Malaysia’s new censorship guidelines restrict content even more, filmmakers say

The rules shut down discussion by prohibiting the questioning of “cultural values,” rights activists say.
Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia’s new censorship guidelines restrict content even more, filmmakers say A still from the Malay language feature film “Tiger Stripes,” written and directed by Amanda Nell Eu, which won the best feature in 2023 at Cannes Critics Week.
[Courtesy Akanga Film Asia]

Malaysia on Monday unveiled what critics said were tighter rules on content that local filmmakers can show in their movies, making it clear that the Film Censorship Board would not brook subjects that upset the religious and cultural sensitivities of some people.

That means Malaysian films that include discussions on racial tensions, or questions about religious practices, or LGBTQ characters, may see bits chopped off, or not see the light of day at all.

Rights activists and democracy watchers had expected the opposite from Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who had promised an expansion of freedoms, but seems to be pandering to religious conservatives in the Muslim country to expand his voter base, critics say.

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail on Monday claimed that in recent years there had been “an increase in films entering the Malaysian market that contain elements contrary to the beliefs and norms of Malaysian society.”

These elements included “LGBTQ themes, communism, Islamophobia, pluralism, and content conflicting with Islamic beliefs,” Saifuddin said in a speech while announcing the new guidelines in the administrative capital, Putrajaya.

“These films are subject to scrutiny and, if deemed excessive, may not be approved for screening.”

“[F]ilm content must not incite racial issues, political tension, misunderstandings and confusion about religion,” says the new Film Censorship Guidelines booklet, according to state news agency Bernama. 

“Furthermore, film content must not depict wild, unprincipled, deviant lifestyles that contradict cultural values and could harm the moral values of society.”

The guidelines currently don’t cover material distributed through streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+, Hulu or other platforms, Saifuddin said. 

“In this process, the guidelines have certainly been improved from the previous ones,” he said, referring to 2010 rules.

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail gestures during a speech announcing new censorship guidelines for films at the Marriott Hotel in Putrajaya, May 20, 2024. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Filmmakers and academics said the new regulations curtail freedom of expression even more than the earlier rules.  The censor board (LPF), they said, already bans domestic and international movies containing a mere whiff of moral turpitude, a hammer-and-sickle sign in the background, or a gay character in one scene. 

“Why is it an improvement? Because it will be stricter and clearer on what sort of topics filmmakers and creators can never ever discuss or depict in their own works?” Edmund Yeo, a Malaysian film director and screenwriter, told BenarNews.

“With these clear restrictions in place, can we even have a fair and nuanced discussion or depiction of topics that can promote discourse and discussion among the audience, or create awareness of the country’s shortcomings via cinema?”

Meanwhile, Gaik Cheng Khoo, from the University of Nottingham Malaysia, noted that despite the minister's assurance that filmmakers would have freedom, the guidelines would suspend their freedom of expression and artistic license. 

“Rather than exercise such authoritarian regulations that pander to conservative thinking, the government should use its existing laws – and there are more than enough – to protect filmmakers from those attacks, as seen with what has happened with ‘Mentega Terbang’,” Gaik, an associate professor specializing in Malaysian cinema, told BenarNews.

“I’m disappointed because this government has not shown any kind of progressive move to protect democracy, artists, and filmmakers.”

‘Graveyard of cinema’

Malaysia made headlines in January when the country charged the director and producer of a now-banned feature film, “Mentega Terbang,” making them the first filmmakers in the country to face criminal prosecution. The film depicted a Muslim girl exploring other faiths.

Criticism against “Mentega Terbang” had become hateful and violent, with the director and the actor receiving death threats and the former’s car being vandalized.  

Directed by Khairi Anwar, the film was released in 2021 and shown at limited screenings, but came to people’s attention in March 2023 when it debuted on a streaming service.

Malaysia is a “country where movies go to die," wrote American film critic Nathan Williams in a piece in June last year on

“Malaysia is a beautiful, exciting tropical paradise. Sadly, it's also the graveyard of cinema,” he wrote.

“Pick a film, and there is likely some unacceptable facet [the censors will find].”

Last year, the censor board was vilified for having removed “the very essence” of Malaysian film, “Tiger Stripes,” for the domestic audience, its writer and director Amanda Nell Eu told The Guardian. The film won the best feature at Cannes Critics Week in 2023.

What did Malaysian authorities cut from “Tiger Stripes?” 

Several sections, “including a scene showing blood on a period pad, a girl trying on her friend’s bra over her uniform as they mess around in the school toilets, and Zaffan [the lead actress] doing a joyous TikTok dance in a waterfall, her hair flowing,” The Guardian said in its November 2023 article. 

BenarNews called the Film Censorship Board to get more details about the new rules as well as to confirm what scenes were cut from “Tiger Stripes,” but did not hear back.


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