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