Malaysian films stir up racial tensions of the past

A worker cleaning the floor in front of a poster advertising movie named "Tanda Putera" at a local cinema in Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR - Two Malaysian films are challenging longstanding taboos about discussing politically touchy subjects, and the controversy they have generated has triggered fears they could spark racial unrest.

The films, "Tanda Putera (Mark of Princes)" and "The New Village", are the first serious attempts to portray the human drama of two key episodes in the multi-ethnic nation's history.

But though the films have not yet been publicly screened, they are already tearing at unhealed wounds in the often uneasy co-existence between majority Malays and the large Chinese minority.

"Tanda Putera" is said to support the long-ruling authoritarian regime's official line - widely disputed - that Chinese political parties stoked deadly 1969 riots that remain a source of division to this day.

And "The New Village" has been accused by Malay groups of "glorifying" a bloody insurgency by mostly ethnic Chinese communists in the 1950s and 60s.

Such content would have previously been unthinkable under the Malay-dominated Barisan Nasional (National Front) regime, in power since 1957 independence.

But strong public pressure has led to a loosening of controls over the past decade and increasingly polemical discourse.

Sociologist Ooi Kee Beng said the films could feed what he calls a Malaysian yearning for non-Barisan versions of the past.

"Definitely. The apparent radicalisation of Malaysian discourse is the exaggerated response to this wave of curiosity (about the past) throughout society," he said.

The movies have fed racial unease, particularly after divisive May elections in which Chinese voters deserted Barisan.

Promotional trailers and descriptions by the few who previewed the films have sparked outcries.

Censors held up "Tanda Putera" for more than a year over fears it would inflame racial tension in the run-up to the May polls but it is now slated to be screened Thursday.

"The New Village" was to hit cinemas August 22 but was pulled back for review by censors when Malay groups objected.

Communications minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek defended the move, saying "anything that can cause social unrest and create tension in society must be put back to review".

AFP has not seen either film.

The minister's Facebook page has been hit with postings warning cinemas will be torched if "The New Village" is screened.

But Chinese politicians accused Barisan of bowing to "racist, illogical and baseless" attacks by its Malay base in sidelining the movie.

Chinese make up a quarter of the 29 million population, dominating commerce while Malays control government.

Tension has persisted over Barisan authoritarianism and its decades-old privileges for Malays in education and business - policies accelerated in response to the 1969 riots.

The races mostly get along but the potential for a repeat of 1969 is frequently invoked by Malay hardliners.

Makers of both films deny any political motives.

"Other countries have films about their own history without going to the dogs," "Tanda Putera" director Shuhaimi Baba told AFP.

The film was partially funded by the government, drawing accusations it was Barisan propaganda.

"The New Village" was produced by publicly-listed broadcasting giant Astro, which insists it is mainly "a forbidden love story".

"The only Malaysian films made are horror, comedy and love stories. Try to comment on anything important and someone is bound to be offended," said Joan Lau, a journalist who has covered the arts scene for decades.

Books also are often banned or censored and the regime dominates mainstream media.

But Barisan leaders have in recent years yielded to reform calls. Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2011 lifted a range of laws considered oppressive and has slightly loosened some media controls.

Independent directors have recently started to cautiously comment on race and religion, while the Internet percolates with anti-government content thanks to a Barisan pledge years ago not to censor the Web.

The openness brings with it increasingly bitter polemics, especially as Barisan vies with a strengthening opposition for control of public opinion.

"It's freer than it has ever been, but the need to be offended has become more acute due to political grandstanding," said Amir Muhammad, an independent filmmaker.