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The problem with the 8TV ads

Ahmad Izham

Ahmad Izham

WHY were the three 8TV Ramadan ads so offensive? “I don’t get it,” more than one person said on the social network they were on. “Chill guys,” 8TV executive director and Media Prima chief executive officer of Alt Media Ahmad Izham Omar told critics on Twitter. “Don’t overthink the ads. It’s written, produced and directed by a multi-racial team. If you overanalyse, anything will be bad.”

This was just before 8TV pulled the ads off the air, after being slammed by netizens for the offence it caused more than a few viewers, Muslims and non-Muslims. Within 24 hours, the ads were also removed from YouTube “due to a copyright claim by Grand Billiance [sic] Sdn Bhd” but they are available here.

So, what really was the big deal about the ads? And isn’t it enough that Ahmad Izham has apologised as has the Media Prima-owned TV station?

Muslims far superior

Stills from 8TV's Ramadhan ad

Stills from 8TV's Ramadan ad

The ad I first saw on Facebook showed a Chinese leng loi — clearly a non-Muslim since this is Malaysia — dressed in a top that showed off her arms and curves. In complete self-absorption, she is thrilled to be the centre of attention at a Ramadan bazaar when actually she is getting stares because her attire is not approved of. Her bare arms are pixelated and before you know it, there’s a warning, like those Health Ministry warnings about smoking or sugar or HIV/AIDS: “Do not wear tight and revealing clothes”.

The next shot shows the same young woman demurely dressed in a baju kurung before the second part of the public service announcement tells us the point of the ad: “Please don’t get carried away. Let’s understand and respect the significance of Ramadan.”

When I was staying in Third College in Universiti Malaya in the early 1990s, the Muslim women in my dorm slipped me a note under my door one night. They told me I should not wear shorts in the all-girls dorm because it was the holy month of Ramadan.

The first 8TV ad I saw telling non-Muslims what they can and cannot wear during Ramadan so reminded me of that note under my door. Except of course my dorm mates were clued in enough to be embarrassed about what they were doing. Hence, the anonymity of their actions.

8TV, in contrast, had no qualms broadcasting the ads and attaching its brand to them. Worse, it wasn’t just the kind of clothes non-Muslims can wear during Ramadan. “Do not be greedy and eat in public,” the second ad, featuring the same Chinese Malaysian young woman, told non-Muslims. And to top it all off, a third ad told non-Muslims: “Do not be loud and obnoxious”.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is the assumption underlying these public service announcements, although I would seriously contest that the ads serve any public service.

Assumption #1:

Non-Muslims dress inappropriately. They are greedy, loud and obnoxious, and they don’t know how to respect the significance and importance of Ramadan.

Assumption #2:

Muslims only dress appropriately and clearly the baju Melayu/kurung signifies all that is appropriate in dress. Muslims are not capable of being greedy, loud or obnoxious. They are also not capable of showing disrespect to a different faith. Or perhaps they are not required to understand the importance of other religious practices. Hence, it is appropriate for Muslims to lecture non-Muslims about what is right behaviour because hell, a non-Muslim, non-Malay Malaysian couldn’t possibly know, right?

What do these underlying assumptions tell us? They tell me that for 8TV, Ramadan isn’t about a time for self-reflection for Muslims. It’s a time to judge, chide and remind non-Muslims about proper dress, eating habits and behaviour because heck, Muslims are far superior in sensibilities and values than any non-Muslim could be.

This, for me, is what cultural, racial and religious superiority à la-Malaysia looks like. This is “ketuanan Melayu” magnified and manifest.

Offended? It’s your problem, not mine

Hang on. I can just hear Ahmad Izham telling me that I’m “overthinking” this.

I like Ahmad Izham. Have liked him since I first interviewed him nearly 10 years ago. The Nut Graph even invited him to be a panellist in our Found in Conversation event.

