The Malaysia Film Festival’s (FFM) decision to create non-Bahasa Malaysia versions for three awards this year, instead of allowing films regardless of language to compete in the main categories, has caused such an uproar that a nominee pulled out and returned his two previous trophies.
Cinematographer Mohd Noor Kassim considered the language segregation policy at the 28th FFM to be “racist”, saying also that he was “ashamed as a Malay” and it appeared as if the Malays were afraid of competing with non-Malays.
Other critics of FFM28, including Umno ministers Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan and Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, similarly criticised the segregation and said we should celebrate diversity and the spirit of 1Malaysia.
Defenders of FFM28, however, say there is nothing racist about having separate film awards categories as Bahasa Malaysia is our national language.
Although the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) has cancelled all three non-Bahasa Malaysia categories for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay at FFM28, the creation of another category — Best Film in the National Language — still indicates segregation. What if the best film was in Bahasa Malaysia? Would it win both Best Picture and Best Film in the National Language? Or would non-Bahasa Malaysia films get more chances in Best Picture?
Part of the reason why Malaysians are upset over the segregation of FFM’s award categories based on language is because we already experience so much racial division in almost every other sphere of life — from politics to food — that we want the arts scene to be completely free of race.
Although the Malay language is supposed to be race-free because it’s our national language, we can’t help but tie it to ethnicity because non-Malays and non-Muslims encounter discriminatory government policies and practices.
If there was less state-sanctioned discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, then perhaps everyone would be more willing to accept a certain group’s mother tongue as the country’s national language.
The problem is that instead of pushing for greater equality, the ruling government endorses racist groups like the Red Shirt movement that calls for Chinese schools to be abolished and that says things like “Cina mati” or “Cina babi.” Non-Malays are made to feel like they’re under threat, which makes them cling even tighter to their Chinese and Tamil schools to protect their cultures. As it is, there is not enough attention on impoverished Indians and the problem of gangsterism in the community due to poverty.
Sabahans and Sarawakians don’t have the same race problems as peninsular folk and they appear to be more easily united as people of Borneo fighting (against West Malaysia) for their rights. Language, with all the various tribes in Borneo, doesn’t seem to be a problem there either.
Language and culture generally are thorny enough issues as it is without existing racism and discrimination. The late Lee Kuan Yew recognised this and opted for a neutral language — English — as Singapore’s common language even though the country was predominantly Chinese. Singapore has four official languages — Malay as the national language, English the working language, Mandarin and Tamil.
“If we had Chinese as a common language, national language, we would have split this country wide apart, and we would be foolish to have Malay or Tamil,” the Singapore founding father said in his book Hard Truths to keep Singapore Going.
Singaporean students have to learn both English and their mother tongue. Protecting our mother tongues is important to retain our identity and culture. I myself feel like I don’t know my own culture well enough and have only just started learning Mandarin. I wish I had learned it earlier.
Unlike Singapore, Malaysia opted for the more difficult path. We chose a particular ethnic group’s mother tongue as our national language. There’s nothing wrong with that.
However, it does mean that it will be that much harder to navigate race issues in nation-building.
Unfortunately, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has failed in rallying Malaysians across race behind the Malay language as the country’s national language, mostly due to the silence of top leaders on racism against minorities and the abuse of race-based policies.
Trying to enforce the use of the national language through arbitrary requirements like 70 per cent Bahasa Malaysia in film scripts only creates resentment, especially when the movies feature very real facets of Malaysian life, albeit in non-Malay languages and cultures.
So we end up looking at the Bahasa Malaysia/non-Bahasa Malaysia categories at FFM28 as yet another example of discrimination and division.
Upholding Bahasa Malaysia shouldn’t be considered racist, but when we make fellow citizens feel like they don’t belong here and give the impression that even their arts aren’t considered Malaysian enough, then issues like FFM28 will blow up.