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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 13, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Malaysia takes the rock out of music
By Ioannis Gatsiounis

KUALA LUMPUR - This is Visit Malaysia Year and the government is using the opportunity to promote the multi-ethnic country as a regional beacon of diversity and tolerance. But apparently international performing artists are a little less welcome than your average tourist.

In August pop star Gwen Stefani was required to dress "modestly" for her concert here, after the National Union of Malaysia Muslim Students protested against the scheduled

performance on the grounds that she would bring to Malaysia an "American hegemonic background", said the group's president Hilmi Ramli.

Early this month, R&B singer Beyonce Knowles scrapped her debut concert in Malaysia slated for November 1 due to what her agency called "a scheduling conflict", though local record industry sources say it was because the 26-year-old diva thought better of conforming to Malaysia's dress stipulations for international performers. "They have to dress decently ... and behave in a manner appropriate in Malaysia," insisted culture, arts and heritage minister Rais Yatim, days after Beyonce cancelled her show.

Malaysian authorities have long required local rock stars to cut their hair or forfeit the opportunity to appear on television or radio, and frequently remind Malaysians of the consequences for openly addressing "sensitive" issues like race and religion. But it wasn't until 2005 that foreign performers were asked to join the act.

Guidelines require foreign performers to cover themselves from shoulder to knees. They also stipulate no hugging or kissing fellow artists or audience members, no jumping or shouting, no cursing and no exchanging objects between audience and artist. Preventing "moral decay" and preserving Malaysian values are the reasons usually cited for the restrictions.

But what exactly are Malaysian values, and who is defining them? The issue has come to the fore in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, as religion asserts itself with renewed vigor in the public and political domain, and Malaysia's sizeable non-Muslim communities feel increasingly marginalized. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak recently called Malaysia an "Islamic state", even though Malaysia's governing framework is a secular constitution that gives Islam special importance.

Mohamad Akram Laldin of the International Islamic University in Malaysia says the government curbs on artistic freedom are in the interest of all Malaysians. "When the government takes a decision, they know that ... a big majority of the people will not be happy if such a thing is allowed. That is the reason why they have put [in place] certain restrictions [for performers]."

Razlan Ahmad Razali, chairman of Pineapple Concerts, which was to organize Beyonce's performance here, finds such reasoning specious. He says the dress of performers never becomes an issue until a vocal religious minority makes an issue of it. "Look, compared to 10,000 people who want to watch Gwen Stefani and 100 or 50 or so people doing the protests - you're willing to cave into those people?"

US rock stars Linkin Park and Mariah Carey are notable acts to have complied with Malaysia's dress restrictions. (Carey coincidentally is now appearing in a print ad for a local radio station wearing a short slinky dress with her derriere facing the camera next to the tag line, "Turn me on.")

The government and the Muslim groups it often stands accused of pandering to tend to conflate Islamic values into Malaysian values, and Asian values more broadly, to rationalize giving Islam primacy in a society where non-Muslims account for 40% of the population. But a look around Malaysia reveals that Malaysian values (like Asian values) are neither static nor homogenous.

Even within Malaysia's Muslim community there is considerable plurality. Indeed, many of those who frequent nightclubs dressed in form-fitting, flesh-baring clothing also happen to be Muslim. A tourism campaign sponsored by the Culture Ministry deems Malaysia "Truly Asia", as in, "With a sparkling and lively melting pot of races and religious [sic] where Malays, Chinese, Indians and the many ethnic groups of Sabah and Sarawak live together in peace and harmony, Malaysia is truly a country that epitomizes Asia."

Solo act of censorship
But then Malaysia finds itself standing alone among Asian neighbors in its handling of international pop stars. On Beyonce's scheduled Malaysian date, she will instead play in neighboring Indonesia, where some 85% of the population is Muslim. She will also perform in Thailand, India, and China. None of those countries have asked Beyonce to censor herself or be anyone other than herself.

Indonesian concert promoter Nia Zulkarnaen was quoted as saying, "I expect Indonesians to see this in a positive light. She is a great singer and her stage act is entertaining. Why should we say no to the way she dresses?"

The Malaysian government is standing firm, however. After Beyonce's cancellation, Rais said his ministry will set up a committee to vet foreign performers and ensure they dress and behave in a way that is respectful to Malaysia as defined by the government. No one can deny Malaysia the right to act on its own terms, a point the government has not been shy to stress.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was famous for his anti-Western and anti-Semitic diatribes. Ministers relish dismissing international calls for Malaysia to show greater respect for human rights and dignity. International trade minister Rafidah Aziz called a speech by then US vice president Al Gore during the peak of the reformasi era, which echoed the Malaysian 

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