Conservatively speaking freely, 24 March 2017

Come 30 March Malaysians will no longer have to cross into Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia or even Brunei – one complex in Bandar Seri Begawan has eighteen shows a day according to its website – to legally watch Beauty and the Beast.  I am looking forward to it, though (as with any remake) I am concerned that it will not live up to my expectations.  I might even be offended by certain scenes or characters.  That is a risk I am willing to take by choosing to watch it.

This saga of a four-minute cut being requested by the Film Censorship Board, Disney not acceding and pulling the film as a result, and then somebody bending unexpectedly, resulting in a reversal – has called into question the specific role of the censorship board and the wider role of the government in preventing Malaysians from accessing or consuming the products they wish to.

Members of the government seem divided on the issue.  The Minister of Tourism and Culture criticised the Censorship Board for the cut, calling it “ridiculous” and pointing out that there are homosexual people in the world and other movies depicting illegal acts like murder are not banned.  After Power Rangers was rumoured to be board’s next target, he said “we have never appointed the Censorship Board to be our moral guardian in such matters”.  But the board is indeed a creature of the government, though its website intriguingly declares: “All qualified Malaysian citizens are invited to apply as a member of the Film Censorship Board of the Ministry of Home Affairs.”  By contrast, the Deputy Minister for Home Affairs lamented the reversal, suggesting that it creates the perception that the government bows to the commercial interests of Western films.

Similar pressures can be seen in many areas where government ministries decide that certain things are harmful to Malaysians, resulting in an utterly contradictory picture.  For example, while subsidies for sugar and petrol were removed for economic efficiency, a sugar tax was recently mooted on health grounds.  More wide-ranging are the Price Control and Anti-Profiteering Regulations 2016, which penalise businesses for making “unreasonably high profits” according to a complex formula determined by the government.  This will be particularly damaging to small businesses, and we should heed the lessons from the recent, disastrous, Venezuelan experience of price controls.

When it comes to tobacco, cigarette taxes have already been hiked in recent years on health grounds and last year the Ministry of Health mooted plans for plain packaging, before delaying that move for consultations.  This was one of the contentious issues of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another initiative that some in government loved and others hated.

This multitude of contradictory viewpoints – all simultaneously justified as being in the best interests of the rakyat, of course – results partly from a lack of joined-up government, with different ministries having different leaders and Little Napoleons, different patron-client relationships and incentives, and different resulting winners and losers.

This situation is amplified when there is no consistent attitude towards individual freedom from the top.  In some cases, the government argues that citizens should be free to make decisions that affect their lives, while in others the government adopts a more authoritarian view.  It is the same in the opposition, where those who think individuals should have freedom of choice sit alongside those who think that authority knows best.  It is another consequence of our political system in which electoral outcomes are based on appeals to groups (typically defined in racial or religious terms), instead of ideological considerations of the role of government and its relationship with citizens.

Our current Prime Minister did once say “the days of government knows best are over”, but a more consistent articulator of freedom was our first Prime Minister, who argued for “no restriction as to how one should live, eat or drink so long as one respects law and order,” and lamented that “in the old days people never bothered about what others did, so long as they were free to do that they liked themselves.  Today one cannot sneeze without being corrected, let alone enjoy oneself.  That’s what politics has done to our society.”

In Malaysia today there are too many people who wish to control what others do with their lives, even if those actions don’t affect them one iota.  Perhaps they are too literally inspired by that melodic interaction between Gaston and Lefou in the 1991 Beauty and the Beast: “Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking” / “A dangerous pastime” / “I know”.

As for the as yet unexplained reversal of the cut, perhaps both the censorship board and Disney realised that in Malaysia, movie piracy is a tale as old as time.

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