By Minderjeet Kaur
Malaysia’s first crowdfunded feature film, which deals with racial tensions in the multiethnic nation, has become a runaway hit, amassing more than half a million views within a week of its release via social media.
Released on YouTube on Dec. 21, “Pendatang,” a thriller set in a nightmarish future, has won praise for addressing a touchy subject for Malaysia in an open and innovative way, and without coy allusions or an inane plot.
That was possible because a release on YouTube spared the film from the censors’ axe and allowed it to explore the consequences of unchecked racism, a timely subject and one many Malaysians are uncomfortable with.
Not bad for a small-budget feature film. It cost 419,828 ringgit (U.S. $91,300) to make and was financed through crowdfunding, where cash was raised through numerous small amounts of money given by the public mostly over the internet.
Amir Muhammad, the producer of “Pendatang,” realized that making the film true to the script would be difficult to do, he said, “because there would be censorship problems” due to its main premise – race.
From the start, the film isn’t timid about that topic.
“The tension is maintained throughout [the script]. Right from the first scene,” Amir said on his YouTube channel Kuman Pictures.
“The story is very strong, about a dystopian Malaysia where by law different races cannot mix with one another. You [absolutely] cannot be in the same house,” he said, about the Cantonese-language film written by Lim Boon Siang and directed by Ng Ken Kin.
The Malaysian government has a history of censoring films and books about race, out of concern for inflaming racial tensions. Government actions such as outright bans on books or deletions of scenes from films water them down and render them unwatchable, according to critics.
As one film reviewer online said, Malaysia is “the country where movies go to die.”
Under such circumstances, making “Pendatang” for release in theaters or local paid television was pointless, Amir said.
“That’s how the idea of crowdfunding came about – for the public to fund the movie, and as a reward the movie would be screened for free on [a] YouTube channel with no advertisements,” Amir said.
“We were not making money out of it but we wanted our cast and crew to be paid at industry rates.”
The film’s ‘Segregation Act’
“Pendatang” means “immigrant” in Malay. While the word used to be neutral, referring to what it actually means – migrants or immigrants – it became a loaded one when it began to be used on Malaysians who are non-Malays.
While ethnic Malays, who are Muslim, are a majority, comprising 70% of Malaysia’s population, the country’s citizens include people of Chinese and Indian ethnicity as well. Ethnic Chinese comprise 22.8% of the population, and ethnic Indians 6.6%.
Historians have said that because of the tactic of divide-and-rule that was used by Malaysia’s former British colonial rulers, the country’s various ethnicities have internalized an unhealthy suspicion of one another.
In May 1969, a mere 12 years after Malaysian independence, race riots over the result of a general election killed nearly 200 people – many of them ethnic Chinese – according to official figures, although some say the death toll was closer to 600.
Racial and religious tensions, fueled by political and religious opportunists, are among the realities that are holding Malaysia back, analysts say.
“Pendatang” takes this reality to a not-so-unimaginable extreme.
It situates Malaysia in a parallel reality in which the country is strictly racially divided. And a law called the Segregation Act confers a hefty punishment of 25 years in prison for those who mix with another race.
The central dilemma of the film is a moral one.
A Chinese-Malaysian family moves to a racially designated area and finds a lost, young ethnic Malay girl hiding in the attic of their old wooden residence.
If the Wongs are caught harboring the 9-year-old girl, the local militia enforcing the Segregation Act will shoot them on sight, or at best, sentence them to 25 years in prison. If the Wongs give up the girl to the brutal authorities, she may well end up dead.
What then should the Wongs do with this girl?
And how did we get here?
In January 2024, it may seem that such an extreme scenario such as the one depicted in ‘Pendatang” would never come to pass.
But there appear to be signs of a looming culture war fueled by racial and religious hardliners. In Malaysia’s constitution, the Malay Muslim majority are guaranteed certain social privileges not open to members of ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
And with a seemingly moderate government, afraid of losing even more ethnic Malay support, taking a turn to the right, the racial and religious divide is only getting entrenched, analysts note.
This is perhaps the reason for the popularity of “Pendatang” – it reflects the uneasy mood about race relations in the country, as a viewer noted on X, the platform once called Twitter.
“I enjoyed the movie and the storyline depicts where Malaysia is heading given how things are really happening these days,” wrote Nazrin. B, @nazbala51.
Similarly, another viewer wrote on the YouTube site of “Pendatang” that Malaysia is living through precarious times.
“We need more movies like this to show to the people in Malaysia, just how fragile and vital it is for us all to live in harmony with one another. We must not allow politics and extremism be it using religion, race, social class nor economy to break us apart and create the animosity that seems to grow and fester each passing day,” wrote @alfredaldrin1459.
Sensitive or not, it was about time people listened to the issue the film was discussing and the message it was communicating, others said.
“Just finished watching ‘Pendatang.’ Deeply unsettling, hell yeah, but hell, we need more deeply unsettling movies like this,” wrote Zy, @zymasri. on X.
Many viewers also expressed relief that their viewing experience had not been marred by the country’s censor board.
“I’m so glad this movie was made. And we can really make good movies if there was no censorship. This is the first Malaysian movie that I thought the editing was really flawless,” @smchua99 wrote on the film’s YouTube site.
So impressed was one government film agency official after watching “Pendatang” that he said all students should be shown the film.
“Should be screened at schools to invite discussions and dismantle deep seated perceptions and prejudices,” Kamil Othman, chairman of the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas), said on X.
“Small steps towards a desired destination.”