(Band graphic (© Gerald Senger/Dreamstime)
EMOTIONS ran high during dangdut artist Inul Daratista’s 2008 Malaysian visit.
Inul was first slated to perform in Stadium Larkin, Johor Baru on 19 July, but the concert was cancelled. Inul’s tears and near-fainting during a press conference after this announcement was widely publicised in the Malay-language press.
A replacement show, planned for 27 July at Bukit Jalil’s Stadium Putra, was met with passions from a different quarter: the Federal Territory branch of PAS Youth.
Branch chief Kamaruzaman Mohamad handed over a memorandum registering the group’s outrage to Kuala Lumpur mayor Datuk Abdul Hakim Borhan.
Inul – too lewd? (© Meutia Chaerani/Indradi
Soemardjan)The memorandum cited the fact that Majlis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) had condemned Inul — specifically, her trademark “goyang ngebor” (literally, “drill gyration”) dance — as lewd.
It asserted that concerts by such artists contribute to “the collapse of morals and rise of social ills that afflict Malaysian youth.”
The document also tossed out a curious query — “Is Malaysia starved of local artists to entertain Malaysians, or do [Inul's] sponsors want to entertain Indonesians living in Malaysia?” — as if intentions to cater to our expatriate population were somehow sinister.
Finally, Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL)’s initial consent to the Bukit Jalil concert was revoked, and Inul performed at the Indonesian ambassador’s residence on 18 Aug, as part of celebrations for the archipelago republic’s 63rd year of independence.
The Jakarta Post quoted diplomat Da’i Bachtiar as saying, elliptically: “Inul was not banned in Malaysia. It’s for security reasons that Inul’s concerts were banned in Malaysia.”
In the end, the 29-year-old star was an alien singer, performing for a predominantly alien audience in an enclave environment. The irony of Inul Live In Kuala Lumpur could have only been greater if her show had been held at the consulate.
Rap-rock band Linkin Park in concert (© Fortysix_vie @ Flickr)The way things have played out has cost IMS Prima, the event and production company that sponsored Inul’s ill-starred Malaysian journey, a great deal.
“We lost nearly RM300,000,” co-director Abdul Nasir Abu Bakar tells The Nut Graph, tallying up expenditure on things like publicity, venue and equipment rental, and artist travel and accommodation. “Who’s going to bear all these costs I’ve incurred? Fed up, man.”
Banned on moral grounds
Inul Daratista is only one example in an extensive list of popular foreign artists who have had their performances frustrated or banned altogether on apparently moral grounds.
In 2003, American rap-rock band Linkin Park was allowed to play in Bukit Kiara, on the condition that they did not go bare-chested, wear shorts or jump; in early 2004, then-PAS Youth wing leader Ahmad Sabki Yusof criticised a concert by Mariah Carey as condoning “values that are totally contrary to our way of life and our culture.”
Such reactions, and well as attendant official actions, have intensified in recent years.
Pussycat Dolls – pushing buttons (© Joel Telling) The Malaysian leg of pop burlesque group the Pussycat Dolls’ 2006 World Tour saw their promoters, Absolute Entertainment, slapped with an RM10,000 fine; then Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim was quoted as saying: “I believe the way the Pussycat Dolls behaved onstage amounted to gross indecency.”
Spooked by this incident, pop singer and trendsetter Gwen Stefani met with ministry officials in the lead-up to her 2007 concert at Stadium Putra, and dressed conservatively during her show. She affirmed her moral credentials, telling the Malaysian press: “I am not a bad girl. I have a lot of respect for different cultures and religions.”
(Malaysian performers, of course, are not exempt from disapproval — especially if they are seen to espouse foreign values. In January 2008, One in a Million contestant Faizal Tahir was banned from appearing on television for three months, after he removed his shirt and belt during an 8TV anniversary concert.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) castigated the former nasyid group member’s stunt as insensitive to viewers and Malaysian culture.
