3 interesting findings on Malaysian Arts Censorship

Arts Equator partners with Five Arts Centre publishes Southeast Asian Censorship Database funded by the Swedish Art Council


Censorship has been a bane in the artistic fields for such a long time, being one of the major problems for various artists. Banning an art piece can be seen as an attack on freedom of expression as it limits what an artist can say about certain topics. There are various causes for something to be banned be it moral policing, keeping public property safe and especially politics to name a few.

These cases happened quite frequently but there seems to be a lack in documentation regarding the issue. In order to combat that, Arts Equator in collaboration with Five Arts Centre has started a database on Southeast Asian Arts Censorship with three objectives in mind.

  • Centralizing information about attacks on freedom of expression of arts and culture in Southeast Asia, into a fully searchable database.
  • Identifying recurring patterns and common features in the ways that arts and culture are challenged or censored in Southeast Asia.
  • Producing visual data, articles, podcasts and other content which will be shared with artists, rights groups and the public.

They have been working with researchers from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam for the pilot. Encompassing the year 2010 to 2022, they manage to collect 677 cases all over Southeast Asia documented in a private access database.

From the data that they have collected, the researcher assigned to each country produced a report on their findings. Here are some of the interesting figures gathered from the Malaysian report which was produced by Muhammad Zikri bin Abdul Rahman.

1. Malaysia has the highest recorded violations compared to other Southeast Asian countries

With 245 recorded cases, Malaysia is in the lead for the highest recorded violations among Southeast Asian countries. This may seem bleak at the first glance, but according to Zikri this happens due to multiple organisations in Malaysia that documented censorship practices diligently compared to others.

2. 2017 recorded the highest number of recorded violations.

According to Zikri, it is important to take account the political development post-2008 Malaysian General Election when viewing the censorship practices between 2010 to 2018. This rings true as 2017 recorded the highest violation at 79 cases while in other years, it does not even breach 25 cases. All this happened one year before the 2018 General Election that topples the Barisan Nasional ruling and replaced with Pakatan Harapan. In contrast, 2018 only sees 8 cases of recorded violation.

3. Publication is the number one form with recorded violations.

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword as it can be seen that the majority of recorded violations in Malaysia is shown in publications with 95 cases. Most of the problems came from a religious point of view such as the case where 300 Malay-language Bibles were confiscated in 2014. Some of the notable individuals that face various types of banning are Zunar with his satire cartoon and Faisal Tehrani whose writings are not aligned with the teaching of the main religious schools of thought here.

All is not doom and gloom for freedom of expression in Malaysia as seen from the statistics, 2017 was a very special time for art censorship. The trend goes downwards in 2018 to as low as 8 and averaging at around 16 cases from 2019 to 2022.

Detailed reports of each case and country reports for every Southeast Asian country can be found on the Arts Equator website. The cases recorded is given detailed accounts of what happened to the artworks that has been censored. As this project was funded by the Swedish Art Council, the database is free for all on their website. It is still an ongoing research and people can also submit their own cases in the near future to help with the database.

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