- The George Town Festival, held on August 4 to September 2, is an annual celebration of “culture, heritage, art, and community” held in conjunction with Malaysia’s 61st year of independence.
- Portraits Of Pang Khee Teik and Nisha Ayub were ordered to be removed by Malaysian authorities for allegedly promoting the LGBT community.
At “Stripes and Strokes”, a recent photography exhibition held as part of the George Town Festival, the Minister for Islamic Affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa caused an uproar and a general explosion of interest amidst reports that he ordered the removal of two portraits for allegedly promoting the LGBT community/lifestyle.
On August 9th, former Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan expressed his disagreement with the decision in an interview with FreeMalaysiaToday. Activists Marina Mahathir and Siti Kasim have also ordered for the removal of their portraits from the exhibition in protest.
Ragunath also noted the Islamic Affairs Minister’s statement that the government would look to regulate the professional attire for women in the private sector. He argued that this did not run parallel to Transport Minister Anthony Loke’s previous statement that the government would leave this to the private sector while discussing uniforms of flight attendants.
“Two ministers are making contradicting statements. At least under Barisan Nasional, they consistently issued wrong statements.”
The Streisand Effect
Ultimately, many attempts at censorship and suppression invariably lead to something known simply as “The Streisand Effect”.
This phenomenon, rooted in the digital age of social media and social journalism, was given its catchy name after famed American singer/actress Barbara Streisand. She sued Kenneth Adelman, a photographer from the California Costal Records Project for allegedly capturing images of her house without her prior permission in 2003.
Her attempt to suppress those images backfired. In the ensuing legal battle, downloads of the images soared through the roof.
In Malaysia, the authorities have seemingly overlooked this effect with their recent decisions and apparent misalignment between Ministers’ Departments.
With the current conversation going on because of the censorship attempt, it can be argued the LGBT community and lifestyle have been brought further to the forefront and to public attention. There are conversations happening now that could not have happened without this removal.
The question is, is this merely a one-off affair when it comes to censorship in Malaysia, or has there been a common theme here?
Anti-Fake News Law And Censorship Pre-GE14
For a very simple example, think of what happened when the Home Ministry banned 50 Shades Of Grey. Malaysians who probably hadn’t even heard of the book suddenly realised that here’s something else they should download or look out for when overseas.
In April 2018, the Anti-Fake News Act was gazetted—a move that was criticised both locally and abroad as a politically motivated stifling mechanism for free speech in the lead up to the recently held general elections.
Among those dissenting was CNN:
“At the heart of the problem is a broad definition of what constitutes fake news and who an offender could be.”
Perhaps the freshest example of the Streisand Effect taking place in recent memory would be the allegations levelled at the previous government regarding censorship in the buildup to the recent general elections on the 9th of May.
The Investigative Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported that Malaysian journalists and independent media outlets had their licenses arbitrarily suspended for sharing criticism of the regime under former Prime Minister, Najib Razak.
However, the Barisan Nasional coalition failed to suppress relevant information from local sources as international media outlets and sources took notice—interest in the local elections, amid reports of alleged misdemeanours by the government, and notably Najib, took off.
This reached its climax when the Sarawak Report, a news portal run by Clare Rewcastle Brown, published an exposé on the Attorney General’s classified report on the 1MDB scandal. Despite access to the site being blocked by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), virtually everyone in Malaysia with access to a VPN, and everyone else overseas, had seen the 1MDB reports.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Following the victory by the Pakatan Harapan government, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission unblocked the site, among other censored sites.
Bringing Us Back To Today
“Since when did we discriminate against ordinary Malaysians reflecting on their patriotism? For it to happen in Penang is even more ridiculous.”
– Datuk Vinod Sekhar, Stripes and Strokes exhibition sponsor, reported by Malay Mail
The portraits concerned here, depicting Pang Khee Teik and Nisha Ayub holding a rainbow “pride” flag and a Malaysian flag respectively, were taken down for allegedly being against community values for “promoting” the LGBT community.
However, Nisha Ayub argued in a social media post that her portrait was merely one of expression of patriotism.
“They talk about rights as a citizen of Malaysia but yet they are denying people like me to even express our love to our own country. What is happening to our New Malaysia? Is that what we the marginalised community voted for? They talk about sensitivity of certain group[s] of people but what about sensitivity of others? Aren’t we a part of the system?”
Pang Khee Teik, editor of Queer Lapis, a portal catering to the LGBTIQ+ community, took a lighter view in his Facebook statement, expressing that the bigger concern for him was that the photo captured his “resting bitch face”, and at least his “rainbow is erect”.
“They can burn or throw away my picture but they cannot take my love to my country. I may be transgender, but I’m just a Malaysian [who] has family, friends, that always has hope for a more inclusive Malaysia.”
– Nisha Ayub
Feature Image Credit: Pang Khee Teik @ Facebook