On opening day at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, a panel on Southeast Asian writers featuring Malaysian writer Bernice Chauly and Philippine conceptual writer Angelo Suarez fielded a question about artistic freedom in their countries. (Look for more from the festival, which runs through October 15, here and at Asia Times.)
Chauly, who curates the George Town Literary Festival in her native Penang, said, “There’s a huge problem with censorship in Malaysia. I also work as an actress, and I was in a film that’s been stuck at the censorship board for more than a year.” The film features an angel that speaks in English, and a father with five children from five wives. “There are no fixed rules, so someone can just decide that they’re offended.”
Author of the memoir Growing up with Ghosts, Chauly added, “It’s safer to write in English if you want to be controversial.” We have become extremely sensitive about race and religion. If you’re not Muslim, you can’t use the Allah. It’s ridiculous.”
Suarez explained there’s a word in the Philippine language Tagalog, kuyog, which means to be lynched by a mob. “If someone doesn’t like your work, you will get lynched by someone in some fashion.”
Noting, “Religion is always inviting transgression,” he told about the Manila exhibition of a sculpture of Jesus with a penis in his forehead. “It’s offensive to me not because it’s a transgression, but because it’s a bad art. I think some form of aesthetic police has to be created.”
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.