Is government responsible for moral policing?

Is government responsible for moral policing?
By Zan Azlee

WHO is responsible for determining whether society adheres to a moral code? Who gets to decide what that moral code is? And can it be used as moral law in a multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious society?

Take for example the recent debacle in Malaysia over Disney’s latest feature film Beauty and the Beast and the authorities’ censorship of a so-called “gay” scene involving the character Le Fou.

The censorship board’s chairman Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid was quoted explaining the scene and how Le Fou lifts up his shirt to show a love bite on his body. He said the country had rules and did not support homosexuality.

Initially, the release of the movie was delayed and thought to be banned. Then a Cabinet minister said he thought the movie was fine and that homosexuality has been around way longer before gay characters were even depicted in movies.

This was followed by the board saying the film had not been banned, but merely censored by removing the “gay” scene. Disney then responded by shelving its release in Malaysia.

What are the responsibilities of a government? Many, including me, would say its primary purpose is to ensure a country is administrated efficiently to enable progress and development.

So does that include moral policing?

Homosexuality is not expressly illegal in Malaysia but homosexual activities are – there is a law against sodomy which carries a maximum prison term of 20 years. It was enforced in the case of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and opposition leader, who was jailed five years for the crime.

Another news story to hit the headlines in Malaysia recently – Terengganu, an east coast state in the peninsula, just opened its first cinema. It’s a big one with 11 theatre halls, although for now, only six are open.

Terengganu is a Muslim-majority state which can be considered quite religiously conservative.

This was said to be one of the reasons why it took so long for the state to approve the opening of the cinema. The last one ended operations some 20 years ago.

Initially, it was speculated male and female patrons would be segregated in the halls and that movies will be projected with the lights on. We know now it isn’t true, but it has been announced there will be CCTV cameras installed in every hall.

Footage from these cameras will be projected on a large screen in the cinema lobby, allowing the public to see exactly what is happening in the audience inside the halls. This is apparently meant to deter viewers from behaving inappropriately.

The events described above could be happening because Malaysians, in general, are conservative in nature, with many still holding on to old traditions and decades-old social norms.

It could be that parts of society are struggling to catch up with the rest of the world and are finding it hard to accept or even embrace new, more liberal norms.

But still, morality is a personal and subjective matter; it is up to the individual.

It should not be administered by an authoritative party because that would mean a single interpretation of what being “moral” is all about is imposed on a society of many.

Moral policing by the authorities should not happen, especially not during a transition period when society is slowly opening up, engaging and having discourse on changes happening around the world.

What we need to do instead is to encourage open-mindedness and acceptance of differences.

It doesn’t mean other social norms have to be forced down our throats. It just means if we are exposed to them, then we can learn and decide for ourselves what suits us and what doesn’t.

If everything gets shut down, censored or dictated, we, as a society, will never progress.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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