Intellectual embargos and absolute censorship are far less effective than literate intellectualism and sound moral logic in keeping society on a level course, observes Syerleena Abdul Rashid.
Every now and then, Malaysian government (or the state) propagates moral crusades against obscene literature, offensive material and anything considered a threat to Malaysian way of life.
It is not uncommon when the powers that be go all the way to ban books and movies. They may even go as far as censoring ‘sensitive’ words like beer, Allah, drugs and any human reproductive part.
This is nothing but a form of escapism, an easy way out that the government adapts when dealing with anything complex or subjective. It can potentially be a deceptive system to command and force down moral standards accredited by the ruling elite (or coalition).
In general, the rulers of the state (the authorities) consider themselves the custodians of virtue. There is an unmistaken sense of self-righteousness to suppress any ‘threats’ that may influence or weaken their support. Again, the Malaysian government has systematically eliminated all things considered haram, immoral or politically sensitive – even if such material may have scientific evidence or can be proven to be historically accurate.
How effective is censoring literature or articles, where one can obtain an uncensored copy through the Internet?
And how can Malaysians deal with this form of ‘bluenose’ tyranny namely selective censorship?
Where do we draw the line between artistic freedom and public offence?
How do we define what is morally and culturally acceptable without being smothered by the authorities?
The controversy of censorship and debates over freedom of speech are not recent phenomena. Issues surrounding the ethics of censorship go back to the earliest times and continue to surface to this day. For instance, Plato once famously banished all poets and writers in Greece – simply because he thought of the harmful influences they would have in his ideal republic. To him, the arts, in his society at least, should subscribe to his brand of moral and political acquiescence. As a result, Plato single-handedly subjected them to absolute government control.
Such matters are sometimes difficult to justify and quite delicate to mention, as it revolves around matters that affect public morality. It is a form of public control, dictated by the authorities that may or may not have vested interests when implementing such policies.
In Malaysia, the unfortunate conundrum of Lena Hendry of Komas who is still waiting for trial, scheduled for the end of next month, has been the highlight of such unnerving hypocrisy. Her only ‘crime’ was to publicly screen No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, a movie which our government felt could damage our country’s political ties with Sri Lanka.
But the reported atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government are no secret and are well publicised at the international level. A simple Internet search will present you with a cornucopia of information on any desired topic.
Also, the demolition of Candi 11 at Bujang Valley exhibits a disregard towards historically accurate account that unmasks the true origins of a pre-Umno, pro-Hindu sovereign state. The fact that the government chose not to give much publicity to the excavations of the past is a sure tell-tale sign of the contempt our government has for anything that can destroy the propaganda it uses to lull many gullible citizens.
At the opposite end of the spectrum lies a position that insists on the importance of unfettered freedom of the arts and the ultimate, freedom of expression. John Milton, an advocate of such a concept urged us to reconnect with literate intellectualism and strong acts of faith that exist in human nature. The two elements are emotionally robust and less corruptible than Plato’s view of censorship. According to Milton, individuals should be armed with sound moral education and a basic understanding of human psychology, to be able to interpret both good and evil. It is through this that a person will be able to choose the good.
The notion of censorship is the adaptation of both the above ideas by borrowing something from both. It argues that the government should not determine what material, art or literature should be subjected to censorship. It loosely promotes the idea of permitting society some form of control over the government, for example – this is the middle ground adopted by developed nations.
Freedom of expression and other artistic activities can be viewed as a form of contribution or a form of slander to human welfare. In other words, it can and does have an effect on a community, society and ultimately, a country; therefore, there should be at least some form of minimal control. In a way, censorship is viewed as a way to protect the adolescent, the emotionally unbalanced and the foolishly gullible from those who may seek profit from obscene industries and twisted ideologies – such as pornography, neo-fascist movements and religious extremism.
Although, it is evident that the Malaysian government takes on a position which advocates total political control over the media and the arts, there are some local groups that lobby for a more middle-ground approach to censorship.
Recently, the Home Ministry announced the ban of 12 books – literature by authors who pose ‘great danger’ to our homogenous brand of Islam. In a just world, the government would be required to give valid reasons why they’ve decided to impose such a move.
Alas, Malaysians are taught never to question the motives of our leaders , as questioning is a form of dissent and that could result in a person being branded an enemy of the state. This, in turn, could affect any bank loan or student loan applications made in the future.
Nevertheless, every once in awhile we hear of the underdogs like Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, the Border’s manager who fought back and held on to her principles by challenging the government’s ban on Irshad Manji’s book, “Allah, Liberty and Love”.
In this era of modern globalisation, with the rise of internet-savvy communities and the popularity of social media, we should realise that intellectual embargos and absolute censorship are far less effective than literate intellectualism and sound moral logic.
It is only through a complete understanding of our human motives and consequences that evil may bring that the virtue of morality will be sounder and society will be incapable of being led astray.
The human nature is, after all, less fragile than what the government wants you to believe.