As he says, there's really nothing here you didn't know already. Just that sometimes it's necessary to say it in big enough forums.
Freedom of Expression and Culture in Malaysia: Telling You What You Already Know
By Kee Thuan Chye
Let’s start with a number of disclaimers. First, I’m here 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 would 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. The most famous must be the one on The Last Communist, a film written and directed by Amir Muhammad. I haven’t seen the film, thanks to the Home Ministry. What I’m going to tell you about it is based on reports and it won’t touch on the film’s merit or its content.
According to reports, the film is a documentary that road-maps the small towns where Chin Peng, the leader of the long-defunct Malayan Communist Party, lived and fought against the British. It was originally passed by the Censor Board – without, it has to be said, any cuts. In fact, Special Branch officers were given a screening of it. That was something never done before but hey, why not, to be on the safe side? After all, Malaysian artists have always worried about what Special Branch might think – and the consequences of their thinking. So, before Special Branch comes after you, better forestall it. Get their approval first. Speaking as an artist, I’d say that’s pathetic. But what to do? That’s how it is. Special Branch can make or break you – and I’m not joking. 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. Wow! That was 20 years ago. It was a Singapore play. It was a story about a man who had problems burying his grandfather. You see, all funeral plots had to be of standard size but his grandfather’s coffin was of the traditional Chinese type, which means huge. It was bigger than the standard-sized plots. So the grandson had to find a way to convince the authorities to make an exception. Not a play to upset anyone, wouldn’t you say? But you know of course that for plays to be staged in this country, a permit has to be obtained. In KL, City Hall grants it but City Hall must have the approval from Special Branch first. OK, fine, maybe the authorities think policemen are the most cultured people. How dare we dispute that?
The producer of The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole did all the required stuff – submitted the application together with a copy of the playscript. Meanwhile, we carried on rehearsing the play. After more than two months, we were due to open but 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. We panicked even more. Our producer went to see City Hall that afternoon. Guess what? Sorry, no permit. And no reason given. What? We were going to open in a few hours and no permit? That night, people who came to see it had to be turned away.
So, you see, never screw around with Special Branch. No, that’s not right. We didn’t even screw around. We did all the necessary things. We followed the proper procedure. And yet.
So, the Censor Board probably did the right – albeit pathetic – thing by arranging a special screening of The Last Communist for Special Branch. And guess what? The cops thought it was okay. One of them said that people might even be bored watching it.
So, the Censor Board passed it. And then, two weeks before it was to open at the cinema, something happened. A Malay 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. And the beauty of it is, according to Amir, none of the journalists had seen the film or asked 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. And these are intellectuals or at least thinking people. How do we make sense of that? Well, as they say, Malaysia Boleh. We can do anything. We can bend the rules, we can change them at any time. We can talk about things we don’t know anything about. And we’re all right, Mat!
After the attack by the Malay newspaper, the Home Ministry retracted the Censor Board’s approval. The Ministry said it did so because there was a public protest. But there was a public protest too when the approval was retracted. Groups of people spoke out against it. But, a la, they don’t count lah. Even the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage felt the film should not be banned. He said the film was not offensive. It was not about the struggle of Chin Peng. Chin Peng doesn’t even appear in the movie, not even a photograph of him. To prove his point, the Minister arranged for a special screening of the film and invited Members of Parliament to view it. Some came. Many felt afterwards there was nothing at all to all the hoo-ha that had been generated. But that didn’t change the Home Minister’s mind. The ban stayed.
Apparently, there’s more to this episode. In an interview with The Star, the Home Minister revealed that he exercised his powers to ban the movie partly because the timing of its release was not right. Why? Because it was a week apart from the celebration of Umno’s 60th anniversary.
Ah, Umno. No wonder. This also explains why the Minister made the statement at one point that the movie had to get approval from the Umno Supreme Council, not the Cabinet. This of course is not right. How can the Umno Supreme Council decide on a matter that concerns the Film Censorship Act? Even the Minister of Culture thought it was not appropriate. It should be the Government that decides, not the Umno Supreme Council. I’m sure you know that too.
Interestingly enough, Umno Youth had also been in on the act – one year earlier. The organisation protested against the making of the film even before it was shot. I don’t know about you, but I find that shocking. Why has it come to pass that politicians are interfering in the making of culture? I have dwelt at length on this issue of the banning of The Last Communist because I think it says a lot about the kind of society we have become. We are obviously insecure, obviously paranoid, and, far worse, obviously confused. And yet we are supposed to be embarking on an exciting journey towards developed nation status by the year 2020.
We have seen from this example the narrow agendas and petty fears of politicians and journalists. If you bring in the examples of the films Sepet and Gubra, both written and directed by Yasmin Ahmad, 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 – I’m talking about racists and religious extremists.
The all-important question, however, is this – do they represent the majority of Malaysians? But then what do we mean when we say “Malaysians”? And that’s when it gets very complicated. Because I know and you know that there are Malaysians who are considered more Malaysian than other Malaysians. And when it comes to the crunch, the Malaysians who are considered more Malaysian tend to have more say. And even if only a handful of them were to express unhappiness over an issue, chances are they would be given attention disproportionate to their numbers. Right or not?
That explains the banning of The Last Communist. That also explains the closing down of the KakiKino Film Club that was screening foreign art films at Finas – until a member of the public complained that it was showing pornography. Actually, these foreign art films sometimes contain scenes of nudity but that’s as pornographic as the nude women in classic Renaissance paintings. These paintings, by the way, are proudly exhibited in famous museums and art galleries throughout the world but you probably know what our censors do with them when they appear in magazines. They take out their marker pens and blot out the parts that get them wild – either with moral indignation or delight. I’m not sure which. But they’re vandals all the same.
