Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Pan-Asian Models and the Road to Apartheid

Written by johnleemk on 6:57:15 am Feb 11, 2007.

Recently, as you probably know, the Malaysian government decided to ban the usage of "Pan-Asian" (in other words, those who don't look "Malaysian" enough — whatever that means) models in advertisements. In short, it seems pretty likely that we'll soon be seeing more Malay, Chinese, Indian and non-Malay Bumiputra (?) faces on television and in the newspapers. In addition, it seems pretty obvious that our ridiculous government is sticking its nose where it doesn't belong.

Speaking strictly from an economist's perspective, this makes no sense. Advertising companies use particular models because these models are able to appeal to the advertiser's target audience. Is it the models' fault if most Malaysians happen to prefer people of mixed parentage or people with "unMalaysian" (a "nebulous" term at any rate, as the late Johor Menteri Besar might say) looks? Is it the fault of advertising companies that most Malaysians still clamour for anything with the aroma of the mat salleh about it, and as such prefer models who look Western? Why should these people be penalised for something that is the fault of the consumers? And, of course, it is a given that the economy will be harmed by this measure, since if models who do not appeal to as many Malaysians are used, naturally the number of consumers purchasing particular products will decrease. It is possible that they'll spend the money on something else that's more beneficial to the economy, but all other things being equal, they probably won't.

The economic point of view aside, what other rational grounds can there be for this? Public policy exists to benefit the public, and how is the public helped when models it prefers are pushed aside and substituted with perceivedly inferior ones? The government in its ever-so wise and paternalistic thinking may feel that it is better if people with more "Malaysian" looks are given priority in modeling, but how does this benefit the public? (I hardly think the government is being motivated by the desire to decrease consumer spending.)

Of course, there has to be a catalyst for this insane decision by the government. There has to be some vocal pressure group at the source — some raving group of lunatics whose egoes get inflated when there are less Pan-Asian models in the papers and on the television. It's possible this pressure group is someone in the Cabinet — maybe it's even the Information Minister himself, Zainuddin Maidin. Others have suggested radical right-wing Malay/Muslim periodicals have been pushing for the ban. Considering that we have nothing concrete to go on here, it's difficult to reach a conclusion about who triggered this stupid policy.

Whoever is to blame, I think this is really a slap in the face of Pan-Asian Malaysians, and the Malaysian public as a whole. This is a policy of blatant discrimination against people on the grounds of their looks, plain and simple. At least in the past, our government was content to be quiet in its chauvinist policies. Even if skin colour was a factor, they wouldn't shout it in your face. After all, you don't have to be brown to get a 7% discount on your new luxury condominium or to get discounted allocations of new initial public offerings — you just have to be a "Bumiputra", which can be easily accomplished with conversion to Islam. Now, on the other hand, even theoretically first-class citizens — the Bumiputra — may be out of a job if the government doesn't deem them Malaysian-looking enough! I'm not sure about you, but I call the blatant denial of employment to a particular class of people on grounds of physical appearance apartheid.

Now, consider why Pan-Asian models are preferred by advertising agencies. Is it simply because advertising agencies are biased and think atypical-looking models superior to those with more "Malaysian" looks? Of course not — perhaps one or two agencies are run on such a basis, but most are run purely for profit. Clearly, it is profitable to employ Pan-Asian models. Why is this so? It cannot be that Pan-Asian models are cheaper or easier to find than Malaysian-looking ones, so the problem is not on the supply end. Rather, it is on the demand side. People want Pan-Asian models!

Who are these people? The Malaysian public, of course! The government has decided, however, that Malaysians are simply too stupid to be trusted, and as such regulates the kind of people they see in advertising. In the past, we'd call this a police state. Today, we call it putting an end to neo-colonialism. (Although perhaps we're just replacing one colonialist with another?)

Okay, let's assume that this is a real problem, and that somehow, discriminating against people on the basis of physical appearance is justified in order to preserve the nebulous sense of a Malaysian identity (even though I fail to see how our identity should be defined by how we look). If this is the case, however, why is this so high on the government's priority list? If the government is serious about enforcing this rule, public funds will have to be spent on chasing after advertisers who dare to employ models who don't look Malaysian enough. Surely there are more pressing problems to deal with? Last time I checked, we aren't even training enough teachers (to the point that teachers with degrees in physics end up teaching biology). Perhaps the government could focus its efforts here before turning an eye to the pressing issue of models who don't appear Malaysian enough?

And, while we're at it, if the issue is models who don't look enough like the typical Malaysian, maybe we ought to ban models who are too attractive? After all, we cannot allow Malaysians to be subjugated by the mentality advertisers play on. People aspire to look Pan-Asian, people aspire to look attractive — it's all the same when it comes to advertising. Why don't we put some typical Malaysian faces on the airwaves? Hey, we could start with my ugly mug — after all, I'm sure my face would probably be more representative of the typical Malaysian male than some ridiculously good-looking Chinese hunk. And don't forget all those narrators on the radio with downright unMalaysian accents! Seriously, what Malaysian talks like that in real life? The government should ban unMalaysian radio narrators too!

In all seriousness, why are we allowing the Malaysian identity to be shaped by physical appearance? Since when was being a Malaysian about what you looked like, or who your parents were? Do we hand out different identity cards to people on the grounds that they don't fit some stereotyped ideal of what a Malaysian should look like? Being Malaysian is about a state of mind. If you think of yourself as belonging to the Malaysian community, if you aim to contribute to Malaysian society, that's what makes you Malaysian. Not harping on models who don't look "Malaysian" enough.

Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote of a Road to Serfdom that began with the implementation of socialism in a country. Similarly, I believe there is a road to apartheid that begins with the simple differentiation of people according to physical appearance or ethnic origin. Our country took its first step on this road many moons ago, when the British decided that Malayan-born non-Malays did not deserve to be considered locals. Ever since then, despite brave attempts to turn back down this path (and I would classify the New Economic Policy as one of them), we have continued further down the road to apartheid. This simple act of discrimination in employment by government mandate is another step. How many more before we culminate in complete segregation and division of the nation along ethnic lines? It may be a lot less than we'd like to think.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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