Constraints on artistic expression multiply


As more and more incidents of censorship affect Malaysian society in general, confusion spreads about what the basic rationale actually is. The World of Art is of course strongly affected by this.

Ng Sek San's Malaysian Spring installation "terkongkong" (constricted) inside a room.

The latest blow to strike Malaysia’s art scene was the banning of J. Anu’s work, I For Idiot, from the M50 Selamat Hari Malaysia exhibition at Publika in Solaris Dutamas (August 27-September 17), a new haven for the arts in KL. It was from his dossier of 26 blocks featured in his Alphabet Soup book, Alphabet for the Middle-Aged Middle Classes, which was completed four years ago but released only recently in an exhibition cum launch at China House, Penang.

The “Idiot” is an indictment of former US President George W. Bush for what was later found to be a spurious campaign against the Weapons of Mass Destruction which Iraq purportedly wielded.

The work of art shows a chimpanzee riding a bicycle, a red-and-white striped flag with a Jolly Roger skull and cross-bones, a jet-fighter pilot and the words “Mission Accomplished” in the background, which were the words shown on a banner when Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.

What probably set some fuming was that Anu, a non-Muslim, had used the Bismillah refrain (In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful!) in his artwork, and perhaps presumably worse, the artist had reversed it and shown it as a mirror image. It hit a raw nerve, affecting some as a deliberate irritant in a rash of several other incidents touching on or related to Islam. Online, a debate raged over the need at all for Anu to marshal the Quranic refrain to the cause and on the reversing of the verses, which was seen as an attempt to insult the religion.

An installation at the walkway of a shopping mall.

Anu’s statement to the police, who questioned him under Section 298 of the Penal Code after a police report was made on August 28 by an Islamic NGO called Muafakat, clarified that “the Quranic verse was used to represent the Iraqis, and the reversal of it was to depict the situation in the world today. It was done with the best of intentions, to depict that moment inside when everything seemed upside down and inside out. It was not to insult or belittle the faith.”

However, the real target of the authorities could have been architect Ng Sek San’s Malaysian Spring installation, which was adopted by the opposition as its rallying cry for freedom in the latest 13th General Election. The National Visual Arts Gallery had rejected it from its main sanctioned exhibition, and it was to be shown at Publika. It was eventually shunted and “boxed up” in the Art Row section of the shopping and entertainment complex without even a label of the title or of the author.

This and the initial advisory by the Penang state government not to screen Tanda Putera – a controversial take on the so-called perpetrators of the May 13, 1969 riots – put the issue of creative licence on a hot boil.

This led the Centre for Independent Journalism to make some posturing noises. Already, much antagonism has been raised over religion of late. The Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia (Jakim) demanded for metal band Lamb of God to be banned from performing here “because its songs featured a mixture of rock and Quranic verses.” Jakim succeeded, and the performance was called off. On the other hand, fans of Metallica breathed a huge sigh of relief when the band was allowed to perform on stage unfettered. Sometimes, there’s no telling why a permit is denied – take for example, the MERdeKAny KITA play by Teater Kami Ltd slated at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (Dpac) for August 29-30.

Stephen Menon's screenprint works of Tunku Abdul Rahman.

The heightened mobilisation of Muslim consciousness started from the Islamisation policy in the civil service and in the education system in 1984, when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed was Prime Minister. Since then,among others, the screening of the film Fantasia was banned in 1991 because of “un-Islamic elements,” homophobia reigned with calls to ban concerts by Elton John and Adam Lambert, the organisers of the Pussycat Dolls concert were fined for “flouting decency laws” and acts such as Beyonce were pressured to comply with directives to avoid showing too much skin during performances.

Traditions were not spared. In PAS-led Kelantan, its cultural heritage and mainstays of wayang kulit, Makyong, Menora and Main Petri were banned.

Censorship is a recurrent issue in the print media, with daily newspapers being the most vulnerable. Apart from “no cleavages” and “no revelation of genitalia and pubic hair” standard guidelines, there are also grey areas, some tied to context or prevailing conditions. For instance, Islamic calligraphy is allowed to be published for its sheer beauty, but a newspaper editor decreed that it should never be printed as the sacred text could be accidentally stepped upon when reused as wrappers.

Erykah Badu’s concert in 2012 was cancelled because The Star inadvertently published a picture of the American R&B singer with tattoos bearing the inscription “Allah” on her body. The temporary body art was meant for a photo-shoot referencing the “The Painted Lady,” a character from the 1973 surrealist movie, The Holy Mountain, by Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Kelvin Chap's Explorers (acrylic on canvas).

In 2006, government mouthpiece New Straits Times got into trouble for republishing a cartoon by Non-Sequitur creator Wiley Miller lampooning the furore over an earlier offensive cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad which was published in a Danish newspaper. New Straits Times got off the hook when then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi stepped into the picture to diffuse the situation.

In the 2013 World Press Freedom Index tabulated by Reporters Without Borders, Malaysia has degenerated to its worst ranking of 145th out of 179 countries. This occurred despite the government announcing in July 2012 that it was scrapping with immediate effect the need for newspapers to annually renew their printing press licences and publication permits. Still, the Printing Presses and Publications Act (1984) looms like a sword of Damocles as a reminder for prudent self-censorship. The spectre of Operation Lalang in 1987 (which saw the closure of publications such as The Star, Watan and Sin Chew Jit Poh) is always present.

Singaporean poet-playwright Alfian Sa’at had weighed in on the issue gently: “If one looks to religion to answer many of life’s questions, then one should also expect religion to be able to answer those who challenge, doubt, even ‘insult’ it. And the answer doesn’t lie in persecuting the unbelievers and sceptics and ‘blasphemers’... the word of God does need people who can exemplify its message of forgiveness and compassion.”

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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