Of Participatory Censorship in Malaysia

Zikri Rahman examines the evolving nature of censorship in Malaysia through the lens of participatory censorship, with illustrations by Low Pey Sien.

While documenting hundreds of different cases of arts and cultural censorship in Malaysia occurring between 2010 – 2020 for an ArtsEquator project, two cases stood out to me as worthy of being highlighted when it comes to tracing the dynamics of censorship in the country. First, a telefilm produced by a Malaysian state-based broadcast company which was passed by the censorship board, yet drew public ire. The second is the case of a Twitter user who was arrested for allegedly reposting racially charged TikTok videos, which he did in an attempt to get such videos taken down.  

What do both these incidents of censorship have in common? They both gather force as one complaint trickles down and leads to another and then another.

I would like to link these to the idea of “participatory censorship”, derived from a recent paper by Zhifan Luoa and Muyang Li titled Participatory Censorship: How Online Fandom Community Facilitates Authoritarian Rule. The paper specifically looks at non-political social media users who delve into danmei, China’s subcultural internet fiction focusing on homosexual romances, and traces how the development of censorship is not necessarily “a top-down process but also collective and participatory work”. It further highlights how netizens contribute to censorship and ultimately, control dissemination and information in the media.

So in the Malaysian context, what exactly does “participatory censorship” constitute, and how is it being practiced?

Though we could argue over how vague or petty the public’s complaints can sometimes be, it does show how practices of censorship continue to evolve in the region. Censorship has been utilised as a suppressive method where multiple intertwined factors come together.  In practice, censorship usually takes place if powerful organisations and/or prominent people come together to mitigate, control, and suppress information, either through repressive legislation or physical coercion. Or worse, both.

But as censorship – which is ultimately intertwined with the notion of power – evolves, we can also observe how it manifests differently. With the ongoing democratisation that occurs through the introduction of multiple social media platforms, what can we observe about the role of the citizen in contributing to acts of censorship? How do citizens participate in and interact with amplifying and embedding the cultural and political values imposed by the authorities?

Expanding on the practices of “participatory censorship” discussed by Luoa and Li, I am fascinated (and terrified!) to observe its parallel within the context of censorship in Malaysia.

Of accusatory reporting and collective censorship

One of the elements of “participatory censorship” according to Luoa and Li, is the utilisation of the practice of accusatory reporting, which usually relies on “private actors, which can be an individual or organization, to inform the authority of the harmful information and misconduct they have encountered”, particularly “of inappropriate language or content from another private actor or in a cultural product”.

 What is pertinent for us to observe is how the initial practice of accusatory reporting then results in the possibility of more intrusive censorship and surveillance methodologies by the state. As highlighted in the paper, it is a well-known fact that though many regimes utilise a manual process in filtering online content, it is impractical and inefficient given the resources it takes. Hence, the development of accusatory reporting directly illustrates how “ordinary users participate in censorship and surveillance” and ultimately, end up easing and facilitating how the possible “authoritarian control penetrates society in the absence of the state”.

Such intertwined factors, from the so-called “good intentions” (which itself is highly subjective and value-laden) of a collective act of censorship by members of the public, to how swift the authorities are in seizing the possibilities to broaden their own power of censorship, need to be continuously and meticulously observed. This is particularly worrying when every member of society is simultaneously exposed to the risk of being censored.

A case in point is Demi Tuhan Aku Bersaksi, a telefilm produced by the national broadcaster, Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), which sparked controversy when the trailer was posted online in August of 2019.      

Based on a true story, the film follows a conventional narrative that emphasises the poetic justice of repentance. 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. This repent and redemption trope adheres technically to existing censorship regulations, and indeed, the film was passed for screening officially by the Censorship Board.  

But it seems like the repentance portrayed in the film itself was no longer sufficient, at least for some parties.

What then contributed to the controversy around Demi Tuhan Aku Bersaksi? According to a report by Freedom Film Network (FFN) entitled Censorship and its Impact on the Screen Industries in Malaysia, in the trailer for the film, Shafie’s character appears to “membelakangi seorang lelaki” (offer his bottom to another man), leading to accusations that the film contained “songsang” (gay) content. The circulated image then sparked a series of protests by various Islamic organisations, in the form of joint statements, an online petition, and a demand to delay the screening.

The representation, or rather the existence of the mak nyah community in Malaysia’s popular arts and culture is itself facing the politics of erasure, as a result of growing religious conservatism. This, in turn, leads to a more active practice of censorship which surpasses the existing standard. 