Also known as "not really an apology"

Not an example of damage control done well

But this isn’t about whether I like him or not. Or whether one should forgive him or 8TV because that would demonstrate maturity and since this is, after all, the holy month of Ramadan. No, this is about holding public personalities and media corporations accountable especially since their apology thus far hasn’t actually been an apology. Why not? Because neither 8TV nor Ahmad Izham will accept responsibility for the offence they caused through the ads.

Here’s what their “apologies” have said so far. That the non-Muslims and Muslims who were offended were not “chill”. That we were “overthinking” and “overanalysing”. And that we couldn’t and didn’t interpret 8TV’s intentions and humour properly (and for that, both felt a need to apologise for our failing by way of apologising for the ads — go figure).

Silvio Berlusconi (Donkeyhotey | Flickr)

Caricature of Silvio Berlusconi (Donkeyhotey | Flickr)

This is no different from what Silvio Berlusconi did in 1992. At a European Union summit during the official photo op, the Italian prime minister flashed an obscene hand gesture behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister. When taken to task for implying that the minister was a cuckold, what was Berlusconi’s defence? “I was only joking.” Clearly, even a prime minister’s humour can be misinterpreted — what more a CEO’s or a TV station’s?

Not just a blip

One wishes such obnoxious messages were just an anomaly. An “honest mistake”, as 8TV describes it.

One wishes that was the case. Unfortunately, it’s not. Remember when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak first returned in July from establishing diplomatic ties with the Vatican. His message to Christians was, “We wish to tell our friends, the Malaysian Christians . . . if they respect us, we will also respect them.”

Why did that statement rile Christians up? Because Najib’s statement presupposes that Malaysian Christians have not been respectful of Malaysian Muslims in the same way that the 8TV ads tell us that non-Muslims need to be taught to respect particular Muslim sensitivities during Ramadan.

Najib Razak

Najib Razak

In Najib’s case, his statement was even more offensive since firstly, he’s supposed to be the prime minister of all Malaysians, regardless of faith. And secondly, because the last time I checked, it was the government, led by Umno — a party made up only of Muslim Malays and which Najib leads — that was being disrespectful of non-Muslim rights.

For certain and unfortunately, Umno isn’t the only one with a religious superiority complex. PAS, too, has often demonstrated that non-Muslim preferences and rights must be subservient to a particular and limited Muslim interpretation of what is acceptable and appropriate.

So, what’s the big deal about the 8TV ads? And why can’t we just be “chill” about them? Well, because it’s really not funny to keep being told that non-Muslims are inferior to Muslims in terms of our dressing, behaviour, manners, respect for others, and rights. Now, if only the folks at 8TV could start thinking about that, then perhaps their apology can be a real one.


Jacqueline Ann Surin would like to tell Ahmad Izham Omar that just because a dumb blonde joke is told by a blonde, that doesn’t make the joke any less offensive. What’s more, accepting prejudice and discrimination against one’s own as being normal and acceptable demonstrates just how embedded “ketuanan Melayu” has become.

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23 Responses to “The problem with the 8TV ads”

  1. cl says:

    I’m in the TV biz (as a translator for subtitles) and follow the 8TV PSA controversy with concern. I am aware that Malaysia’s FTA TV is monopolised by the government and ruling party, hence Malaysians should strive for better Malaysian TV by voting for a new government that will bring an end to this monopoly, such as splitting ownership to different companies, opening up to foreign ownership if necessary, etc.

  2. Shawn Tan says:

    Yasmin Ahmad – bless her soul – her ads were both tasteful and meaningful.

  3. JW Tan says:

    I found the ads insulting, but no more than normal interaction during Ramadan with my fellow Malaysians.

    I do not fast. I respect those who do, but my flexibility on my behaviour does not extend to running into hiding everytime I need to have a sip of water. Simple politeness dictates that one should not, for example, eat before the breaking of fast at a Ramadan buffet, but it is unreasonable for a non-Muslim to consume every little scrap of food and drink in private. So over the years, I developed a thick skin to fob off snide comments by random people on the street. I suspect most non-Muslim Malaysians do this.

