Attending a concert in Malaysia? Be prepared to sit separately from your friends of the opposite sex and refrain from excessive laughter.
The latest entertainment guidelines by the Department of Islamic Development for concert organizers include ensuring artists who plan to perform in the country have no criminal record and that they sport hairstyles and attire that won’t leave anyone confused about their gender. Singers can forget about raunchy dance moves and comedians about making jokes on serious topics.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s party has brought in policies to shore up support with its Malay Muslim base since the ruling coalition’s worst-ever showing in the 2013 election. Rising Islamization in Malaysia is creating friction between those calling for stricter adherence to the religion in the Muslim-majority nation and others who want greater tolerance in a country with a sizable Chinese and Indian minority.
“Race and religion traditionally are convenient tools” in politics, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “There is a vocal minority who are occupying positions of influence who are opportunistically inciting” divisive policies, he said.
Muslims make up more than 60 percent of Malaysia’s 30 million population. The Department of Islamic Development, known as Jakim, is a division within the prime minister’s office.
Guidelines, not law
Islamic authorities in recent months have criticized young female Muslim fans of South Korean pop stars for kissing or hugging the singers during concerts, calling it public indecency. They’ve also investigated a social activist who organized a dog touching event for Muslims.
The entertainment guidelines are not the law and are instead a point of reference, the Star newspaper reported Monday, citing Othman Mustapha, director-general of Jakim. He commented after Jakim was criticized for the guidelines, which were set out in a 16-page report on its website.
“We do not want to curtail any events, we just want to do what’s best for the people,” Othman was reported as saying. “The guidelines are meant to help the entertainment industry as there are more Muslim fans in it now.”
Islam is recognized as the official religion of Malaysia, which Najib describes as a “moderate” Islamic state, and non-Muslims have the right to choose and practice their faith.
“Malaysia is a multi-racial, multicultural and multi-religious” country, said Chew Mei Fun, Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development and also vice president of the Malaysian Chinese Association. “Any public policy which will restrict movements or alter the normative lifestyle of non-Muslims is unfeasible for Malaysia.”
Malaysia has previously asked foreign performers to cover up or face a ban. In October 2013, singer Kesha’s concert was canceled, BBC reported, while in 2006 the local organizers of a Pussycat Dolls concert were fined for breaking decency laws.
In 2009, Beyonce Knowles canceled her planned concert for a second time after conservative Muslims criticized the pop star for her raunchy stage clothes. In 2004, singer Mariah Carey agreed to dress less provocatively in order for her concert to go ahead, wearing a shirt and jeans throughout her “Charmbracelet” show as a protest.
Signs of rising religious intolerance include Malaysia’s top court in January dismissing a final bid by the Catholic church to use the word “Allah” in its newspaper. Last month, members of Najib’s party joined an opposition Islamic party in supporting a law that punishes adulterers with death and thieves with amputation in the state of Kelantan.
There are signs of greater Islamization in other Southeast Asian nations too.