Artistic Freedom Report Malaysia: Negotiating Sensitivities

The key findings and analysis of artistic freedom in Malaysia from the Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database Project, 2010 - 2022.
Figure 1: Malaysia’s Censorship Violations, 2010 - 2022

Malaysia reco­rded the highest number of violations, with 245 cases between 2010 and 2022. This can in part be attributed to the ongoing work of multiple organisations documenting censorship practices in Malaysia, including annual reports by NGOs such as SUARAM and Article 19. These made data collection easier for our project.

Multiple state-based, arts and non-arts organisations as well as regulatory bodies were involved in the violations, which averaged 20 different cases per year.

In this brief report, I will highlight pertinent arts and cultural censorship violations and incidents involving multiple actors and agents in relation to Malaysia’s legalistic landscape within the 12 years period. By focusing on the political development and transitions under three successive governments, I am contextualising the layered meaning of “sensitivities” from social-political and historical insights, which inform the State’s approaches to censorship practices. 

Figure 2: Methods used to challenge artwork or event, 2010 - 2022

Contextualising Political Development Post-2008

In looking at the censorship practices between the period of 2010 – 2022, it is important to contextualise the political developments after the 2008 Malaysian General Election. Though it can be argued that Malaysia is progressing towards a mature democratisation process, it is indeed far from a linear process. For nearly 50 years, Malaysia functioned as a de facto one-party state, ruled by Barisan Nasional (BN).

In 2008, against the backdrop of the global economic crisis in the US, the dominance of the BN regime began to diminish, leading to a historic defeat ten years later in the General Elections of 2018. The new government, Pakatan Harapan, only ruled for a short while before it was dethroned in March 2020 by another political faction, Perikatan Nasional (PN) in what was known as the Sheraton Move. In the 15th General Election (GE15) in 2022,  Pakatan Harapan triumphed again, surprisingly, with BN as its main coalition partner in the formation of the unity government.

There is a tendency to place PH as a progressive force in the traditional ideological political spectrum, while its opponent, PN (which it defeated in GE15) is cast as the conservative, right wing party. However, this kind of assumption deserves to be further checked.

As outlined in the previous paragraph, multiple marriages of convenience took place between different political alliances, which has contributed to the emerging dynamic of arts and cultural censorship in Malaysia. Here, each political party often negotiates and adjusts its approach so that it becomes increasingly difficult to determine its ideological position.

For this particular research project, it is important to observe how the three heavily contested General Elections in 2013, 2018, and 2022 created an important dynamic for us to reflect upon. It is not surprising to note that in the years leading up to these elections and during the election years themselves, there were significant instances of censorship violations in Malaysia (please refer to Figure 1). It is crucial to be mindful of how this political climate and volatility during election and campaigning periods can contribute to concerning developments. One such example is the banning of cartoons by Zunar, a prominent cartoonist, which criticised then-Prime Minister Najib Razak and the controversy surrounding the 1MDB financial scandal. Apart from that, Malaysia’s socio-political system which is heavily influenced by ethno-religious dynamics, remains a contentious issue within its public realm, particularly in arts and cultural production, as we can observe in this report.

The Genesis of Censorship in Malaysia

Going further back, a key political dynamic among the Malay-Muslim majority that continues to shift and shape the political process in Malaysia can be attributed to the highly contested notion between “UMNO-led mainstream Malay identity politics” and the “Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)-led Islamic identity politics” (Johan Saravanamuttu, 2013: 345). Here, the wave of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1970s also played a role in bringing values of religious conservatism that seeped into society. Due to such a competitive political milieu, it is not surprising that BN itself applied the conservative values of its challenger, PAS, in order to maintain its political legitimacy.

This competition causes state-based organisations to have a monopoly on conservative values that are forced through religious institutions such as through the formation of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) (Azmil Tayeb, 2018: 221). As a result of such ideological formations, it is not a surprise that such cultural dominance has become embedded within the lives of the community. This is particularly significant among the majority Malay-Muslim community—to the point of creating a general consensus that Malaysia has already been influenced by conservatism, both in its forms of governance and societal structures, of which I will explore further in the report.

Apart from that, the continuous use of ethno-religious markers to shape and separate interactions and rivalries across political, economic, and social domains places constant strain on communal relationships. All hell broke loose in 1969. The 13th May racial riot, served as a watershed moment for the country, as the nation  experienced one of its most traumatic episodes.

 The incident served as a great reset for the country, where several illiberal measures were implemented by the then government. Most notable is the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill to ensure Members of Parliament toe the line by not discussing “sensitive issues”, ranging from the issues of”citizenship, the national language, the special position of the Malays, the legitimate  interest of non-Malays and the sovereignty of the Sultans, to the amendments of the Sedition Act of 1948.” (Ooi Kee Beng, 2013: 323).

