Microsoft word - perth building a new malaysian national cinema.doc
BUILDING A NEW MALAYSIAN NATIONAL CINEMA Gregory Wee Lik Hoo Swinburne University of Technology (Sarawak Campus) Abstract
The emergence of a new independent group of filmmakers led by Amir Muhammad,
James Lee, Ho Yuhang and Yasmin Ahmad has brought a new cinema to Malaysia.
Their films have won much accolades in the international arena but at home, they face
difficulties in getting government support through funding and faces problems with
censorship. This paper will look at these problems and discuss data extracted from in-
depth interviews with Malaysian filmmakers. It will also look at how these new films
are affecting the existing notions of what constitutes Malaysian cinema, and the new
challenges that the existing film and funding policies face in building a ‘new’ national
Gregory Wee is a new full-time lecturer with the School of IT and Multimedia,
Swinburne University of Technology (Sarawak Campus).
Previously, he was attached to the Cinematography Program, Faculty of Applied and
Creative Arts, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. He joined UNIMAS in 1995 and
obtained his MA in Film from Northwestern University in Illinois, USA in 1997.
In UNIMAS, he served as Head/Coordinator of Cinematography Program from 1997-
2003. In 2002, he organized the Sarawak Millennium Film Festival which was a
platform for the new wave filmmaking community to discuss their common problems
and to showcase their work from South East Asia.
Currently, Gregory is doing his research and PhD in film funding in the context of
Introduction The history of Malaysian cinema has always been a history of Malay films, either
produced by the Shaw Brothers’ Studios during the Golden Era until the 70s, or by the
Malay independent producers in the 3 decades that followed1. The stories have always
been Malay-centric, in the Malay language, using Malay actors and directors,
produced for the predominantly Malay audience. Lacking alternatives, audiences from
the Indian and Chinese ethnicities would watch Bollywood, Hollywood and Hong
Kong films which appeals more to their sensibilities.
Despite being a multicultural country, the Malaysian government, power and politics
is in the hands of the Malay majority (over 50% of total population). Islam, the Malay
language, culture and their Bumiputera (Sons of the Soil) status are therefore
protected as part of their special rights and to qualify them for government assistance.
Other indigenous groups such as Orang Asli from West Malaysia, and Ibans,
Kadazans, etc. from East Malaysia have also been technically inducted into this
category as non-Malay Bumiputeras. However, their culture and language do not play
as large a role as the Malay counterpart. As for the Chinese and Indians, they still hold
strongly to their rights to education in their own languages, and their beliefs.2
Malay films have always been the sole representation of Malaysian cinema in the
absence of films from the other ethnicities. Malay films in the Malay language have
been taken as Filem Kita, Wajah Kita (literally translated as Our films, Our Faces).
Thus a film with a proper story, with Malay actors speaking in the Malay language
would fulfill the construct of a Malaysian film or more precisely, filem Melayu.
The terms filem Melayu and sinema Melayu have always been widely used as opposed
to Malaysian films or Malaysian cinema. However, in the context of a multicultural
nation, the use of these terms seem to suggest a sense of territorial claim and
ownership which is still pervasively entrenched in the mindsets of the Malays, the
‘primary’ race.3 This will become problematic for the new wave of independent
filmmakers at the turn of the new millennium.
In addition to that, the film and funding policies of the old millennium which
supported commercial filmmaking have become obsolete as it now needs to address
A Brief History of Malaysian Cinema
Malaysian films are generally Malay-centric, in Malay language, with Malay
characters and narratives, and patronised by Malay audiences. Chinese and Indian
audiences largely watch Hong Kong and Hollywood films. This has been the case
ever since the independent era in the 1970s when filmmaking fell from the already
defunct Shaw Brothers’ control into the hands of Malay filmmakers who started their
careers with Shaw like P. Ramlee, Aziz Satar and Jins Shamsuddin who continued
with the melodramatic and comedic traditions of the Golden Era.
The 1980s brought about a new era of state support with the establishment of FINAS
to regulate and assist the film industry. Notable films of that era include Jins
Shamsuddin’s Bukit Kepong (1982), Rahim Razali’s Matinya Seorang Patriot (1983)
and Othman Hafsham’s Mekanik (1984), although not as successful as the slapstick
comedies by Aziz Satar and A.R. Badul. This dual stream of serious films and
commercial comedies continue to pervade the industry throughout the 1990s.
