The (Malaysian) government’s role in regulating the things (some) Malaysians consider to be fun has punctuated our country’s political life for decades. The first Prime Minister brushed off protests by students of Universiti Malaya over certain concerts in campus, but perhaps Malaysians of my generation will remember the controversy over Michael Jackson’s performance in 1996 being amusingly portrayed by cartoonist Dato’ Lat.
In the face of religious objections to Selena Gomez’s recent concert, the Selangor Menteri Besar bravely replied “sexiness is God’s creation and subjective, do not be over excited by it”. Prayers for her concert to be cancelled did not have the desired effect, but she dressed more modestly than usual, and 4,000 Selenators kept their hands to themselves.
Pokemon Go is the current target for calls for a ban. Apart from religious justifications, the mobile nature of the game has also led to arguments based on concerns about public safety and trespassing.
So far, only the Kedah fatwa committee has declared the game haram for Muslims, while the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has released safety guidelines. Earlier, the minister gave himself some wriggle room by saying: “Even though some countries may restrict it, we in Malaysia have not reached that stage.”
The same minister also stepped in to modify the awards for the upcoming Malaysian Film Festival so that the Best Picture category will no longer be segregated by language, which had been the case since 2011, though the awards have been running since 1980.
This year, two acclaimed films (Jagat and Ola Bola) were nominated in the Non-Bahasa Malaysia category, and actor Afdlin Shauki announced he would be boycotting the festival because of the segregation, asking “When will Malaysians, no matter the race, be truly recognised for their craft as Malaysian artwork?”
This move was publicly approved by Dato’ Seri Nazir Razak and Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, triggering viral support, but perhaps the most dramatic act was cinematographer Mohd Noor Kassim returning his two awards (won in 2009 for Setem and 2011 for Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa) to organiser National Film Development Corporation (Finas) Director-General in a garbage bag. “In film, the language of film is what’s important,” he said. Indeed, this week at the premiere of Temuan Takdir — a fully Malay film — its Malaysian multiracial credentials were rightfully highlighted.
While the minister’s intervention might be hailed as a progressive move as a result of listening to the people, we should question the very idea of politicians having such powers over culture in the first place.
There is a fine line between government being a facilitator and promoter of culture as defined by the people on the one hand, and of actually being the arbiter of what constitutes Malaysian culture on the other. (In pre-Merdeka times, some art forms certainly enjoyed royal patronage, yet folk art also prospered outside the palaces.)
The creation and appreciation of culture (including our enjoyment of non-Malaysian output) belongs to every citizen, not to politicians, yet during cultural controversies, agitators often cite the Federal Constitution, the National Culture Policy, Bangsa Malaysia, 1Malaysia and of course, their own religious beliefs to press the government to take their side and use the power of the State to enforce it.
However, another cultural controversy came and went without any political involvement last week when local television show MeleTOP parodied Yuna’s performance with Usher (of them singing “Crush” at the Roots Picnic music festival) featuring an actor in blackface.
The video was widely shared online, leading Yuna to post a forceful message asking those who found it funny to educate themselves on the practice now considered highly disrespectful in the United States. Here was an example of cultural sensitivity being developed not by political fiat, but by an appeal to history and education — and the show duly removed the video and issued a “sincere apology.”
Last weekend at KLPAC, I witnessed another precious cross-cultural phenomenon — Ahmad Yatim’s adaptation of Trisno Sumardjo’s translation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet directed by Dato’ Faridah Merican.
The fact that a play written in Tudor England can resonate with a Malaysian audience in our national language emphasises the universality of storytelling.
While there are brave pioneers in the arts world leading the way forward, the political world remains stuck in the past, or at best constrained by what apologists will call “political realities.”
Our country’s newest political party has an explicitly racial name and there are two classes of membership based on race. Our arts pioneers have shown with enough pressure, desegregation can occur.
It is up to voters to apply the same pressure in our politics towards towards the same objective.
* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of Ideas