The Mayor of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur has reversed a city-wide ban on one of the country's best known satirical theatre companies.
The Mayor, Mohamad Shaid, also revoked the power of the city licensing department to issue performance permits.
The mayor himself will now be solely responsible for vetting all shows in the city.
His officials had told the Instant Café Theatre Company to remove all references to government policies, agencies and all persons living or dead from their script after a letter to national newspaper complained that the show was rude and profane.
However, the performers ignored the order saying the last minute changes demanded were too sweeping and received the ban and fine.
The mayor told local reporters that he had not found the show offensive and that the ban had been imposed without his knowledge.
Monday, July 21st 2003
Kuala Lumpur City Hall's decision to bar the Instant Café Theatre from
holding future performances after one of its shows had allegedly flouted the
guidelines attracted criticism from various arts and human rights
Kathy Rowland, co-founder of the art and culture website kakiseni.com, labelled the move as an attack on "free speech and the sense of humour of Malaysians in general."
She said the permit process was "outdated" and unnecessarily disadvantages the arts community and its large audience base.
"What is the basis for DBKL's (City Hall) actions?" she asked, adding that such decisions by middle-level officials is incongruent with the government discourse on having an open society, Vision 2020, and making the capital attractive to tourists.
Rowland, who is also part of arts advocacy group Artis Pro Aktiv, pointed out that it was inconceivable for City Hall to revoke the permits now, especially when two permits have already been issued to Instant Café to stage the disputed play - 'The 2nd First Bolehwood Awards - The Director's Cut'.
She added that City Hall also failed to point out the five controversial parts when the production held its debut run in December.
On July 11, two days after the first showing, Utusan Malaysia published a letter from a reader who was offended by the jibes on politicians and Malaysia's racial and Islamic policies, its use of profanity, and its portrayal of the late national actor laureate P Ramlee.
Following this, City Hall issued a letter to Instant Café demanding that five elements from the script be taken out but the latter refused after consulting its lawyers.
In reaction, City Hall slapped the theatre company with a RM10,000 fine for non-compliance, and announced that permits for future productions will not be issued as well.
Another theatre company Five Arts Centre, which also had its past performances halted by City Hall directive, said the action against Instant Café was "alarming and unacceptable".
"What has just happened to ICT (Instant Café) is grossly oppressive and alarming ... this is a huge step backwards for a Malaysia that aspires to be progressive and enlightened in all areas of development.
"We from the arts community cannot accept such repressive and retrogressive measures by the authorities," it said in a statement.
The company added that Instant Café had always staged well-researched critiques of Malaysian systems and people, essential in a society that has lost its desire and ability to be self-reflective and think critically.
In February 2002, Five Arts saw its re-staging of 'The Vagina Monologues' refused permit by City Hall authorities who cited references to the Quran as the initial basis for the rejection, and later the use of the term 'vagina' for future bans.
Also joining the chorus of protest, were human rights groups Suaram and Hakam.
Hakam called on City Hall to stop abusing its powers, to revoke the compound and its pronouncement that Instant Café will no longer be allowed to perform.
It also expressed shock that such an "arbitrary" decision can be made based on a letter to a newspaper.
"City Hall cannot arrogate itself the status of our guardians or moral police, and least of all arbiters of what constitutes artistic license," said Hakam in a statement.
Suaram said City Hall should not let its own prejudices and agenda cloud its judgement.
It also said that barring future Instant Café shows raised the question whether this amounted to excessive punishment, over and above their current non-compliance of City Hall's directive.
"This pre-emptive strike is not only unlawful but reeks of bad faith - City Hall is punishing ICT (Instant Café) for something they have not done yet."
Suaram said City Hall should direct its attention towards procedural matters such as public safety, rather than regulating the content of a public performance.
"If contents are to be judged, wide discretion must be given in favour of granting such permits,
"Satire on government policies and its agencies is certainly not an offence...and is instead consistent with good governance and democratic society," said the movement in a statement.
Meanwhile, City Hall public relations officer Sharifuddin Ibrahim said the agency had clear guidelines on what is deemed acceptable and does not intend to control or censor any production.
Productions are required to submit a script, and are allowed to be staged as long as it "does not go beyond our ethical and moral boundaries, does not touch on sensitivities such as religious, racial and controversial issues," he said when contacted.
This is the second time Instant Café has run into trouble with the authorities. A previous performance -'The Baltimore Waltz' - was censored because of a particular scene alluding to sexual intercourse.