Adman Salleh, Mahadi J. Murat, Suhaimi Baba and Erma Fatimah made films with a
“profound understanding of the tensions, frustrations and idiosyncrasies that lie
beneath the surface of Malay society” (Hassan Muthalib, 2005)4. Of all these
directors, only Suhaimi Baba has been able to traverse between art and commerce
This era also witnessed the first RM6 million blockbuster hit Sembilu II (1995), a feat
unbroken to this day. By simply rehashing old formulas of the bygone era, Yusof
Haslam manages to churn out hit films with predictable plots, love tragedies, big
bikes and popular singers as actors. All of his films are highly popular but are panned
Another consistent and commercially successful director worth noting is Aziz M.
Osman who has been able to strike a balance between popularity and respect for his
films. His films communicate well, with sensitive characterisations and have more
well developed narratives - something which is generally lacking in Malay films.
The 1990s also saw the birth of a new kind of art cinema, one which was capable of
attracting international attention and funding. U-Wei Haji Saari continues to make his
own kind of alternative cinema which dares to defy social norms and thus courting
controversy in almost all his films. In 1995, his film Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist, 1993)
was screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. He continues to receive international
The Emergence of a New Problem: The New Independent Cinema
In Malaysia as in other parts of Southeast Asia, the new millennium is marked by the
digital technology revolution which has changed the face of communication, lifestyle,
business and entertainment. Visual communication has become more convenient as
the graphical interfaces and digital content become more easily accessible through the
internet, mobile phones and today, the ipods. The new generation of youths are tech-
savvy and they speak in new languages of video games, ICQ, SMS and MTV. Digital
video cameras, animation, graphic and editing softwares become more commonplace,
user-friendly and affordable. The mushrooming of multimedia courses are also
equipping the younger generation with a new set of language and skills. Now it seems
Ideologically, a new generation of young Malaysians, who has been schooled and
taught with the concept of muhibbah (goodwill) and Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian
Race), has come of age. This new generation is a product of the ex-Prime Minister
Mahathir’s vision for a united, multicultural identity mainly consisting of the Malay,
Chinese and Indian ethnicities. Thus exists an awareness of multiculturism in every
aspect of Malaysian life, governance and politics. On the contrary, Malaysian politics
remain a politics of segregated race and religion.
This fixation on multi-culturism and race, together with the ease of filmmaking,
resulted in the proliferation of independently made films5 which carried either
optimistic multi-cultured films such as in the films of Yasmin Ahmad and Teck Tan,
or ethno-centric disaffection such as James Lee, Ho Yuhang and Deepak Kumaran
Menon’s. Williamson (2005) insinuates that the common theme of alienation and
disaffection as a result of marginalisation in Malaysia runs in all the Chinese-centric
At this point in time, a new problem starts to surface. In the past, Malaysian cinema
had always been Malay films only. How does one define a Malaysian cinema now?
For pragmatic reasons, this definition is important as it qualifies a film to be eligible
for state support in terms of loans, schemes and other assistance6. Films in any other
language other than the official language of Bahasa Melayu is not considered a
Malaysian film, and cannot qualify for the Skim Wajib Tayang (Compulsory
Screening Scheme) and the Entertainment Tax Returns. However, even more
importantly, a redefinition of Malaysian cinema to include locally made films in other
languages would mean a change in the existing mindset to accommodate more openly
for the ‘other’. The question is, is Malaysia ready for the ‘other’?
Ramani (2005) implies that some quarters feel that the ‘national’ representation is
threatened by the ‘heterogeneity and hybridisation of the nation portrayed in films.’ A
series of recent events illustrates this discomfort.
On April 23, 2006 Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) broadcasted a live forum
programme called Fenomena Seni (Art Phenomena) which discussed two of Yasmin
Ahmad’s films Sepet & Gubra. The forum was entitled ‘Sepet and Gubra –
Corruptors of Malay Culture’ and hostile comments came from two of the guests (a
film producer and an assistant entertainment editor of a local Malay daily) towards
certain scenes portrayed in the films as unrealistic, unnecessary and corruptible to
Malay culture7. Part of their disagreements were directed towards the taboo
relationship between the Malay female character (Orked) and a Chinese boy (Jason)
in the film. At the end of the forum, the Malay producer claimed that “Malaysia
belonged to the Malays. That's why it was called Tanah Melayu before.”8
This discomfort was again expressed in almost similar tone towards the film Gubra
and the director Yasmin Ahmad by a few academicians in a discussion forum held by
a public university in Malaysia later in the same year.9
Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet (2005)10 and Teck Tan’s Spinning Gasing (2002) explicitly
addressed issues of race, culture and religion by exploring the inter-racial
relationships between its main characters of different racial backgrounds. Thus the
films used different ethnic languages such as Malay, Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin
and English to correctly capture a slice of real Malaysian life as opposed to a glossed-
over version favoured by certain bureaucrats.
