Black Labels, Bleeps and Bans in Malaysia

Censorship in Malaysia stirred up another big controversy earlier this year with a ban close to being slapped on the movie, Beauty and the Beast due to the presence of a homosexual character. Although waves of relief rippled through the many whimsical fans of the tale as old as time, the conflict surrounding censorship in this conservative nation has been nothing but relentless.

The country’s problems always seem to stem from two things. The party polarization, steeped in the historical racial animosity and religion. Censorship is no different; placing black labels, bleeps and bans have been put in place to fit this narrative since the beginning.

Starting with Operation Lalang in 1987 where the government did a major crackdown on any organisation it deems a threat of creating racial tension arresting 106 people;  politicians and NGO activists plus a smattering of students, intellectuals, scientists and the like. The Star, Sin Chew and Watan were suspended and had their publishing permits revoked. Watan, the smallest of the three publications, could not survive the suspension and closed down its newspaper.

Malaysia has continued with this wave of censorship with their latest law, The Sedition Act. This  law bans any act, speech or publication that brings contempt against the government or their nine royal sultans. It also prohibits people from inciting hatred between different races and religions, or questioning the special position of the ethnic Malay majority and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak.

What is agreed upon within the logic of the current ruling party in government is that they are trying to protect the status quo in their country, its single-party state with respect to the Malay race. However, this idea also comes with the degradation of the human right to freedom of speech. Amnesty International calls it an “outdated and repressive piece of legislation.”

The narrative that they are trying to protect status quo is further fortified when acknowledging that the reason Beauty and the Beast was almost banned was due to the presence of outright homosexuality in the movie. Due to the religious authorities, it was close to being assessed as an offence on the Islamic faith.

Nobody can deny that protecting the peace in any country is one of the most important steps to a nation their citizens can be proud of. However, in the developing world that we live in where one has to be open to everything to be able gain any value, is censorship such a good idea? This is especially because the nation itself is small. It has to be reliant on other nations for its continued growth. Even the Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed in The Malay Mail said, “Too much censorship of movies involving sensitivities on religion, violence and sex would make Malaysians a narrow-minded lot.”

Malaysia has made leaps and bounds into becoming one of the most successful Southeast Asian nations since World War II. It still has difficulties however shedding off its historic roots of racial tension and religion. Maybe a balance needs to be struck between the the ideas of freedom of speech and the unity that should be strived for. Maybe the government is right.