Let me now tell you about The Vagina Monologues and its fate in Malaysia. The Vagina Monologues is a critically acclaimed feminist play written by American playwright Eve Ensler that speaks out on issues important to women, such as rape and violence against them. In 2002, two theatre groups in KL collaborated on a performance of it that ran for 5 shows. They managed to secure a permit for it from City Hall. Encouraged by the success of the show, the producers decided to extend the run. But this time, when they applied for a permit, did they get it? No. Why? Because when a scholars’ association in Kedah read about the workshop in the newspapers, they filed a complaint against it. An objection raised by people all the way from Kedah, who had not even seen the play. Does that sound familiar? It seems to have become a Malaysian habit to denounce something one has not seen, hasn’t it?
The Black 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 that observation is just as apt. We Malaysians are truly in the grip of the tyranny of a minority. This minority is dictating what we can see and do.
The movie Sepet presents the multicultural reality in our society by showing slices of Malaysian life and centering on the love between a Chinese boy and a Malay girl, but in Parliament no less, an MP no less, with the titles “Datuk” and “Dr” no less, said that the film did not reflect national identity. He criticized the movie for its “rojak language” and “inappropriate scenes”, one of which is 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? And don’t some of us sometimes go about in our underwear at home?
A more important question – what does that MP mean by “national identity”? Well, I think you know the answer to that question.
I suppose the MP would also concur with the Malay press for denouncing Sepet also because it has a scene in which the Malay girl meets the boy in a Chinese coffee shop which has a stall selling pork rice. Isn’t it enough that the Malay girl doesn’t eat the pork rice? Is there a law that says she can’t step into such a coffeeshop? And if she did, “national identity” would be in serious jeopardy? Relek la.
Really, what we already know from this is that there are people who do not want to embrace pluralism, multiculturalism, and 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 gets to be a problem, however, when they try to make their beliefs prevail over the activities of others who don’t share these beliefs. That is a blatant infringement of human rights. The repercussions of this have a great negative effect on the arts. Because the arts foster what is positive and life-affirming and progressive and democratic.
And it’s not only the arts that have been short-changed by this tyrannical minority. As you know, we now cannot discuss Article 11 of the Constitution. The Constitution, mind you. That piece of writing on which our whole nation is founded. And the gag order comes from no less than the Chief Executive Officer of Malaysia. Because, he says, such discussion can cause tension in our society. OK, 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 which guarantees freedom of expression. We won’t say that. But then, if we think hard about it, isn’t the Government sending out confusing signals? We are all Malaysians but the Government does not seem to treat us equally. We are a democracy and yet not so. We are mature people and yet we cannot participate in mature discussions. Is it because one sector is not mature enough? Well, the Government is then continuing to pamper a spoilt child, a child who is given to ranting and raving, throwing tantrums, threatening to erupt in violence. Shouldn’t the Government lead them to the mature path, teach them tolerance and rational understanding? We are in a globalised world. We are going towards Vision 2020. At the very least, the Government could tell them, “Look. If you don’t agree with this and that but most others do, just respect what the majority wants. Respect the rule of law, the principles of the Constitution. Don’t create a fuss, 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. But perhaps a rocket scientist would point out that if the Government actually did that, it might not continue to be the Government. And that’s the rub. Nobody wants to bell the cat. And yet this minority that behaves in such an unreasonable and unruly way needs to be pulled up before it gets totally unmanageable. It’s already getting away with posting death threats on the Internet against one of the organisers of the Article 11 forums. What happens if at some time in the near future it gets away with murder?
I have been in the arts for 30 years and I’m appalled that instead of improving, the situation has got worse for artists. The restrictions are still there. Sixteen years ago, I directed a play called Madame Mao’s Memories that was about Jiang Qing and not at all about Communism, but it was not given a permit. That same paranoia is still here today. In 2004, the play Election Day by Huzir Sulaiman was rejected by City Hall because it contained the names of real people like Dr Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim, the lawyer Sivarasa, etc. Even the mention of Guardian Pharmacy was not allowed. Why that was so is anybody’s guess. Now, apart from these unfathomable restrictions, we artists also have to put up with the new insidious phenomenon of not offending the sensibilities of the tyrannical minority – because all it takes is a complaint from them to shut down our show.
But why pick on the arts? It’s not a danger to public safety – or national security. A play or a film is not going to cause the audience to run amok, start a revolution. The reach is small, minuscule, compared to the exposure politicians get on national television. That’s the real theatre now. 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, their PR consultants are the mega stage managers. They know how to use the medium to theatrical effect. The brandishing of a keris and its threatening implications are beamed to millions of homes to ram a message through. If any censoring is required, it should be for something as racially divisive as that. Instead, it was allowed to be a dramatic act on a big scale. No theatre company could have that kind of luxury or be able to afford such coverage. And yet puny theatre companies can have their productions closed down because some member of the public makes a complaint. When huge numbers of the public complained about that keris drama, they were told to be silent.
The Prime Minister says we are a nation with First Class infrastructure and Third World mentality when referring to our poor maintenance of public facilities. Perhaps he should extend it to mean the mindset of Malaysians who disrupt activities, including cultural ones, because they feel that their beliefs are under threat.
It is the arts that are under threat. And there is precious little that artists can do to defend their rights. Not while the Government and the people give in to tyranny. Recently, we celebrated our Independence 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.