The situations that Yasmin puts her characters into, and the questions that arises from
those situations seem to create a sense of insecurity in the social, cultural and political
contruct of Malayness. When Sepet and Gubra went on to win the Best Film Category
in the 18th and 19th Malaysian Film Festival, there was dissent amongst individuals
from the film community and the Malay press about the eligibility of her film to
qualify for the awards, and that her film was not Malaysian.
In a separate case, James Lee and Ho Yuhang’s application for funds to transfer their
digital video to film format in order to participate in an international film festival was
partially rejected, ‘on the ground that the quality is bad, because it’s a video.
Second[ly] because there’s no muhibbah element of multi-cultural in the film. [The
film is] all about Chinese. So [the application] was rejected based on that.”
Gaik (2005) summarises the reason for this situation very well:
Film Funding in Malaysia The Malaysian national budget for 2007, which was announced in September this
year, includes a proposal for a Creative Industry Development Fund with an initial
allocation of RM100 million. The fund will be used ‘to promote the private sector’s
involvement’ in the film industry and to encourage research in media content and
creative arts. Another RM685 million will be allocated for the development and
management of arts, cultural and heritage activities11.
The allocation of this substantial amount of funding is very encouraging for the local
film industry which has not been growing for decades. It indicates that the
government, through the efforts of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage,
understands the importance of cultural arts and the potential of creative content in
creating a burgeoning media industry. Since the 1970s, the national feature film
output has always stayed below 20-25 films per year12. Last year was considered a
relatively successful year with 20 films being released. Even so, this still places
Malaysia behind most of its Southeast Asian neighbours like Thailand and the
As with its other counterparts, Malaysia faces intense competition from Hollywood
and Hong Kong films at the local box-office. The film business is shunned as a high-
risk investment industry which lacks the appeal found in other larger film industries
such as Bollywood or Hollywood, therefore failing to attract corporate investments
The Skim Wajib Tayang (Compulsory Screening Scheme)13 implemented by the
National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) guarantees screenings for all
Malaysian films for a minimum duration of one week. However, in most cases, the
films themselves do not seem to attract enough audiences.
Producers and filmmakers in Malaysia have very limited access to film funding as
commercial banks do not fund films. In Malaysia, there is only one bank that offers a
special package for funding film production – Bank Pembangunan (The National
In the recent years, the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage initiated a new RM50
million fund to be administered by Bank Pembangunan. The previous fund initiated in
1996 has been more for TV production where a contract offer from the national
broadcaster RTM will guarantee payment back to the bank. Now, the new revolving
fund works the same way for film. The collateral is now an agreement from theatrical
distributors to screen the film at hand, and from other channels like VCD distribution
and television stations. The new fund has extended loans for television production to
feature film. However, these funds tend to be favourable towards experienced
producers with good commercial track records14.
The Other Problem: An Industry of Ambiguity and Uncertainty
Filmmakers like Amir Muhammad, James Lee and Ho Yuhang started their own
small, independently financed digital films without license, shooting permits nor state
support. Their experiences with state funding and the censorship board15 has left them
exasperated as guidelines are vague and subjective, standards are volatile and
Of late, Amir Muhammad’s battle with the authorities concerning the censorship of
his film The Last Communist (2006) clearly illustrates an ambiguity and uncertainty
that permeates Malaysian cinema. The Last Communist was screened for and
approved by the censorship board. However, because of an article16 in a Malay press
which ignorantly charges the film to be glamourising the communists, pressure was
mounted and finally the censorship board retracted the approval.
In addition to that, the processing of funding applications are inefficient, slow, not
transparent, unprofessional and unfriendly.
The following is an experience shared by one of the new independent filmmakers
when applying for a travel grant. The viewpoints expressed by the filmmaker typifies
the usual negative perspectives one has on the available funding process and its
“I never approach [the agency] for funding but I look at their criteria, and forms and
bad things about it. But I think [it’s] not that encouraging and even when we apply
for travel funds, it’s quite a hassle. You have to go there….like nowhere. Buy 5
forms and then you have to call them every time to update you… their agency service
film makers same thing like we are beggars and I found it not very healthy … I would
try not to apply anything … because of the amount, hassle and all this. People who
work [there don’t] really know what they doing. I mean like, it takes four months to
actually process the travel grant of $2000 and at the end it’s rejected. It’s … not
progressive in term of time. Let’s say I’m doing business but for business deal with
2k, [taking] 4 months, we are losing a lot of time and money. So they are not effective. If they were business, they bankrupt long time ago. So… that’s what I think
of [the agency] at the moment. I only apply when it’s really necessary…”
Another filmmaker gave the following comments when asked what can help improve
“I think greater efficiency and transparency, that’s all. Everything just falling into
two concepts. It’s no point creating a lot of rules and if people who are in charge
know what the rules are, [the filmmakers will be] more interested, more motivated [to
apply]. Look at the way the Singapore film commission does things. It’s very
efficient. And even at the website you can apply. And they tell you no matter what the
application is, in four weeks you will know the answer and whether you are eligible
for this type of funding. And [for] each type of funding, what’s the ceiling you can
ask for, and what you have to apply instead. You go there and [they will] give you a
sitting . And then they will call you and you have to comeback [a] few more [times].
