Malaysia was called off following protests led by an Islamist group calling itself BADAI (Body against the Interfaith Commission). Most recently, the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students campaigned against a scheduled concert by international pop star Gwen Stefani, on the grounds that her stage outfits were too revealing for a Muslim country. Stefani agreed to cover up and the concert went ahead.


The rise of the citizen censor is certainly not unique to Malaysia. Recent controversies in India have pitted Hindu fundamentalist against visual artists, filmmakers and writers. In the United States, evangelical Christians played a significant role in the so-called cultural wars of the 1990. Today many Christian-based groups continue to protest and lobby against works of art they consider incompatible with their belief system. In Malaysia, there have been incidents of other religious groups agitating the state to censor. In 1996, several Hindu groups protested a production by Five Arts Centre, Rama dan Sita, for disrespecting Hinduism. When a local newspaper printed an image of Jesus with a cigarette in hand two months ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church called for the paper to be banned, which the government did. However other mainstream Christian groups condemned the banning and urged the government to rescind the ban.

It does appear, however, that groups that perpetrate acts of suppression in the arts in the name of Islam are evolving in their function, focus and form. The sources of censorship in fields of artistic and cultural practices have multiplied, diversified, and intensified over the past three decades. While the state still plays a proactive role as censor, recent trends indicate that it is no longer the lead actor. Increasingly, it is relegated to playing catch up, at the behest of individuals and special interest groups whose political support the state courted by politicizing religion.

In 2001, under mounting political pressure from the opposition, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made the ‘929 Declaration’ (named after its date of announcement, 29 September) that Malaysia was in fact already an Islamic state. While Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, the country is not an Islamic state governed under syariah law. 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’.

When the influence of these non-state agents first surfaced in the 1980s it was confined to sites which concerned or affected Islam in one way or the other. These self-appointed guardians of morality — members of the clergy, as well as private citizens — sought to patrol the parameters of the faith amongst believers, speaking out on issues of religions dogma and concepts of morality. Recent cases, such as the aborted interfaith exhibition and the Gwen Stefani concert, indicate these groups are widening their reach, and attempting instead to define the parameters of the nation.

Suppression no longer appear to be random, reactionary acts by anonymous individuals or informal groups, as was the case in the 1980s and ’90s. The emergence of groups such as BADAI, the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students, and Muslim Professional Association and Lawyers Defending Islam signal the emergence of a highly mobilized movement empowered by convictions that are both religious and political.

Viewed through the lens of culture, the vocabulary of moral outrage and religious piety appears to be making way for the language of what is and is not Malaysia.

 


Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners.
 

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Author

Kathy ROWLAND

Topic
Essays
Date
Thu, 1 Nov 2007