    If the corollary of doing this is that I am thought of as rude and insensitive so be it – it’s better than compromising my principle of tolerance and understanding of others.

  4. lee wee tak says:

    The producer and subsequent apologist for this lousy advertisement is a product from an environment cultivated and strengthened by racist politicians & their policies.

    What do you expect, when you vote them in, year in year out, from a political coalition that campaigns and re-inforces messages of hate, suspicion, derision and discrimination?

    [In my view], the present government does not encourage its population to love and respect. Since the last GE, it has graduated into religious terrorism, gutter politics and even greater manipulation of public infrastructure.

    A lousy way to spend my tax money. Perhaps a few terms in the wilderness can clean up the mess created.

  5. hazel says:

    Being Malaysians, are we not accustomed to what Ramadan is all about? Muslims and non-Muslims are bound to just understand each other.

    Unfortunately, even [many] who claim to fast are hypocrites. It is becoming a trend where Ketuanan Melayu is screaming forth from every corner. All of us need to accept that we live in a multiracial country! What is the problem with just accepting and respecting one another? It’s only complicated when we make it complicated!

    Our media is very much government-centric. It is so rude to portray other races behaving as they are projected in the advertisement. So much for 1Malaysia.

  6. Main says:

    8TV was had by the law. What’s so heavy about the ads, anyway ? In reality, everybody [behaves] more or less the same and nobody cares. 8TV was trying to impart with certain societal values to everyone and was found guilty for [breaching] certain broadcasting [expectations]. Maybe the three guys at the end of the ads should be found guilty as well.

  7. neptunian says:

    Welcome to the 15th century (Muslim calendar)… remember your history lessons?
    Spanish inquisition – 1480+ Read all the similarities between all the dos and don’ts then with the persecution happening now!

  8. kanchil tua says:

    The ad must be the work of a Malay who is trying to belittle the Chinese. In my 69 years I have not seen anyone behaving like that girl in the ad. It is the concoction of a sick mind who thinks he [or she] is very creative. This is the result of a substandard education that Malaysians, especially Malays, have been subjected to in our national type schools. Malaysian are the butt of jokes about our “low mentality”, especially our substandard education policies. 10-15 million Malay graduates cannot make up for the loss of 1 million Chinese who have been “brain-drained”. We will see more and more of these, especially from the Malays/Muslims, as this is the group most affected by our substandard education system. It’s really sad for me to observe this happening right before my eyes. And yet nobody blames Dr M for all this. Are the Malays blinded by his “ketuanan” policies to really believe that it can be carried out? Wake up fellow Malays, and behold the man who has destroyed the Malay psyche in the short space of 25 years.

  9. Ramadan Delights says:

    As a Muslim, i have no problem with [the] “pork” in Ramadan Delights MISTAKE. People make mistakes… just like what 8tv had done… there’s no need to shout aloud like in this article.

    • There wouldn’t be a need to “shout aloud” about the 8TV ads if the station wasn’t shouting themselves about what non-Muslims can and cannot do during Ramadan.

      Silence means consent, complicity and compliance. That we agree that Muslims should be able to tell non-Muslims how to behave during Ramadan.

      You may not have a problem with the pork in the Ramadan Delights ad you mentioned and that is clearly your prerogative. But both examples are not entirely comparable.

      The 8TV ads, no matter how multi-racial the creative team was, was bigoted and racist by portraying Chinese Malaysians as greedy, obnoxious, loud and insensitive as if only the Chinese have a monopoly on these traits. The Ramadan Delight ads, while unfortunate, isn’t racist. It’s insensitive, yes, but being insensitive is different from clearly promoting a message that a particular race, and a particular race only, is greedy, obnoxious, loud and insensitive.

      • Ramadan Delights says:

        Such a strong rebuke from you… both are mistakes from human beings. We learn from it and forgive. […] To err is to be only human.

        • Kong Kek Kuat says:

          @ Ramadan Delights

          Then maybe you also have no problems with people saying that Muslims these days are generally quite self-centred, with a distorted view of the real world fuelled by subsidies and a welfare state aid?