These vague interpretations of what is perceived as sensitive or insensitive does not only affect those in Parliament but society in general. The continuation of such practices of negotiating sensitivities thus infuses everyday politics. For its own survival, the state (or the prevailing political elite and its governance) is deeply committed to guaranteeing that only the ‘approved’ portrayal of religion, culture, ethnic identity, ethno-religious interactions, and history finds its place in the public realm.

Throughout the 12 years period of the research, a considerable number of arts and cultural productions that highlighted alternative historical depictions and religious sources were suppressed. For example, oral recollection of female freedom fighters during the Emergency Period in “Life as the River Flows: Women in the Malayan Anti-colonial Struggle”. Interestingly, it is the Malay edition of the book, entitled “Hidup Bagaikan Sungai Mengalir: Kisah Kehidupan 16 Orang Wanita Dalam Gerakan Anti-Jepun, Anti-Penjajah dan Kemerdekaan di Malaysia-Singapura (1938-1989)” that was then banned in  2017.

The literary writings of critically acclaimed authors such as, Faisal Tehrani, which are deemed to be against the teaching of Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah, the dominant state-based religious school of thought in Malaysia, are also targeted. A painting by Shia Yih Yiing, used as the cover of a book entitled, “Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, And Hope In New Malaysia” (2020) was targeted by  critics who alleged the painting was based on the portrayal of Malaysia’s coat of arms. It was deemed disrespectful and insensitive to the national emblem.

Reasons for Censorships in Malaysia

Figure 3: Malaysia’s Reason for Censorship, 2010 - 2022

The top three reasons works were attacked expands on how “sensitivities” is are the main driver of censorship practices in Malaysia. With intertwined and overlapping factors such as “moral policing” behind the highest number of cases, and “politics”, the second highest reasons, it can be observed that the State positions itself as the paternalistic guardians, protecting the public from any threats it deems as “anti-social and subversive elements from imperiling the welfare and the security of the country”, in order to create an imagined, unified Malaysian community (Anne Munro-Kua, 1996: 34). 

With the idea of “national security” being central to the discussion, it is not a surprise to note how the State exercises greater control to ensure what they deem as “sensitive” positions and interests, remain intact. This includes a tight grip on arts and cultural production. In tracing such intriguing developments of censorship practices in Malaysia, the author also explored the experiences of three female arts and cultural practitioners facing direct and indirect censorship in Malaysia, arising from their positionality as women and minorities in discussing sensitive issues in the country. 

Apart from that, we can also observe multiple pre-emptive measures by the government in its approaches to censorship violations. One particular critical example is the lengthy saga of the confiscation of more than 300 Malay-language Bibles and the detainment of the Bible Society officials in Malaysia (2014). The dispute involved the usage of the word Allah, which the Court of Appeal ruled could only be exclusively used by practising Muslim in order to avoid public disorder. 

In subsequent developments to the case, multiple state-based religious departments then highlighted the existing state enactments, particularly under the ‘Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religions 1988’, which are designed to prohibit non-Muslims from using certain phrases and expressions deemed to be Islamic. Such framing of language utilisations directly restricts arts and cultural expression and highlights the expanded role of the state non-arts organisations of which I will discuss later in the report.

Figure 4: Malaysia’s Censorship Violations by Forms, 2010 - 2022

In relation to the discussion above, the questions of language definitely contributes to the dynamic of censorship in Malaysia. Ooi Kok Hin’ “The Policing and Politics of the Malay Language” (2017) captures the stricter control of Malay language publications and translations, as opposed to works in other languages. This contradicts the position of the Malay language, as the national language, as an inclusive language for all Malaysians.

The 1971 National Cultural Policy (NCP)[1]  has also been used to maintain exclusionist and hegemonic expressions of the Malay language and its purity.

The result of such policies and legislations can been seen in the fact that almost half – to be exact, 51-  Malay language-based arts and cultural-based productions, particularly in the forms of publication and translation became the victims of censorship. Here, the NCP, which emphasises Islam and Malay culture as the essential bases of ‘national culture’ plays a role in homogenising and further nationalising  Malaysian culture.

Figure 5: Violations by agent type, 2010 - 2022

Another dimension that is pertinent for us to discuss further are the roles of multiple agents that are fundamental in exercising censorship practices in Malaysia.

Most of censorship violations occur within the excessive and vague powers of different legislation which are concentrated, mainly with the state institutions and entities such as the Kementerian Dalam Negeri (KDN; the Home Minister), Lembaga Penapis Filem (LPF; Film Censorship Board), and the state-based religious institutions. It is quite clear from the acquired data, the power of the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and the Control of Imported Publications Act 1958 (Revised 1972), which are behind the high number of publications banned or censored during the period of research.

Alongside that, is the role of LPF, particularly through the utilisation of multiple Acts such as Film Censorship Act 2002 and the Film Censorship Guidelines 2010, in censoring films, which make up the 2nd most frequently targeted form in the period of research.

