The Universe of Censorship

Film censorship in Malaysia is not simply conducted by the Film Censorship Board (LPF), the legally assigned body that issues the Censorship Certificate for film and television content. Instead, there is a matrix of state institutions and other internal factors that work to influence and shape content and the work of its creators.

LPF

01 What does the law say?

Film Censorship Act 2002 (FCA) states that ALL films, motion pictures and moving images meant for public viewing need to be reviewed before they are screened. This includes trailers and advertisements.

The mere possession, distribution, exhibition of a film without the proper licenses is a criminal offence. The penalty is a fine of between RM5,000 – RM30,000 and/or imprisonment for a maximum term of 3 years.

This “pre-approval” process is not required of other media such as films on the internet, print, visual and performing arts.

Screening of No Fire Zone by Lena Hendry, Pusat KOMAS

In September 2017, human rights activist Lena Hendry was found guilty under the Film Censorship Act and sentenced to a fine of RM10,000 or a year in prison for screening “No Fire Zone” in a private event at the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall.

This documentary has been credited for playing a key role in convincing the United Nations to launch an investigation into the alleged war crimes that took place in Sri Lanka.

Member of Parilament for Ipoh Barat M. Kula Segaran said: 

“The conviction of Lena Hendry does not make sense in a world of information where atrocities in any part of the world can be instantly accessed through various media outlets or mobile phone.

“Citizens around the world have access to all kinds of media that would make censorship of reality and truth, foolish and incomprehensible.

“The pertinent fact is, Hendry does not own the documentary. Therefore the charges do not hold under Section 6 of the Film Censorship Act, unless the Government is going act against all citizens who have documentaries that show atrocities around the world, in their mobile phones, that can be easily disseminated.

“The documentary was screened only to “selective audiences”, and as such the government should respect the rights of its citizens to be in “solidarity with oppressed communities”.

“I believe Lena Hendry would not have been charged by an archaic law such as the Film Censorship Act if she had screened the atrocities committed by the Israelis in Palestine.” (Free Malaysia Today)

Case Study: No Fire Zone Case Study: No Fire Zone

02 Who reviews my film?

The Film Censorship Board (LPF) is the executive body that approves, censors and classifies films and is placed under the Home Ministry which administers matters of internal security.

The Minister has complete power to direct, exempt, prohibit and regulate films.

The members of the LPF and the Film Appeals Committee are appointed by the Minister.

There is no requirement that the LPF must include representatives from different sectors of the film industry or from civil society. In fact, it appears to be a long standing practice to appoint retired public servants to the LPF.

03 How do they assess my film?

The LPF’s guidelines contains an extensive list of content that will be reviewed.

Objectionable content that are consistently censored are violence, sexual content, certain representations of Islam and authority.

Sexual content is censored, not just for nudity and depictions of sexual activity, but also forms deemed ‘immoral’ such as infidelity, youth sexuality, pre-marital sex, as well as ‘deviant’ sexualities such as homosexuality.

Representations of Islam and Islamic practice that do not conform to the government’s interpretation of Islam are censored.

Content challenging or critical of authorities such as state agencies and officials, and the police come under additional scrutiny and censorship.

The LPF is not legally obliged to engage with or consult filmmakers for their input when it conducts the censorship review and classification processes.

In order to avoid the risk of being censored, filmmakers are encouraged to approach the LPF to vet their scripts and to seek advice on certain possible contentious scenes.

04 What happens after the LPF reviews the film?

The submitted material is reviewed by a minimum of three members of the LPF who will provide one of three decisions – Lulus Bersih (LB); Lulus Dengan Pengubahan (LDP); Tidak Diluluskan Untuk Tayangan (TUT)), AND a classification – U, P13, 18.

The films go through a form of “double censorship” whereby a film is cut for contentious content and then age rated. A film that is classified suitable for adults 18 and above is still subject to cuts.

The LPF report will dictate exactly what visuals and or audio elements have to be omitted from a film. The applicant must make the required changes and then re-submit it for approval.

Once the film is approved and payment made, a certificate is issued. This certificate is required by cinemas to book a screening slot, by broadcasters to include the content in their schedules, or to sell physical media.

If the filmmaker is unhappy with the decision of the LPF, a formal appeal can be lodged within 30 days, to the Film Appeal Committee (JKRF).

The FCA prohibits any decision of the LPF, JKRF or Home Minister, from being challenged in court.

When an applicant wants to appeal their Lembaga Penapisan Filem decision, the appeal goes to the Jawatankuasa Rayuan Filem for consideration.

film appeals committee

The JKRF is a committee independent of the LPF and has “the authorisation to approve, alter or object the LPF’s decision”.

While the JKRF may be independent of the LPF, they are not independent of the government and of the interests of state agencies as most of their members are active civil servants and appointed by relevant ministers.

