In one of his several electoral promises, caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob recently announced that the long-standing problem of royalties for people working in the film industry would be reviewed if his party is voted into power.
Actors, producers, directors and other workers indeed deserve royalties to be paid to them for their dedication and skill working in an industry that, according to the Statistics Department, contributed 1.9% or RM29.4bn to the gross domestic product (GDP) and generated 216,811 job opportunities in 2019.
But money alone obviously is not sufficient to promote and sustain a supposedly thriving entertainment industry in which boundless imagination and creativity are, or should be, the primary driving force.
In this regard, freedom of expression is of the utmost importance and necessity so that a conducive environment could enable content creators to produce creative products of high quality and become the envy of others outside the country.
It is here that Ismail Sabri should have offered an equally attractive incentive to the film industry. The government needs to loosen its long-held grip on the industry as well as other areas of the arts, particularly in terms of censorship.
This is because film censorship in Malaysia is intricate, multi-layered and, to some extent, counterproductive to ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking that are crucial to such an industry.
To be sure, the censorship process in this country involves more than just dealing with the Film Censorship Board, which is an executive agency under the Ministry of Home Affairs.
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There are four main aspects of censorship that guide the board – security and public order, religion, socio-culture, and decorum and morality.
As shown by a recent study commissioned by the Freedom Film Network, content creators will also have to be subjected to the scrutiny of Jakim (Islamic Development Department, Malaysia), the police, federal ministers and the film appeals committee – many of which are increasingly engaged in forms of pre-censorship, including script consultation and approval, and content clearance.
The role of these agencies may well have the effect of making filmmakers feel like they are walking on eggshells, spawning an unhealthy culture of self-censorship and dampening the spirit of inventiveness.
Such forms of unpredictability in the filmmaking process does not end here. Content creators are also confronted with the demands of market forces as well as public feedback that at times could take the form of loud protests to the extent that the authorities may have to review and withdraw their earlier permission.
The Freedom Film Network report recommends that, among other things, the film fraternity should have a bigger voice pertaining to public debate on the industry, the censorship board should be more transparent and transformed into a classification agency only; and the board should be taken out of the Ministry of Home Affairs and perhaps be parked under the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.
Unless reforms are instituted in the industry, content creators would still be riddled with uncertainty and associated challenges.
Worse, there would still be cases of failed production that serve as a grim reminder of caution for producers and investors.
One example of such a case is the 2013 action-comedy film Banglasia by actor-director Namewee, which parodies racism in Malaysia and features a corrupt politician and his wife who looked like former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s wife Rosmah Mansor.
The censorship board demanded a large number of cuts after the film was submitted for scrutiny, but Namewee refused to adhere to the demand, resulting in the film not being permitted for commercial screening.
Predictably, the film producer, his company and investors lost a huge sum of money. It was subsequently released only after Pakatan Harapan came into power in 2018.
The diversity of our society provides a rich source of materials for local content creators to use for their creative endeavours. It is, however, unfortunate that such creative juices could be held back by political and ideological challenges in this site of struggle called film.
It is no surprise then that a number of indie films that creatively interrogated problems faced by ethnic minorities, class conflicts and cultural tensions won international recognition and awards only after they were screened overseas and bypassed local censorship.
Such films are not only meant to entertain but also to help the audience understand and appreciate certain problems faced by our society, without having them swept under the proverbial carpet. The audience does not need to be dumbed down, either.
A good future for the local film industry need not necessarily hinge only on getting its well-earned royalties. – The Malaysian Insight
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