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Tea Leaves

Malaysia highlights disconnect in approach to popular culture

Cinema release for 'Banglasia 2.0' challenges Southeast Asian cultural conservatism

Namewee acts as Hanguoren, a pro-Malaysia activist who wants to free his country from all immigrants, in a scene from the movie "Banglasia 2.0." (Courtesy of WebTVAsia)

One of the more curious outcomes of the 2018 shock defeat of Malaysia's Barisan Nasional (National Front) government, after six decades in power, is an unlikely new opportunity for Malaysians to laugh at themselves in cinemas.

Take the case of "Banglasia 2.0," a feature film that spent six years in the can due to its criticisms of the former government. The creation of Namewee, a controversial ethnic Chinese Malaysian rapper, actor and director, the film was finally released on Feb. 28, cleared -- albeit with cuts -- by the ruling Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) government led by 93-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The movie, which satirizes the country's 2013 general election, was banned under the former government, led by Najib Razak (now on trial for alleged corruption), which feared the potential impact of this irreverent and raucous comedy on a restless electorate.

Namewee, whose real name is Wee Meng Chee, became infamous in 2007 after his song "Negarakuku," a parody of Malaysia's national anthem "Negaraku" (My Country) offended Malays and Islamic leaders with its use of the word "kuku," which means "penis" in the Hokkien language used by many Chinese-Malaysians.

Namewee was forced to apologize after the Malaysian authorities considered arresting him under the Sedition Act, a law intended to prevent incitement to rebellion but often used by the ruling party against political critics.

The film, originally called "Banglasia," was scheduled for release in January 2014, but was banned by the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia, which cited "problems" in 31 scenes. It is easy to see why: The movie takes a darkly humorous view of contemporary issues such as human trafficking, migrant labor, political corruption and the country's complex mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups.

"Banglasia 2.0" tells the fictional story of Harris, an immigrant worker from Bangladesh played by Nirab Hossain, a well-known Bengali actor from Bangladesh. Harris, who wants to return home to stop his beloved Laboni from marrying another man, becomes involved with Hanguoren (played by Namewee), an activist who wants to expel immigrants, and Rina, the daughter of Harris's boss -- who may be a parodical nod to Mahathir and his daughter Marina.

The three escape to the countryside, where the Luk Luks -- a fictional version of the Sulu Islamists from the southern Philippines who attacked the Malaysian state of Sabah in January 2013 -- are taking over the country.

In 2015, the original "Banglasia" was shown at movie festivals in Singapore, New York and Osaka. Later that year Namewee used a Kickstarter campaign in an unsuccessful attempt to recover the film's $500,000 production costs and release it free online.

"Banglasia 2.0" has seven major cuts in scenes containing shootings, hints of homosexual affection, sarcastic comparisons of Malaysia and Singapore, and a joke about Malaysia's identity document, known as the MyKad.

The film also had to be partly reshot and updated to reflect the passage of time. Namewee seems happy with the result, but despairs that the total of 3 million ringgit ($735,000) he spent making the film will never be recovered, and that the problems he encountered with its release will deter independent producers from similarly controversial projects.

Sadly, Malaysia is far from alone in its restrictive approach to popular culture and ideas, which are regarded with suspicion by governments throughout Southeast Asia. One recent example is the last-minute cancellation of a concert by the Swedish group Watain in Singapore on March 7. They play black metal, a sub-genre of heavy metal that uses Satanic and Nazi imagery and themes.

The government banned the event on public order grounds following an online petition supported by worried Christians and conservatives. Its reaction echoed a series of official moral panics over black metal music that swept Malaysia and Singapore in the early 2000s, leading to clampdowns on all sorts of alternative youth performances.

This sort of thinking remains widespread. In neighboring Indonesia, for example, current draft legislation could see various forms of non-traditional, Western-style music banned from performance spaces, potentially blocking development of one of the region's most vibrant music scenes.

This hypervigilant attitude among Southeast Asian conservatives is puzzling. The truth is that popular music, books and films around the world have lost an earlier element of revolt, deteriorating into reliance on more lucrative niche sectors of the global entertainment industry which encourage consumption more than resistance.

But in Southeast Asia, rather than understanding what is happening in the rest of the world, governments still often see popular culture as a threat, and keep attempting to ban or suppress it.

The result is that popular culture in Southeast Asia is stiffening like a dead body, rather than basking in the creative possibilities of the region's economic and social development. Ideas must be freed if the region is to progress as a liberal, creative part of the world. For now, unfortunately, the witch hunt continues, in spite of Namewee's partial success.

Marco Ferrarese is a writer based in Penang, Malaysia.

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