Beauty and The Beast, 2017

The LPF had approved the film but required it to make three scene cuts and mute one sentence of dialogue as these elements “promoted a gay lifestyle”.

After an application by the distributor to the JKRF, the committee reversed the LPF’s decision and approved the film with no cuts and gave it a PG 13 classification. The JKRF said it found the “film’s gay elements are light and do not jeopardise the positive elements featured in the film.”

Case Study: Beauty and the Beast Case Study: Beauty and the Beast

Federal ministers

Since the LPF is an agency under the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Minister is able to make executive decisions to override the LPF.

Ministerial power over film is not limited to the Minister of Home Affairs. The Minister of Communication and Multimedia whose portfolio includes both FINAS and other communications media platforms (e.g. radio and broadcast television) also intervenes in cases of creative content.

Therefore LPF cannot be said to be an independent body as its decisions can always be overruled by an elected political figure.

The Home Minister’s decision is final and cannot be challenged in court.

When LPF questions about a scene, the filmmaker can always respond. As long as a good explanation is provided, the LPF will allow it. But it’s their bosses or superiors that are the problem. LPF is not an independent body but is answerable to the government.

Film director, Aziz M Osman

For me, if the movie promotes communism and causes racial misunderstandings, we will not hesitate to stop its screening. I have directed FINAS to relook at the film to see if there are issues which could bring undesirable consequences. We will not hesitate to take appropriate action.

Former Communications and Multimedia Minister, Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek

Lelaki Komunis Terahkir, 2006

This documentary-musical traces the life and travels of Chin Peng, the leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), through the towns and states in which he had been active.

It had been initially approved with no cuts by the LPF. But this decision was overturned by then Home Minister Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad following a campaign in a Bahasa Malaysia daily to ban the film. The campaign accused the film of promoting “communist ideology” and was insulting to the memories of the police personnel killed by the MCP. This is even after the film's director Amir Muhammad had a special screening for police officers of the Special Branch who later had no objections to the film.

Case study: Lelaki Komunis Terakhir Case study: Lelaki Komunis Terakhir

PDRM

While the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) may advise on procedural and operational matters to ensure accuracy, their focus is on depictions that potentially represent the police force negatively such as corrupt officers, bribery, and abuse of power. They want to avoid negative depictions and portrayals of the police force, and to enforce the message that “crime does not pay” by showing proper legal closure.

If you were to make a film that has the Malaysian police force in it or military, we have to send our script to Bukit Aman first and they will censor it before the censorship board censors it. So, they will have to approve the film and check whether you're making fun of the police force or not. Whether they are doing things properly or not. If you're giving them a bad name, you can’t (make your film).

Film director, Liew Seng Tat

When it comes to uniform bodies, no matter what, the LPF cannot say yes or no until the police say yes or no. So that's what happened with (the film) 'Motif'. Once we had a letter from PDRM that says that everything's fine with this film, the LPF doesn't even bother to call the police into our censorship review.

film producer, Mo Bahir

One-Two Jaga, 2018

One-Two Jaga or Crossroads: One-Two Jaga is a tale of undocumented migrants in Malaysia who struggle to make enough money to return home to Indonesia. Besides having to scrape a meagre living at the bottom rungs of society, the protagonists have to deal with corrupt cops and a labour system that refuses to give them rights.

The film was originally conceived in 2014 and released to Malaysian audiences in September 2018. According to interviews conducted by Dr Thomas Barker in his study on censorship, the producers had lengthy negotiations with the Malaysian police due to its portrayal of police officers in the film. In discussions before production began, the police rejected two versions of the script because it contained cops accepting bribes. The police only gave the green light after producers agreed to ensure that the corrupt characters were arrested for their crimes.

 

Case study: One Two Jaga Case study: One Two Jaga

Jakim

The Federal Islamic Authority (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, JAKIM) are referred to where Islam and Islamic teachings and practices are portrayed in film. They also vet content that comes under the purview of ‘religion’ such as the supernatural.

The religious authorities are represented on the LPF review board as specialists on Islamic matters.

Earlier, JAKIM did not sit on the censorship board. But after there were several cases involving religion, where people complained or wrote in and said there were elements that insulted Islam in so-and-so film, only then did JAKIM join the board.

Fiilm director, Nam Ron

When the filem (Munafik) was reviewed by the LPF, they referred to JAKIM as they were worried that some elements touched on religious sensitivities ... But I still had solid reasons for including those elements which I felt did not stray from mainstream (teachings of Islam). In fact, I had already sought a lot of views from religious experts and these elements were in holy texts and the hadith (sayings of the Prophet).

