Holier-than-thou: Where has our Asian joyfulness gone?

The TV advertisements for our festive events may have become so morally uptight that the fun and magic

have disappeared.

When I used to work at Starbucks in Wellington, New Zealand, I would have socio-political chitchats with my fellow baristas in between pulling coffee and serving customers.

Sometimes these conversations turned into heated debates. Once, I told my very scruffy friend Phil about Malaysia’s public holidays.

He sarcastically replied, “so that means Malaysians are lazy.” I took offence and snapped back, “No, it just means we’re more culturally diverse.”

Living abroad, I had taken for granted Malaysia’s unique socio-cultural composition. We often pride ourselves of our rich multiculturalism but unfortunately our pride is often superficial.

We are masters of duplicity; we promote multiculturalism but instantly shrink back into our myopic cocoons once “multiculturalism” creeps too close into our backyards.

We are all too familiar with the blatant political bigotry, but what I’d like to address here is the subtle intolerance embedded in our public service announcements (PSAs).

PSAs have become the yardstick upon which cultural sensitivities are measured. Creative writers are faced with the slippery slope of crafting a powerful message in 60 seconds that will not offend any member of Malaysian society while still trying to make a difference. It is a balancing act that not everyone gets right.

PSAs of cultural and religious festivities have a taken a very didactic turn.

Yasmin Ahmad made Petronas so in/famous for such melancholic advertisements that other companies are also jumping on the bandwagon.

Since her demise, it seems to be a competition among advertising agencies to see who can come up with the most heart-wrenching or meaningful message. If they’re not trying to make us feel guilty, they’re trying to dictate our moral codes.

Over the past few years, we’ve had a string of so-called insensitive PSAs. Let us not forget the outrage 8TV caused by airing that controversial Ramadan “Dos and Don’ts” series in 2011 whereby a Chinese girl was going around a Pasar Ramadan, wearing inappropriate clothes or behaving obnoxiously, apparently oblivious to the sensitivities of the “other” people fasting. This was meant to be a portrayal of unacceptable behaviour of Ramadan.

I found it peculiar that we are so politically “correct” and uptight all the time that we can’t just brush off a tasteless advertisement as just that – tasteless. Instead, we pressured and demanded that 8TV take the PSAs down – and took down they did, thrown in with a sheepish apology from the CEO.

In 2010, we had a Deepavali-Christmas hybrid for a Hari Raya Aidilfitri PSA by TV3 which enraged the Muslim community. I personally thought the advertisement was intelligently done, connecting the Malay’s Hindu past and the Muslim’s relationship with Christianity all in 60 seconds.

But some quarters were outraged for apparent “misrepresentation” – a Pakcik with white hair rides a sleigh like Santa Claus, and children discovered lighted lotuses.

We read things so literally that we can’t allow ourselves a little bit of imagination for cross-cultural inspirations to happen. What’s wrong with a little bit of magic?

Chinese New Year advertisements have been spared of controversies as far as I know of. You can never go wrong with old Chinese folks and ungrateful children. But are children really such heartless cretins? Do they really put work and friends first before family? Come to think of it, sometimes we actually do.

Perhaps creative writers should draw inspiration from hardcore reality instead of a perceived ideal. We permeate such romanticised realities of familial relationships that we forget that relatives can be a nasty bunch. But those are Asian familial values in place aren’t they? Don’t be rude to elders, don’t talk back, don’t do this, don’t do that.

We swallow our contempt and laugh it off, consoling ourselves that we only see them once a year. A friend had hashtagged #s**trelativessayduringCNY on Twitter and it was hilarious.

The usual physical comments (wah, you put on weight!), the economic advice which is really just trying to tell you to earn more (you do NGO work can earn money meh?), the relentless questions about marriage, the “I-forgot-you’re-not-a-kid-anymore” comments and the list goes on. I would love to see an advertisement addressing these uncomfortable moments for once. I’m sure it’s something that everyone across the board can share and laugh about.

Another Christmas PSA by RTM in 2011 featured a spoilt brat who wanted a bicycle and ended up in hospital for running away from her mother while in 2012, the CNY advertisement, “Sek Fan” (eat rice) by Bernas featured a selfish son who ended up falling off a construction site.

Although both are very touching, I can’t help but feel that these consequential messages are reflective of a “holier-than-thou” society specifically targeting “young people” and indirectly lecturing them of our “values” – respect, gratefulness, kindness.

These are all fine but I’m beginning to wonder, where has our Asian joyfulness gone? How come we never feature the glutton anymore? (Come on! We always look forward to the food!)

What about the boisterous laughter and merriment of our uncles? Which family would actually sit you down and talk about respecting the elders during these festivities? Our values have already been embedded since young, we don’t need to be told by an advertisement worth a few hundred thousand ringgit.

When I was very young, I remember the advertisements for Aidilfitri always had children with sparklers and people mixing dodol accompanied by lame theme songs. Perhaps as I grew older I became more sceptical; but I can’t help but lament that many years ago, we were more lax and less uptight, that we weren’t trying to “correct” people all the time. Surely I can’t blame Yasmin Ahmad, can I?

This year, we seem to made it this far without any disastrous PSAs. But is it because the production houses and TV stations are playing it safe, after so many public embarrassments? Is it because we are practising self-censorship?

Are we kow-towing to a “sensitive” public and thus rather not risk or experiment with anything too creative? Have we become a nation that cannot even laugh at itself, with all its stereotypes and racial profiling, or brush aside a tasteless ad without getting all riled up?

Perhaps in the coming months as we celebrate more festivities, we should take a deeper look at how we are being portrayed, or portraying others, and see what reactions, if any, are provoked. It could bring to light what we have been doing wrong all this time.

> Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like a cloth tapestry.

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