Here, it can be observed that both entities have been instrumental in controlling the dissemination of any arts and cultural productions, with the power to ban any materials considered a “threat to the security of the nation” (Tan Sooi Beng, 1989: 139). Not only that, the PPPA, with its vague and broad interpretations not only affects writers, publishers, and printers but also the readers themselves by criminalising the act of possessing any banned materials, as happened to Gerakbudaya, one of the most prominent publishers in Malaysia (2020).

Multiple cases of censorship process in Malaysia also illustrate the expanded role of the religious-based departments in influencing censorship practices in Malaysia. One case in point isDemi Tuhan Aku Bersaksi”, a telefilm produced by the national broadcaster, Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM). The film’s premise is rather simple: Shafie Naswip plays a mak nyah (transwoman) who enrolls in an Islamic boarding school (tahfiz) in order to become a better Muslim and return to the “right path” by rejecting the LGBTQI way of life.

Despite been passed by the Censorship Board, public pressure led to another layer of oversight and control, when the film was presented for approval to religious authorities such as the Islamic Development Department and religious experts. This case demonstrates a more active practice of censorship which surpasses the existing standard.

Figure 6: Response from creators / presenters, 2010 - 2022

Indeed, the responses from 79 creators/presenters when faced with violations of their artistic freedom in Malaysia can be rather bleak as they chose to comply. Having said that, it is also important to observe how a significant number of creators or presenters actively challenged or were defiant of these attacks on their artistic rights. Here, prominent authors, such as Zunar and Faisal Tehrani, as well as bookstores such as Gerakbudaya, are leading the fight to successfully file judicial reviews to contest state censorship.

Apart from that, it is also important to note that active negotiations are also being established with the censorship agents in order to achieve some sort of compromise. Ahmad Fuad Osman’s mid-career solo exhibition entitled At The End of the Day Even Art Is Not Important (2019) provided an interesting case study on how concerted and intense pressure, including a petition organised by the arts community, does have a positive effect.

Having said that, not all arts and cultural workers have the legal and financial support to challenge or be defiant. As we can observe, the push back by the arts and cultural communities remains a scattered effort and much of it relies on decentralised networks of art and cultural workers who challenge and negotiate with agents.

On that note, it is also important to highlight creative strategies utilised by those in the sectors. One notable example, a filmmaker, Lau Kek Huat decided to disseminate his documentary entitled “Absent Without Leave” (2017) via an online streaming website. He also release a film essay questioning the 27 different scenes form his feature film, Bouloumi (2020), banned  by the Film Censorship Board.  Apart from that, Freedom Film Network, through its online based film festival, Pesta Filem Tut (2021), also provides critical and creative avenues to upcoming, mostly young filmmakers in addressing the film censorship culture in Malaysia.

Way Forward

In conclusion, censorship practices in Malaysia, ranging from book confiscations to raiding of stand-up comedy clubs, raise significant concerns about the balance between freedom of expression and state interests. Within the realm of Malaysia’s censorship culture, it is important to observe how different regulations and legislations are socio-historically designed under the assumption that general audiences are unable to manage “sensitive contents”, or content that challenges prevailing norms, particularly in matters of morality and religiosity. Hence, the need for paternalistic governance in the form of intensive policing of arts and cultural production, which are laced with conservative orientations. As discussed briefly, such conservative elements can be observed through the expanded role of the state-non arts institutions, and also in the emerging interventions of the religious authorities.

However, this heavy-handed approach continues to face criticism for its disproportionate restrictions on political, religious, and moral issues which directly affect the freedom of expression in arts and cultural production. Here, there is a need to strike a balance between freedom of expression and societal interests. This is particularly important as we observe how the expansive internet usage, as well as the push for self-regulation continues to influence the way certain arts and culture continues to be produced and disseminated. On that note, there is a need to push for greater transparency and credibility in decentralising the decision-making process. Here, it is important to involve the grassroots, as well as arts and cultural workers in the sector, rather than for power to be concentrated only within the state-based organisations.

[1] In 1971, as a result of the  riots of 1969, a national level congress was called with the focus to establish and formulate the National Cultural Policy (NCP), based on the following principles where: 1) the national culture of Malaysia must be based on the cultures of the people indigenous to the region; 2) elements from other cultures which are suitable and reasonable may be incorporated into the national culture; and 3) Islam will be an important element in the national culture (KKBS 1973: vii).

All graphs and illustrations were created by illustrator, Jun Kit. To learn more about the SEA Arts Censorship Database Pilot, go here. To read about SEA censorship, go here.

About the author(s)

Zikri Rahman

Zikri Rahman has consistently embarked on collaborations with cultural activist groups in various socio-political projects. Buku Jalanan, a rhizomatic network of street library movement he co-founded, is a loose cultural and knowledge workers movement focusing on decentralizing the modes of knowledge production. He is also affiliated with Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, an independent archival research and documentation platform focusing on Malaysia and Singapore’s people’s history. With LiteraCity, he initiated a literary and cultural mapping project in the city of Kuala Lumpur. Zikri Rahman is also a writer, independent researcher, translator, and podcaster for various ephemeral platforms.

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