So it’s [more of a matter of] professionalism . I think. So not more rules, definitely
not. But just people who know how the system work.
The same filmmaker continues to suggest a possible solution:
“I think it will be the mixture of different types of funding. You need grants which
means no profit. I mean money just given with no possibility of financial return. But
the return is inskills training and in exposure. You need that. And you also need
the loans through the bigger films which have higher chances of getting their money
back. And because a lot of money is made from foreign films [through taxes] and so
that over the years made a huge amount of money made from foreign films. And it’s
appropriate to use that to channel that back into local films. Which is being done in
Korea and. Canada, Australia … That’s how they kick startedtheir film industry. It
not taking money out of nowhere, taking money out of money that was made from
The selected comments17 presented here enable us to catch a glimpse of the problems
faced by these young filmmakers. They are by no means exhaustive. The comments
represent their limited personal perspectives which are validated by their own
personal experiences. However, they help raise our attention to the important
questions and concerns at the very least.
The new Malaysian cinema needs the support of an effective system of funding and
grants that do not only assist commercial films but also allow young filmmakers to
explore new themes and content, and these will indirectly become training
opportunities for them to polish their production skills. These funds and grants should
be made easily accessible to them through procedures which are more efficient,
Nevertheless, these problems have prompted the Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister
Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim to put pressure on the Censorship Board to take a softer
stance as it was “killing the local film industry”, and has announced plans for the
revamping of FINAS into a more efficient and transparent agency by “stepping up its
activities to be more market-driven, more approachable and proactive.”18
Disaffected and alienated for now, these young filmmakers have since focused on
international festivals, winning much recognition and awards. In the meantime, their
films are being funded by European grants from Hubert Bals Foundation(Rotterdam)
and Jan Vrjiman Fund (Amsterdam), while we sort things out in Malaysia on who,
The Final Problem: Malay or Malaysian Cinema?
As discussed earlier, the emergence of the new independent cinema raises questions
on what constitutes Malaysian cinema. Malaysian cinema has always been
synonymous with Malay films19 which have sometimes been taken to uphold the
sovereignty of the Malay race, language and culture.
The emergence of the new films which focused on the ‘other’ than the Malays seem
to throw the status quo into imbalance. The simple definition of national cinema
before has now become complicated. Immediately, this creates problems as the new
cinema of cultural diversity can no longer fit into this narrow perception of national
Films are a reflection of culture, and in Malaysia it is one which is diverse. A true
Malaysian picture can only be described when the other ethnic races are represented.
This does not mean that every film made must have representations of this diversity.
Instead, it means that every componential ethnic group should be allowed to express
its own culture that contributes to the total whole of the meaning of being Malaysian.
The main ethnic groups of Malays, Chinese and Indians form just the surface of the
matter. There is also a need to encourage films and stories from the Orang Asli
aborigines, as well as the various indigenous groups from the Borneo island in East
Malaysia. The thriving Iban music and VCD movie production industry which started
in the late 1990s in Sarawak illustrates the need for such cultural expressions.
Although the production standards are very basic, it gives these ethnic groups a voice
and opportunity to participate in the process of nation building, as opposed to being
just the subject of an exotic ethnographic documentary.
Conclusion Generally, there is a misconception of ‘national cinema’ to be prescriptive
(prescribing what it is supposed to be) rather than descriptive (describing what is
already there) (Higson, 2002). Thus, the term ‘national cinema’ should not be used to
refer to a set of requirements that must be full-filled by a film to be considered as part
Therefore, ‘national cinema’ in this paper proposes the collection of culturally diverse
films which are available that gives a collective picture of the cinema in a particular
country, thus illustrating the rich and diverse components of its culture. This is similar
to Britain’s search for its own identity and culture20. Cooke (2001) suggests that ‘for
the UK, a national cinema needs to be a pluralistic cinema, reflecting British cultures
and British identities in their diversity, rather than conforming to an idea of national
cinema that is uniform and nationalistic.’ Ramani (2005) questions ‘whether it is the
job of cinema to participate in the construction of “national identity”, or to read
representations of intercultural and inter-religious relationships as a response to the
nation’s concerns about multiculturalism and national integration.’
