In 2014, Malaysia was ranked 147th in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. Publications and recently, online content, are regulated under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), which stipulates the following:
“If the Minister is satisfied that any publication contains any article, caricature, photograph, report, notes, writing, sound, music, statement or any other thing which is in any manner prejudicial to or likely to be prejudicial to public order, morality, security, or which is likely to alarm public opinion, or which is or is likely to be contrary to any law or is otherwise prejudicial to or is likely to be prejudicial to public interest or national interest, he may in his absolute discretion by order published in the Gazette prohibit, either absolutely or subject to such conditions as may be prescribed, the printing, importation, production, reproduction, publishing, sale, issue, circulation, distribution or possession of that publication and future publications of the publisher concerned.”
Malaysia has had a substantial history of censorship. 106 Malaysians were detained without trial by the Internal Security Act (ISA) during Operation Lalang in 1987: the second largest sweep in Malaysian history with the revoking of publishing licenses from publications such as The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh. More recently, the news site The Malaysian Insider had its access blocked due to its coverage on the 1Malaysia Development Bhd financial scandal (the site was shut down a month later). Furthermore, countless opposition party figures such as Teresa Kok, Ali Abd Jalil, Azmi Sharom and Khalid Abdul Samad have been charged under the Sedition Act.
This is not to say that Malaysian journalists, publishers and filmmakers have always toed the line and practiced self-censorship out of fear from the authorities. IGNITE has compiled a list of publications and media that have pushed the boundaries of freedom of speech in Malaysia in recent years:
1. Sepet (Yasmin Ahmad, 2004)
The core storyline of Sepet revolves around an interracial relationship between Jason or Ah Loong (Choo Seong Ng) and Orked (Sharifah Amani). Director Yasmin Ahmad explores racial stereotypes and social norms through Jason and Orked’s growing affection for each other. As their relationship progresses, they strive to achieve mutual respect and understanding, dispelling common prejudices and misunderstandings against their respective races. Jason and Orked’s budding romance exemplifies the universal nature of unconditional love, yet it is complicated by the societal concerns that surround the transgression of racial boundaries.
The release of Sepet evoked controversy as it challenged deep-rooted racial stereotypes and social norms of multiracial Malaysia. In an interview with Dr Tilman Baumgartel from the Southeast Asian Film Studies Institute, the late Yasmin Ahmad revealed that “objectionable scenes” from Sepet were censored by the Malaysian Censorship Board for “portraying the Malaysian family in a disgraceful way” before being deemed suitable for public release. The Malaysian Censorship Board disapproved of Ahmad’s use of scenes that openly depicted intimate physical interactions between Orked’s parents, played by Harith Iskander and Ida Nerina respectively, in addition to dialogue that portrayed the Malay community in a negative light. Nevertheless, Sepet proceeded to win awards in six categories at the 18th Malaysian Film Festival, Best Film in the Global Chinese Golden Arts Awards and many more.
2. Faisal Tehrani’s Karbala (2008)
Dr. Mohd Faizal Musa is a prominent author in the local Malaysian literary scene, not to mention also a controversial one. Better known as Faisal Tehrani, the Home Ministry has banned four of his books as of May 2015. Karbala was banned under The Publication Prohibition Order that was implemented only a month before its publication.
Less than 200 pages, Karbala is a short play that retells the Karbala Massacre, infamously known as one of the darkest moments in Islamic history, whereby Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein was martyred alongside all 72 members of his family including the women and children. A Malay theatrical spin to the Persian Passion Play Ta’ziyeh, it was banned due to Shiite elements within the publication that contradict the teachings of Sunni Islam. In fact, it is written in the form of Boria, a form of Malay theatre in Penang that has its roots from the Passion Play to commemorate the martyrs of Karbala during the mid-19th century, complete with choruses and dancing.
3. Apa Khabar Orang Kampung/Village People Radio Show (Amir Muhammad, 2007)
Not to be mistaken for the late Sudirman’s song of the same title (the song is used in the opening and closing credits, however), Apa Khabar Orang Kampung is a documentary that chronicles the recollections of the former members of the 10th Regiment, who are currently residing in a village in southern Thailand after retreating from political involvement. The 10th Regiment was a division of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), comprising of a majority of Malay-Muslim members. The interviewees, senior citizens who had experienced the Malayan colonial era first-hand, recount memoirs of a time of uncertainty and chaos.