 What transpired in response to these protests by non-state actors is chilling. Those who were against the telefilm demanded that in addition to the Censorship Board, the film be screened and approved by parties such as the Islamic Development Department and religious experts. Effectively, these organisations were attempting to impose another layer of controls, and empowering new gatekeepers – religious authorities –  to monitor artistic content.  

Faced with mounting controversy, the producer was forced to seek the support of religious authorities, including the then Federal Territories Mufti, Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri. It was only after this group voiced its support for the film that it was finally released, after almost a year’s delay, in October 2020.      

Two things can be observed from this brouhaha. Firstly, how certain controversial topics, even when produced within such a regulated and controlled framework, by a state agent, e.g. the national broadcaster, still faces the uncertainty of censorship. It seems that what was once “acceptable” will never be enough in the emerging and collective practices of censorship, particularly within highly contested political and cultural spaces in society. To a certain extent, it is a matter of artists and creatives having to take chances and test the waters – how far do you want to go?

Secondly, such “uncertainty” about the neverending demands of censorship continues to influence how the process can possibly be negotiated and manifested. It is important to note that as early as 2018, a call was spearheaded by Malaysia’s Islamic Religious Development Department for future film productions to consult with and “seek guidance” from them when producing anything with “sensitive content”. As we see with the case of Demi Tuhan Aku Bersaksi, within months of this call by religious authorities, non-state actors were able to force a new gatekeeper, albeit unofficially, into the monitoring of artistic content process.

From censoring to being censored

There are multiple cases of accusatory reporting involving the public in relation to arts and culture in Malaysia. Two recent examples are the outcry surrounding the feature film Mentega Terbang, which was taken down from a streaming platform recently, and the 2023 horror film Pulau, which faced public backlash and government scrutiny based on just the trailer, even before it was screened nationwide.

The case of @bumilangit however illustrates another feature of participatory censorship raised in Luo and Li’s paper  – the phenomena of voluntary actors who participate in acts of censure, and are themselves simultaneously subject to being censored. In other words, actors are objects and subjects to censorship at the same time.

On the eve of Malaysia’s 15th general elections in 2022, @bumilangit, a social commentator and content creator, uploaded a series of videos intended to encourage netizens to mass report provocative content posted by other content creators on TikTok  that evoked the contentious 13 May 1969 racial riots. However, in the immediate aftermath of the elections, the authorities instead remanded and investigated him under the Sedition Act 1948 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. He was released two days later but the contentious content was still making its rounds on social media, particularly on TikTok.

What unfolds through this series of events involving @bumilangit here is interesting for us to ponder upon. While his attempts to report misinformation related to the inflammatory contents are commendable, it also resulted in him being the target of the undemocratic utilisation of law itself – an instance of the sort of participatory censorship Luoa and Li highlighted, where private actors who attempt to get removed, are simultaneously the targets of being censored as well.

On the collective imaginary of censorship

Extending the discussion further based on the elements of participatory censorship, both authors highlight how the notion of “uncertainty” continues to influence censorship practices in China. They point out how, while certain themes, ranging “from violence, ethnic conflicts, sympathetic depiction of ‘bad guys’, or reincarnation and superstition” face censorship from time to time, the curious case of danmei – community-based internet fiction which features romantic relationships between male characters, typically created by and aimed at a heterosexual female audience – provides an interesting case study. Though homosexuality is not explicitly banned in China, it remains a sensitive topic when it is disseminated publicly. As such, danmei as a genre is treading a thin line in influencing how censorship works in China and is perceived collectively by the community. Such an awareness and perception of what potentially could be censored or not, also continues to contribute to how censorship works in Malaysia, as we have seen from the two cases discussed here. By treading such uncertain lines of what is allowed, censorship is then internalised by those working in the art and cultural industries.

 A rather important question to ask is, what forms of collective imaginaries then manifest in the process of censorship, or perhaps worse, self-censorship, within these communities? How do we imagine certain things or topics might be potentially censored here in Malaysia?

The example of Demi Tuhan indicates that public pronouncements by gatekeepers and those in power can activate non-state agents into acts of censorship. Does, for example, the recent statement by Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s current Prime Minister on how the government will “never recognise secularism, communism, LGBT,” carry any weight in shaping the collective imaginary on how things can possibly be censored in the near future, upon an already beleaguered community?

This examination of participatory censorship within the Malaysian context, highlighted through the two incidents discussed above, depicts how the dynamics of censorship continue to evolve. It is no longer happening just top-down; rather, it has been “democratised” and “contested” by diverse political entities.  In doing so, the act of censorship has become more uncertain, but also, for the state, more efficient, as it now can depend on different players to impose its agenda.

This content is produced as part of a project to research and document arts and culture censorship in Southeast Asia, organised by ArtsEquator. For other articles in this project, click 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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top