Malaysian artists decry ‘Mentega Terbang’ film ban and blasphemy charge as ‘archaic form of content control’

Mentega Terbang

A scene in the film Mentega Terbang. Screenshot from the YouTube trailer of the film. Anomalist Production. Fair use

The Malaysian indie film “Mentega Terbang” was first screened in 2021 but was banned in September 2023 by the Home Ministry for being “contrary to public interest.” In January 2024, the film’s director and producer were charged under Section 298 of the Penal Code for “hurting religious feelings.” If found guilty, they could receive one year of jail sentence, a fine, or both. Artists and human rights groups have condemned the ban and the blasphemy charge.

The 104-minute film tells the story of a Muslim teenager named Aisyah who began exploring other religions when her mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The film had limited screenings in 2021, but it came to the attention of more people in 2023 when it was shown on Hong Kong-based streaming service Viu.

Conservatives said the film violates Islamic beliefs. Malaysia has a Muslim-majority population, with over 63 percent of citizens identifying as Muslim. In recent years, some Islamic hardliners have pushed for more aggressive enforcement of Islamic teachings in governance. For example, authorities harassed participants in a women's march and confiscated pride-themed watches in 2023 for allegedly undermining religious teachings against LGBTQ+ themes and values. Even a government-sponsored interfaith program inviting young people to visit temples and churches has been targeted by Muslim hardliners belonging to the political opposition. They rallied supporters on social media and accused the government of trying to promote Christianity among young Muslims. The online backlash forced the government to suspend the program in March 2023.

Freedom Film Network said that “the government’s approach of banning the film and now criminalizing the filmmakers is an archaic form of content control.” It added:

To build religious harmony we need open communication, dialogue and safe spaces to share different perspectives to understand each other. In our experience, Mentega Terbang is an excellent tool to foster such discussions. The audiences we spoke to said they understood and appreciated other faiths better after watching the movie and could relate with the main character’s experiences. However, such positive experiences with the film are not taken into account by the authorities.

Film director Badrul Hisham Ismail drafted a statement in support of the director and producer of “Mentega Terbang.” Below is an excerpt of the statement, which was endorsed by more than 200 artists:

As a community that champions creative and artistic freedom, we must stand united in condemning any attempts to place undue restrictions on filmmakers or any artists. Let us celebrate the power of art to challenge, inspire, and provoke thoughtful reflection, trusting in the capacity of audiences to navigate the complex landscape of creative expression with their own discernment.

Civil society group Centre of Independent Journalism (CIJ) noted that film censorship “stunts Malaysia's creative economy.” CIJ Executive Director Wathshlah G. Naidu criticized the actions of the government.

The government has forced artists in Malaysia to live in a culture of fear. While we acknowledge the importance of respecting religious sensitivities, it is essential to strike a balance between protecting these sensitivities and safeguarding the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

In a joint statement, nine human rights groups have called on the government “to end the criminalization of religious offense and the use of other vague provisions in the law to curtail freedom of expression and artistic freedom.” They also called for the repeal of repressive blasphemy provisions in the law.

The enforcement of these provisions has had a disproportionate and negative impact on minority communities, political dissidents, atheists, comedians, artists, religious scholars, and others who express opinions and, often, merely reflect lived realities on the ground, and especially as a response to questionable actions by those who wield power.

On January 29, the High Court quashed the gag order that prevented the film producer from commenting on the charges filed against him. The next hearing for the blasphemy case is scheduled for March 14.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.