In response to the title of the documentary, which literally translates into “How are the villagers doing?”, director Amir Muhammad captures the villagers’ current predicament in a postcolonial setting. They are depicted to be earning a modest living through rural economies. Apa Khabar Orang Kampung deviates from the conventional documentary format as its presentation resembles a radio show segment: the interview footage is interspersed with dialogue from a Thai radio soap opera as well as visual interruptions by unsettling images of static.
Apa Khabar Orang Kampung met a similar fate to its prequel The Last Communist (Amir Muhammad, 2006), which was banned shortly before its scheduled screening in 2006. Apa Khabar Orang Kampung was banned in 2007 from public screening in Malaysia by the Malaysian Censorship Board. The ban was attributed to the documentary’s allegedly pro-Communist intentions, citing reasons such as ennobling the Communist movement, historical misrepresentation, and imparting criticisms against the Malaysia monarchy, Government and the Malay community.
4. Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History (Chin Peng, 2003)
A prominently controversial figure in Malaysia with his name deeply etched in the pages of Malaysian history, Chin Peng was appointed as Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and was devoted to combating colonial forces to establish an independent communist state in the Malayan era. The role of MCP and the extent of its contribution to the independence of Malaya remain widely debated till this day.
Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History is Chin Peng’s memoir, detailing Malayan history from the perspective of the communist rebels. It offers insights into guerrilla warfare, the trials and tribulations involved in the communists’ struggle for independence as well as Malaya’s political and social landscape during the pre-Independence period and the Malayan Emergency. According to Malaysiakini, 17 copies of the memoir were confiscated in a raid by the Home Ministry at the MPH Bookstores outlet in Mid Valley Megamall, while an imported supply of the book arriving from Singapore was denied access into Malaysia at the Johor Customs Department (although the book’s manuscript was delivered to relevant authorities for review prior to publication). However, a ban has not been imposed on the book.
5. Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman’s …Dalam Botol (2011)
The film is a love story of Ruby/Rubidin (Arja Lee) and Ghaus (Wan Raja), both Muslim-Malay males, who are Malaysia’s first on-screen homosexual couple. Ghaus would come to express how “kalau kamu seorang perempuan semua senang” [if only you were a woman everything would be easier], in which Rubidin chooses to undergo a sex change but later finds out he has misinterpreted what his lover, Ghaus, actually wants. This film sheds light on transgenderism, homosexuality and definitions of masculinity within our Malaysian society that has sparked many reactions.
Some public figures, including the youth wing leader of the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), stated that is a “shocking” attempt to promote gay culture. Pang Khee Teik, co-founder of the ‘Seksualiti Merdeka’ and co-author of Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology, who has stated that “many of us Malaysian gays, lesbians and transgenders have absolutely no regrets being who we are,” was not entirely favourable towards the film either.
It is nonetheless a daring and honest attempt to portray the difficulties faced by any relationship – alongside the prejudice and uncertainty that many transgender individuals face, and is bound to tug at the heartstrings.
6. Amir Muhammad & Fahmi Reza’s Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things Vol.2 (2008)
With the first volume that was published in 2007, it is more than just a collection of quotes by our local politicians. Witty, entertaining and well-illustrated with photo-montages, it offers vignettes of Malaysia’s current political scene that leave readers wondering “did this politician really say that in front of the media?” (after a good laugh of course). Don’t worry if you aren’t well versed in the local politics – the book provides plenty of contextual information, making it an engaging and alternative introduction to Malaysia’s history and government. 3,000 copies were sold within the first three months of its publication.
7. The Sarawak Report
Clare Rewcastle-Brown, Sarawak-born investigative journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of Sarawak Report, was caught in the centre of the brewing 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy for reporting on questionable financial transactions, shady dealings and contractual agreements as well as suspicions of corruption surrounding 1MDB’s operations, with prime targets being Prime Minister Najib Razak and 1MDB CEO Arul Kanda Kandasamy.