          • Ramadan Delights says:

            @Kong Kek Kuat

            Not only Muslims, but non-Muslims are generally quite self-centered these days, don’t you think? I believe religion is not the issue behind why human beings are self-centred. [The fault lies within] human beings themselves.

          • Kong Kek Kuat says:

            @ Ramadan Delights

            “Not only Muslims, but non-Muslims are generally quite self-centered these days, don’t you think? I believe religion is not the issue behind why human beings are self-centred. [The fault lies within] human beings themselves.”

            You mean like that 8TV ad implying that only Muslims have good virtues? Or was it implying that only Malays have good virtues?

      • Merah Silu says:

        Kalau sesuatu perkara berkaitan dengan mempersendakan orang Melayu atau Islam, oh tak apa. Cuma insensitive dan bukannya rasis. Bagaimana kalau dalam iklan itu pelakonnya adalah orang Nepal. Oh baru nampak tujuannya adalah untuk menunjukkan perkara-perkara yang perlu diambil maklum semasa bulan Ramadhan. Tetapi memandangkan pelakon nya adalah orang Cina, maka timbul lah isu rasis. Sebabnya orang Cina sekarang terasa terlalu superior. Apa sahaja yang berkaitan dengan Melayu, samada institusi, amalan, sensitiviti, adalah tidak penting, dan tidak betul. Hanya orang Cina sahaja yang betul.

        Surat khabar Melayu seperti Utusan Malaysia dikatakan tidak tepat, dan hanya sesuai untuk bungkus nasi lemak. Itulah surat khabar yang saya baca semasa sekolah rendah, semasa buat PhD diUK mid 80s, dan semasa di NY mid 90s. Itulah pandangan orang Cina yang merasakan dirinya terlalu superior dan apa-apa yang berkaitan dengan orang Melayu adalah inferior.

        Janganlah terlalu angkoh dan sombong. Tak pandai mana pun. Cuma orang-orang Melayu masih belum sedar sepenuhnya lagi.

      • Malini says:

        Yes, and you must give The Star credit – apologise they did, and minus some lame excuse that it was misunderstood, or that Muslims should “chill”.

  10. The girl in the red Ferrari says:

    I really like your style of writing – you keep me interested without having to resort to bombastic language. While I may not agree with you all the time, you have some pretty valid points. Keep it up.

    That aside, I see Ahmad Izham’s point of asking viewers to chill and stop over-thinking – his side of the story was to look at it in a purely humourous way. What he failed to anticipate was the other side of the coin – how the viewers would perceive it.

    The worst part however, was the apology (if you could call it that). “We’re sorry you misunderstood”?? Really? No, we didnt misunderstand. You did.

  11. Reza says:

    Everyone seems to have turned this into a racial/religious issue, insisting that the ads have insulted non-Muslims/non-Malays by portraying them as being greedy, loud, obnoxious, inappropriate and disrespectful. I, however, do not see it that way.

    But before I present my arguments, let us first understand the objective of the ads. At its core, I believe the ads are only intended to educate those AMONG the non-Muslim population who are unaware of proper Ramadan etiquette. Now, unless one were to assert that every single non-Muslim knows what the correct Ramadan etiquette is, I feel that this is an innocuous intention. Now ask yourself, if you were on the team that had to write the ads, given the objective above, how would you get the message across in a video format?

    Being a video ad, there obviously have to be actors, at least one of whom would be acting out the undesired behaviours that are being discouraged to show the audience an example of what is not proper. Also, given the context, said actor would have to be of a typical non-Muslim ethnicity. In Malaysia, that would be either Chinese or Indian. Obviously, it would be illogical to have a Malay/Muslim playing the part of the obnoxious and inappropriate character in an ad showing how not to behave around Muslims during Ramadan. Based on the context, I see no reason to infer that the propriety of the offending character’s ethnicity is in question nor does it imply that there are no insensitive Malays/Muslims just because the character isn’t one.

