Earlier this month, we had a ruckus over the decision made by the Malaysia Film Festival (FFM) to have the categories for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay separated into Bahasa Malaysia and non-Bahasa Malaysia categories.

This move, unsurprisingly, received backlash from the public. Following this decision, there had been resignations and boycotts as a sign of protest to such segregation, which was viewed as “divisive”, and to an extent, “racist”. Multiple hashtags were also trending on social media, expressing the same views.

After much careful deliberation, the Communications and Multimedia Ministry decided that the awards will have an inclusive Best Film category, and also a Best Film in the National Language category.

The Film Directors’ Association of Malaysia (FDAM), however, recently released a statement saying that allowing films in languages other than
Bahasa Malaysia in FFM award categories “insults the Federal Constitution”. Due to their strong belief that language was inseparable from arts and culture, the FDAM insists that all national-level awards for arts and culture should be for works in the national language.

If this was interpreted correctly, this means that FDAM is suggesting that films in languages other than Bahasa Malaysia are automatically ineligible for any award categories in FFM.

This sounds very much like an invitation to another uproar. If such ideas were entertained, we would then be back to square one. FDAM later motioned for the Best Film in the National Language to be the pinnacle of the awards.

Views are highly subjective, but there is one thing that the majority of film lovers can attest to — a good film remains a good film, due to its art and profound message, not what language it is in. The right language may be able to capture and relate the message to its viewers better, but it rarely is the ultimate deciding factor.

The inclusivity of the Best Film award should never be viewed as an insult to the Constitution. The decision made by the ministry should be applauded as a step forward in our local film industry. There is no doubt that there is a need to uphold Bahasa Malaysia in films, but including the Best Film in the National Language should act as a driving force for our film industry to grow, and not an excuse for tokenism.

It is crucial for the industry players and organisers to ascertain what FFM strives to promote. For example, do
we wish to recognise the many talents in Malaysia while also promoting unity? If so, what would be given the utmost priority in the jurors’ list of criteria?

In years to come, would Malaysians be recognised for their talent and hard work purely based on merit? Or would there still be a box to be ticked in the language category?

Bear in mind, being equal is one thing, being fair is another. Merit would be the greatest equaliser, as evident in the world of sports, among many.

How fitting that the 2016 Olympic Games were to fall so close to our National Day and in the month of our national celebration. What better way to remind ourselves of what it means to be a Malaysian than to witness our united and proud multiracial delegation during the parade of athletes in the Maracana Stadium for the opening ceremony, and most especially, when divers Pandelela Rinong and Cheong Jun Hoong won our first medal, clinching silver in the women’s 10m platform synchronised event in Rio de Janeiro.

We may have been blinded by our prejudices to see it in our everyday lives, but right there on the television screen we should be able to see that, that is Malaysia, right before our very eyes.

It reminds us of how our chests are always filled with pride when our fellow Malaysians are being celebrated for their hard work and determination, and most importantly — regardless of race, creed or colour.

And that’s how it should always be.

Selamat Hari Merdeka!

This article first appeared in The New Straits Times on 16 August 2016

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