Following the exposés, access to the Sarawak Report website had been blocked domestically by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) due to concerns that it “could create unrest and threatens national stability, public order and economic stability”. The MCMC had also requested online publication platform Medium to remove an article by Sarawak Report, an effort rendered futile as Medium refused to conform to the request.
According to The Star, Rewcastle-Brown’s investigations had led to an arrest warrant issued by Federal Criminal Investigation Department director Commissioner Datuk Seri Mohamad Salleh against her for “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy”, besides expressing intentions to “proceed with the applications to place her on the Aseanapol wanted list, as well as the Interpol red notice”. However, the appeal to Interpol was rejected.
8. Fahmi Reza’s 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (2007)
You may recognize the name Fahmi Reza due to recent events of the “Kita Semua Penghasut” [meaning “We are All Instigators”] controversy, where posters and stickers of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s face parodied as a clown is seen throughout social media and the nation.
An activist in his own right, he has also released a short 30 minute documentary titled “10 Years before Independence” on a largely forgotten aspect of Malaysia’s history of political opposition. Particularly, the “All Malaya Hartal” strike on 20th October 1947 which called for the voluntary shutdown of businesses, courts of law, schools and work places as a form of protest against the Federation Constitution drawn up by the British, Malayan aristocracy and UMNO. It was organized by the opposition party Putera-AMCJA who felt that the Federation Constitution was not egalitarian and neither in favour of the people of Malaya- most of all, the constitution still retained Malaysia as a British colony.
The documentary takes us to the beginnings and forgotten road to independence, an extension to what we’ve been told through our history books with Tunku Abdul Rahman shouting “Merdeka!” 7 times. With an upbeat punk soundtrack, we are offered a different perspective to Malaysia’s history that is well worth the watch.
9. Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology (Jerome Kugan & Pang Khee Teik (eds.), 2009)
Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology is a collection of original compositions that addresses a range of topics close to the heart of the Malaysian LGBT community, serving as a collective voice for individuals who are marginalised and repressed by society due to their sexual orientation. According to Matahari Books, the publisher of Body 2 Body, the anthology includes fiction and non-fiction entries that embody themes “[f]rom coming out to coming home, breaking up to breaking down, changing sex to changing heart, the stories are different from anything you may have read in – or about – Malaysia”.
In a nation without LGBT rights, activities in the Malaysian LGBT sphere are often subject to moral policing by religious authorities, thus relegating the LGBT community into further isolation and seclusion. With its unprecedented subject matter, Body 2 Body challenges social taboos and boundaries of acceptance. Fresh from its release, Body 2 Body was launched at the 2009 edition of Seksualiti Merdeka, a festival that aims to empower the Malaysian LGBT community and to raise awareness on sexuality rights, before it was banned in 2011 by the Royal Malaysian Police for inciting “public disorder”. The police ban was later upheld by a court ruling. Several copies of Body 2 Body were seized from Kinokuniya KLCC by the Home Ministry in 2010 to “undergo scrutiny” a year after its release.
10. Zunar’s Pirates of the Carry-BN
Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, who is better known by the name Zunar, has been making waves within the news at large. On one end of the world, he was awarded the “Courage In Editorial Cartooning” award by the Cartoonist Rights Network International, Washington while on this side of the world, he was charged with violation of Section 8(2) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act 1948, and Section 500 of the Penal Code. His assistants, publishers and bookstore vendors have also been arrested by the Home Ministry. He has been dubbed “The Most Seditious Man in Malaysia”, and is currently facing 9 charges of Sedition that leaves him facing up to 43 years in jail if found guilty.
Pirates of the Carry-BN is one of his latest works in response to the advent of the General Elections of 2013 stating that his purpose for this publication to be due to “after GE-13, people became despondent and many lost the will to fight back. I wanted to keep on going and pursue for what I believed in”. His cartoons hold bold statements in this compilation such as critiquing the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) for their lack of transparency, policies in regards to the Allah issue, how the GE was conducted and local political figures that are undoubtedly, filled with a sense of humour. Zunar’s cartoons embody ideas that are unrelenting and exceptional towards the current mainstream media and political scene. They are also unmistakably entertaining and stylistically Malaysian with local cultural representations and current issues reimagined analogously.
By Yvonne Tan Yit Fong and Choo Suet Fun
Header Image Source: mbaskool.com