    I believe the cause of this widespread fallacy in perception lies in the undue attention on the wrong aspect of the character. People seem to be fixated on the offending character’s race, when they should look at the character as an individual.

    To be continued in the next post….

    • Reza says:

      Continued from previous post…

      This reminds me of a similar incident a few years back that I’m sure most of us can remember. There was a public service message ad about civic-mindedness on TV depicting a Malay man on a crowded LRT train who ignored a blind woman standing next to him. The man was clearly insensitive to the needs of this less fortunate woman by not giving up his seat for her. I cannot accurately recall much about what transpires next, but I think the seated man drops one of his belongings on the floor and the blind woman picks it up for him despite him not being courteous and considerate.

      I recall there were some Malays who condemned the ad as portraying Malay men in a negative light. They made the similar mistake of focusing on the character’s ethnicity, when the message was actually intended for everyone, regardless of race or gender. I see the same thing happening here.

      The reality is that there are insensitive and inappropriate people in every race. No ethnicity has a monopoly on these negative traits, nor is any ethnicity devoid of them. Some non-Muslims are aware of Ramadan etiquette and are respectful of Muslims, others may need to be educated, hence the purpose of the ads. The ads were merely targeted at those INDIVIDUALS (not ethnicities) who are clueless as to the proper decorum when in the presence of Muslims during Ramadan.

  12. Bundle of Crap says:

    I wonder why the sudden need for this PSA? It’s like poking a hornet’s nest.

  13. Malaysia Boleh says:

    What I find worrying and distasteful about these ads is not what ethnicity the “offender” is, but the message the ad sends.

    If the ad was to promote the moral importance or etiquette of the fasting month, it should be pointed at the fasting Muslims, not non-Muslims. It is close to being dictatorial to imply that during the fasting month, those of other faiths should be behaving in a sensitive manner towards those fasting. (It would be nice if non-Muslims did this through their own decision and consideration, but certainly not because they are being told to do so.)

    As a personal practice by those of the Muslim faith and a pillar of said religion, Muslims themselves should be striving to be the best people they can be by being more tolerant, understanding and more humble. They should not by any means allow the behaviour of others to affect them.

    Seems to me, the ad had it completely backwards. They should have showed non-Muslims behaving in the most un-Ramadan-like fashion and Muslims not being affected by it and understanding that the trial they are going through is private and not the responsibility of people of other faiths to have to have to go through as well. Fancy asking other people not to smoke/eat chocolate/drink alcohol when you abstain during Lent or any other religiously induced self-denial period.

  14. sofi says:

    I am not a keen follower of Malaysian TV (government monopoly of media makes my stomach churn), but apparently Ahmad Izham is a bright spot in it. And this happens. His dismal and inexplicable handling of the issue makes me wonder how someone who can’t see the error of the situation can hold such a high position and important portfolio. I find it quite baffling. He made a mistake, some say, but this kind of mistake? A very rookie one, really. He’s no uneducated joe, nor is he one of those bigots that we call politicians … so all I can conclude is that he thinks the ad is funny.

    So he must explain why it’s funny. And he must defend its humour, because I am really curious to know. Is he using stereotypes to make people laugh? But that’s the thing with humour using sensitive issues &ndashl; you’ve got to be savvy and smart enough to make it work without being offensive. If this was what they were trying to do, then 8tv’s team really needs to get better talent, or brainstorm for longer. Anyone with half a brain would know that by viewing the ads.

    So it really baffles me, what did Ahmad Izham see when he saw the ad? Can he explain his non-apology? If deep down he thinks there’s nothing wrong, then have the guts to explain it. I think that’s how he portrays himself, right? As the funky, young and urbane TV exec?

  15. dan says:

    Let’s vote for Chua Soi Lek then. He’s good.

    I love TNG, but now found it has this negative aura due to Jacq’s writing. I don’t really feel the same towards the other writers’ thoughts here. Jacqueline, don’t get carried away with emotions when writing, please. It’s getting more and more negative with your writings. I love the other writers here. Thanks.

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