It is important to be aware that a ‘national cinema’ has the tendency to marginalise
other social communities to become a singular, hegemonic ‘national’ identity. Thus,
the redefinition of national cinema should not be one of exclusivity but one that is as
widely and variedly inclusive as possible. This notion needs to be considered when
formulating new film and funding policies which require more efficiency,
effectiveness, transparency and professionalism in its implementation and
Cooke. ‘British Cinema’ in Nelmes, J. (Ed.) (2001). An Introduction to Film Studies.
Fenton, S. ‘Malaysia and Capitalist Modernisation: Plural and Multicultural Models’
in Koenig, M., Singh G., Rex J. (Eds.) (2003). International Journal on Multicultural Societies (IJMS) Vol. 5, No. 2, 2003
Gaik, C.K. (2005). Art, Entertainment and Politics. Criticine. Accessed on Sept 21,
2006 from http://www.criticine.com
Hassan Muthalib (2005). Voices of Malaysian Cinema. Accessed on Sept 21, 2006
Higson, A., ‘The Concept of National Cinema’ in Fowler, C. (Ed.) (2002). The European Cinema Reader. Routledge, London.
Vinita Ramani (2005). Plural Identities: Reinventions & Revisions in Malaysian
Cinema. Accessed on Sept 21, 2006 from http://www.criticine.com
Williamson, R. (2005). Affection And Disaffection: Ideas, Themes And Styles In
Current Malaysian Independent Cinema. Firecracker Magazine. Accessed on
September 21, 2006, from http://www.firecracker-media.com
Williamson, R. (2005). Tears, Sneers And New Frontiers: Has Sepet Turned
Malaysian Cinema On Its Head? Firecracker Magazine. Accessed on September 21,
2006, from http://www.firecracker-media.com
1 Hassan Muthalib (2005) recounts Dr Anuar Nor Arai’s 5 voices of Malaysian cinema to give an
overview of the developments in the Malaysian cinema.
2 Learn about Malaysia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia. For a deeper understanding of race,
economy and politics in Malaysia, read Fenton (2003).
3 Dr Farish Noor provides an insightful look into the lost Malay identity and the reasons for their
defensiveness at http://www.kakiseni.com/articles/people/MDA5Mg.html Malaysians are robbed of their past: an interview with Dr. Farish A Noor
4 Hassan Muthalib (2005) recounts Dr Anuar Nor Arai’s 5 voices of Malaysian cinema. Voices of Malaysian Cinema. http://www.criticine.com
5 Gaik (2005) describes the conditions for the emergence of this alternative cinema and how they
6 Gaik (2005): ‘indie filmmakers whose films secure local cinema screenings may realise their films are
not “truly Malaysian” after all when they are later denied the incentive aid (to recover the entertainment
duty they have to pay upfront) on the basis that their film is not a “local film” because it is not in
Bahasa Malaysia (this policy is under review now).’
7 Read Yasmin’s reactions to these attacks at http://yasminthestoryteller.blogspot.com/2006/
8 Read more about the forum in the article One reality to rule us all written by Jacqueline Ann Surin for
the Sun (Thu, 23 Nov 2006) at http://www.sun2surf.com/article.cfm?id=14019
9 The forum entitled “Film as Ar-Risalah: Viewpoints on Gubra, Does it Qualify to Win the 19th
Malaysian Film Festival’s Best Film Award?” was held at Universiti Malaya on September 1, 2006.
Four of the panelists agreed that the film demeaned Malay race and the Islamic religion.
10 For more details about the film, read Williamson’s (2005) review on Sepet.
12 The official FINAS website at http://www.finas.gov.my offers detailed statistics on local film
13 Details of schemes are available at http://www.finas.gov.my
14 This information is based on an in-depth interview with Bank Pembangunan.
15 Read Eng Poh Si’s article Sniper Happy Censorship Board at http://www.thecicak.com
16 The actual article The Last Communist Film for Malaysian Citizens? (Berita Harian May 4, 2006) by
Akmal Abdullah can be found at http://lastcommunist.blogspot.com/
17 The comments are part of the data collected by the author through in-depth interviews with the new
18 Read the article at http://www.thesundaily.com/article.cfm?id=8261No business like show business
19 See Gaik’s (2005) article for an interesting overview on race in the new Malaysian independent
cinema. Art, Entertainment and Politics athttp://www.criticine.com
20 See Cooke. Britain’s cultural identity has been pluralistic since the 1960s and further fragmented by
the multiplicity of Irish, Welsh and Scottish nationalism.
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