Ella (Source: Ella & the Boys @ Facebook) More venerable artistes, like Rock queen Ella and dangdut star Mas Idayu, have come under considerable fire throughout the course of their careers. In an interview with Utusan Malaysia, the latter accused Inul Daratista of unnecessary sensationalism, saying: “Don’t need to be sad, to cry. Lately, both my shows and Ella’s have received protests, but we did not cry.”)
The Malaysian way of life seems to be the primary pretext to censor concerts or punish performers. Yet outcry by PAS Youth or ministry authorities springs invariably from the notion that Malaysian culture is predicated on conservative Malay-Muslim values.
Ng Eng Kiat, a research officer at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)’s Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, observes that “controversy is always centred on the notion of Islam’s position being threatened or Muslim youths being led astray by the devilish elements of popular culture.”
Asked to identify a trend in the moral sanctions of recent years, Ng notes the obsession with dress codes, particularly those for females.
“I could be making a sweeping statement here … but there’s this patriarchal perspective of protecting the modesty of ‘our daughters’,” he says.
“Why isn’t such outrage trained on other concerts, like the ones aimed at the Indian Malaysian or Chinese Malaysian communities, especially when performers in such concerts indulge in much more ‘liberalised’ acts? Don’t we all spot a ‘shake the booty’ act every now and then, in some show by a hot Taiwan or Hong Kong artist?” questions Ng.
Nobody complained when it Rained… (yes, we
know he’s Korean) (© Sry85) Umno-PAS tussle
Concerts only seem to come under scrutiny when they may potentially attract an ethnically Malay fan base, as well.
Ng — who is currently writing a paper that views punitive action against elements of culture within the context of national politics — views the banning of concerts as a thinly veiled tussle between the Barisan Nasional (BN) government component party Umno and its arch-nemesis, PAS.
The former claims dominance through its representation of the Malay race, while the latter is an Islamic party; justifiably or not, both identities have become inextricably linked in national discourse.
“This race-religion complex is contested and constantly negotiated by these two main parties,” Ng affirms. “Any issue that would relate to the ‘marginalisation’ of Islam hence translates into huge amounts of political capital for these two parties.
“And it is exactly the perceived cracks in this legitimacy that, I say, have instigated the latest onslaught on popular culture,” Ng says.
“2006 was a year full of questions for Islam and the Malaysian state. We still remember the Lina Joy apostasy case, and our prime minister’s consequent declaration that Malaysia is an Islamic state, don’t we? I think it definitely set the mood for 2007 and today,” says Ng.
Gus Dur (© World Economic Forum)This interpretation would explain the lack of discussion over the Inul Daratista controversy. Back in her native Indonesia, Inul has been defended by religious figures such as former premier Gus Dur, the spiritual head of the 40 million-strong Islamic organisation Nadhlatul Ulama, and Sufi theologian Mustofa Bisri.
It would also explain the inconsistencies. Inul had performed in Malaysia twice before: in May 2005 and again in May 2007; the local authorities’ stated concerns for both instances — security — were the same as they were this year.
“In 2005, she was in Stadium Merdeka,” IMS Prima’s Abdul Nasir says. “We prepared. We had our own security personnel, and the police was there. The show went on. Nothing happened. Is it harmful to the people?
“Sure, there was a demonstration by PAS,” Abdul Nasir continues, describing the Islamic party’s youth wing’s presence at the concert. “They had their placards, and they gave out flyers. But they were peaceful,” he adds.
After the show, everyone — dangdut partygoer and moralist protester alike — went home. “During Mahathir’s time,” — a period of relative political stability — “I had no problems. It only started this year,” Abdul Nasir says.
The first step
Why the mechanisms through which foreign artistes perform in Malaysia are susceptible to such forces is the pressing question.
The main agency concerned with processing approvals for foreign performers is the Central Agency of Application for Filming and Performance by Foreign Artists (Puspal).
It was set up by the Malaysian cabinet in 2001, under what is now the Ministry of Culture, Arts, Heritage and National Unity. Its function is to receive and process approvals for foreign artistes to participate in film shoots and performances.