Film Director, Syamsul Yusof

I had to meet with JAKIM, and the Mufti to get their approval to use this title (Jalan Sesat ke Syurga) before we even started shooting the film. We met with JAKIM and the Mufti’s office to get their approval and for them to understand what we wanted to create. For example, my story was about a group that was involved in deviant teachings. So the visuals we wanted to shoot, the dialogue we wanted to use, had to be presented to JAKIM first before we could start shooting.

Film director, OSman ali

If I wanted to tell a story that dealt heavily with religious matters, I would have to consult JAKIM and get it approved.

Film producer, Mo Bahir

investors

Producers and investors are generally reluctant to fund or sponsor content that is risky, unconventional, or likely to encounter censure from LPF or other government agencies.

I'm not going to make a film that has a high risk of getting banned. If we are spending a million and a half ringgit on it, I have to be responsible to the investors. So, I will not do that. But of course, we will push the envelope (when it comes to restricted content).

Film director, Woo Ming Jin

Normally, it is the producer who will self-censor. You are worried that if you allow your director to do what she wants, it gets cut out in the end. It will waste a lot of money and time. 'This part is sensitive, should we push it? Shall we double shoot just to be safe? Just in case the censors reject it, so we have an alternative? So you have all these things in your head as a producer.

Film producer, Haris Sulong

It's the big corporations. Astro, Media Prima, that have their licenses at stake. Nobody wants to take that kind of risk.

film producer, Lina Tan

It's often not really 'what is sensitive' per se. It's more like what people perceive what the market is. They think that the market doesn't accept this or that. That's a more powerful deterrent than censorship. I think the market is a bigger deterrent or, push or motivator, than censorship.

film producer, Amir Muhammad

the public

Public complaints can provoke state actions including retrospective censorship and banning.

When I was doing stuff for RTM they’re always like, “yeah, we're okay, but we have to make sure that no one, writes in and complains about (content). We need to look after our own interests. That seems to be a common theme. In a sense, even from RTM's internal censors and also the Film Censorship Board. They will always say things like, “yeah, we understand where you're coming from, but in order to avoid any misconceptions or any complaints we have to look after our interests.

film producer, Shamyl Othman

It comes to a point where we are not following what the censorship board wants but we are more worried about what Netizens say on social media. So this just increases the number of ‘censors’ in Malaysia.

film producer, Osman Ali

Polis Evo 2, 2018

This police action movie was approved for screening by the LPF but some conservative religious figures accused it of giving a negative image to Islam. This is because the main villain in the movie appears to a religious extremist.
The film’s producers then got the help of the Federal Territories Mufti Datuk Seri Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri to counter these accusations.

After watching the film, Zulkifil came out with a statement that the film did not insult Islam. He also praised the film for giving a positive portrayal of a Muslim woman who is a senior police officer in charge of high profile mission.

 

Case study: Polis Evo 2 Case study: Polis Evo 2

self-censorship

One of the more insidious and pervasive forms of self-censorship is the internalisation of LPF rules and sanitising content to pre-empt LPF decisions.

In the content creators mind, there is the ‘voice’ of the LPF that asks “okay, will they cut this out or where will they cut?

Film producer, Haris Sulong

There are invisible lines. We have to be more cautious when we cover this or that. We have to apply for these permits and then we cannot cover so-and-so issue openly.

film producer, Jules Ong

We are always thinking : this content can pass censorship. This content we cannot show.

film producer, Shamyl Othman

As Malaysians, whether you're making a film or you're creating other things, you should know in this country what you can (or cannot) do, where the lines are (that can't be crossed). The rest falls in the grey zone. There's always a gamble, whether a certain content passes or not. Whether it passes or not depends on who's on the board. Who is censoring the film, who has stronger opinions on certain things. So, the outcome can sometimes be surprising. Sometimes you can predict them. But the grey zone is where a filmmaker will have the most fun.

film director, Liew Seng Tat

Weaknesses of Malaysia's film censorship system.

Proses Kelulusan Yang Tidak Wajar

Semua jenis filem untuk tayangan awam wajib mendapat kelulusan kerajaan sebelum ditayangkan di dalam pawagam dan TV.

Hukuman Yang Tidak Munasabah

Kegagalan mematuhi sistem penapisan haruslah dikenakan tindakan pentadbiran dan bukan hukuman jenayah.

Badan yang tidak sesuai

Penapisan filem dikawal oleh Kementerian Dalam Negeri yang sebenarnya bertanggungjawab terhadap keselamatan, bukan seni dan kandungan kreatif.

Tiada wakil industri

Suara industri filem tidak diwakili di dalam keputusan penapisan filem.

Garis Panduan Yang Lemah

Garis panduan penapisan filem mengandungi sekatan yang tidak jelas dan memberi terlalu banyak budi bicara kepada penapis.

Penapisan Berganda

Filem ditapis dan pada masa yang sama, diklasifikasi – satu proses yang tidak munasabah.