At a crucial point in the film Tanda Putera, ethnic Chinese youths urinate on a pole flying the flag of a Malaysian state, setting off events that push the country into a deadly race riot that still haunts the national consciousness four decades later.
The publicly funded movie, which opened recently in Malaysia after a long delay, is stirring up racial sentiment at a sensitive time over its depiction of the ethnic Chinese minority as the aggressors in the violent events of May 13, 1969.
The bumiputera system of preferential treatment for ethnic Malays, who make up two-thirds of the population, was born out of the riots and continues to be the No. 1 complaint among the country’s ethnic Chinese.
The film, released as Malaysia marked its 56th year of independence and as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak prepares for a possible leadership battle within his party next month, plays on deep-seated fears at a time when Chinese disloyalty has been blamed for the government’s depleted majority in May’s election.
The predominantly ethnic Chinese state of Penang has advised cinemas not to screen Tanda Putera on the grounds that it crosses a line by using public funds to promote hate.
“Because the film is sponsored by the government, the film is effectively the official version of the riots,” Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said.
Creative license should not be used to spread lies that may cause racial disharmony, he added.
That is a charge Shuhaimi Baba, the film’s director, denies.
“Historical facts carry many backstories written by different sources on the same subjects,” she said. “Filmmakers use creative license to put them together in a story or else they become documentaries.”
The movie — whose Malay title means “Mark of a Prince” — was held back before the election in May for fear of alienating ethnic Chinese. Their votes went to the opposition, anyway, sharply cutting the government’s winning margin.
Hardliners in Najib’s United Malay National Organization party equated the disaffection of ethnic Chinese with betrayal and the intemperate mood has simmered. Najib’s Cabinet has only two ethnic Chinese ministers, both in minor posts.
Official versions of the 1969 riots are scant on detail.
About 200 people are said to have been killed in the clashes in and around the capital, Kuala Lumpur, after opposition parties supported by the ethnic Chinese community made inroads in a general election three days earlier.
Shuhaimi’s film builds the picture of the looming disaster in a series of heavy-handed scenes, portraying the Chinese mainly as shadowy figures who bring mayhem. In contrast, the Malays show restraint and dignity, even as events spin out of control.
Tanda Putera makes much of the role played by then-deputy prime minster Abdul Razak Hussein, the father of the current prime minister, in securing peace in the face of personal tragedy.
Shown as strong, self-effacing and principled, Razak has no discernible fault in the film. He hides his terminal leukemia, finally succumbing to it in scenes at a London clinic.
The film flays foreign correspondents for biased reporting on the riots and gives a nod to the theory that mainly ethnic Chinese communist elements had a hand in the trouble.
Better known for horror movies, Shuhaimi said the question of too much or too little creative license did not apply in a feature film like Tanda Putera.
She said she was “now in the midst of getting the film back on screen in Penang.”