(Source: heritage.gov.my)Puspal’s committee includes permanent members from 13 other governmental bodies, including the Foreign Ministry, Internal Security Ministry, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Royal Customs Department, DBKL, Immigration Department, and Royal Police Force.
In Puspal’s criteria for approving applications is a six-point code of ethics for performers. These guidelines range from “behaving improperly” (jumping about, shouting) to “sexual innuendoes”.
Clearing the Puspal hurdle is merely the first step. Immigration matters aside, what follows is delicate negotiation between the production company and a byzantine web of local authorities — such as the local police and municipal authorities — from whom it must obtain entertainment permits.
This is often the most difficult step, as documents of consent arrive at the eleventh hour — if they do at all.
Unclear and opaque enforcement
Abdul Nasir describes the sequence of events leading up to Inul’s Stadium Putra non-performance. According to him, Puspal was sympathetic to his company’s predicament after the Johor Baru cancellation, so he and co-director Datuk Shazme Sulaiman took that as a sign to go ahead.
“A week before we had an interview with the police,” he says. “They sat in for our technical meeting.” Everything went smoothly, and the officers seemed content with IMS Prima’s preparations.
“My show was on Sunday,” Abdul Nasir recalls. “On Friday, I get a fax from DBKL. It said that they weren’t allowing us to do the concert. For security reasons.”
(© Michael Lorenzo/sxc.hu)
The promoter was incensed. “If DBKL is part of Puspal,” he wonders, “doesn’t that mean they approved my show?”
Determined to get some answers, Abdul Nasir badgered City Hall but the officers were evasive. Finally, Abdul Nasir managed to get hold of someone in their licensing department, and asked the obvious question: “If they already knew they didn’t want to give me [a permit], why didn’t they let me know earlier?”
Abdul Nasir and Shazme point to unclear and opaque enforcement of the due processes as the root of the problem.
“If the rules are set like that, they should be like that,” Shazme says. “There should be a standard procedure: you have to comply from steps one to 10, failing which, you don’t get approval.”
However, with the arbitration as muddy as it is, there is no guarantee for prospective concert organisers. “Who do we turn to, to get these things going?” Shazme asks. “Who wants to be a promoter?”
Christina Aguilera (Public domain) Moving into the backwaters
The repercussions over an unpredictable process for approving foreign artists reach beyond performance organisers. Two high-profile artistes have already given Malaysia a miss. They have opted for more hospitable venues in the region, where the enforcement of entertainment licenses are relatively clearer and less easily manipulated by moral outcry.
Christina Aguilera’s 2007 Back To Basics tour included stops in neighbour Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, but she refused to perform here; Beyonce Knowles, also in 2007, swapped her Kuala Lumpur concert for one in Jakarta.
Commenting on the latter, Pineapple Concerts’ chairperson Razlan Ahmad Razali told the press: “Though Indonesia is also a Muslim country, it doesn’t have all these issues that we have. She can perform as she likes there.”
Whither then Malaysia, with its aspirations towards an international performing arts platform? Abdul Nasir put it tersely: “We are really the backwaters.”
Matters have not improved since Inul Daratista’s departure. Canadian pop-rocker Avril Lavigne’s 29 Aug 2008 concert at Stadium Merdeka initially came under considerable flak by both PAS Youth and the Minister of Culture, Art, Heritage and National Unity, Datuk Shafie Apdal.
The minister said he did not want the Merdeka weekend and Ramadan sullied “with such pop and rock culture.” He also cited organisers Galaxy Group as having not obtained approval from Puspal at an early enough juncture as another reason. The concert, oddly enough, was later permitted to continue.
Avril Lavigne (© Alessio Vissani)Attempts to reach the Ministry’s Licensing and Enforcement division, under whose umbrella Puspal operates, for clarification proved fruitless. After three weeks of pursuit, a ministry official told The Nut Graph that the issue should remain closed. “If we open it again, the topic will get hot again,” the official said.
So, the issue is closed, that is, until the next “morally questionable” artist comes to town.