‘Contrary to public interest’: Malaysia bans film showing Muslim exploring other religions

Minderjeet Kaur and Ili Shazwani
Kuala Lumpur
‘Contrary to public interest’:  Malaysia bans film showing Muslim exploring other religions People wait in line to get tickets at a movie theater in downtown Kuala Lumpur, March 14, 2012.
[Saeed Khan/AFP]

Malaysia’s government has banned a locally made feature film about a Muslim girl who explores other religions’ views on reincarnation after her mother dies, saying it runs “contrary to public interest.” 

The indie film “Mentega Terbang” had upset conservatives from the country’s Islamic majority who said it encouraged Muslims to desert their faith.

The ban comes on the heels of the government outlawing LGBT-themed Swatch wristwatches, two children’s books and a novel, also for allegedly being harmful to the multi-faith nation where Islam is the official religion and Muslims make up 70% of the population.

A gazetted notice from the Ministry of Home Affairs dated Sept. 1 stated that the minister had banned the film and related publicity materials under the Film Censorship Act 2002 (Act 620). 

“The [home] minister prohibits the exhibition, display, distribution, possession, circulation or sale of the film described in the Schedule which is contrary to public interest throughout Malaysia,” Saifuddin said.

Such bans and other instances of moral outrage and intolerance have raised concerns among many Malaysians about a rise in Islamic conservatism and disappointment at Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who has a reputation of being a progressive moderate.

BenarNews contacted the home ministry for an explanation on the ban but did not receive a response. 

Mentega Terbang, directed by Khairi Anwar, was released in 2021 and shown at limited screenings, but came to people’s attention in March when it debuted on a streaming service. 

That service soon took down the film as criticism against it became virulent and violent. Vandals damaged the cars of the director and one of the actors, and both received death threats. 

BenarNews called and left messages for the film’s director, Khairi, and producer Tan Men Kheng to ask their opinion on the ban but did not immediately hear back.

A poster of Malaysian director Khairi Anwar’s 2021 film “Mentega Terbang,” which the Southeast Asian nation has banned after conservative Muslims said it encouraged apostasy. [Photo courtesy Facebook @mentegaterbangmovie]

‘Government trying to get Malay voters?’

Art is used to explore and think about differences in society but for political ends that is the first field to be stifled, said Syahid Johan, an experienced independent film producer.

He believes the Anwar government has increased its scrutiny of people seen as liberal as well as  censorship of thought-provoking and controversial material in an attempt to appease the ethnic Malay majority, which is Muslim.

“Is the government trying to get Malay voters at the expense of those seen as liberal,” he told BenarNews.

Syahid said the growing restrictions underscored the broader struggle for free speech.

The opposition Malay-nationalist Perikatan Nasional coalition, which includes the hardline Islamic party PAS, portrays the Anwar government as anti-Islam and anti-Malay, and the ethnic Malay majority as a community under threat.

This strategy has reaped rich dividends for the coalition, especially PAS, in recent state elections and in the November 2022 general election. 

Analysts have said that with the elections over now and Anwar in control, he is now playing catch up to woo the Muslim majority.

This most recent ban was justified by the Film Directors Association of Malaysia and won the approval of the conservative NGO, Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (ISMA).

The government would not have banned the film Mentega Terbang had there not been a public outcry, suggesting that the government action may somehow have been driven by a desire to address public grievances, said Faisal Chal of the film association.

The ban should be supported by all Malaysian Muslims irrespective of their political leanings, said Muhammad Fauzi Asmuni, a senior consultant for ISMA. 

That’s because the film’s protagonist has critical questions about Islam’s religious practices, and these are “underlying messages on liberal ideologies in religious practices,” he said.

“Messages like this maybe can be filtered by the educated Muslims but for the general Muslims, these have the potential to be highly misleading and mislead youths and children,” he said in a statement.


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