"No hugging, we're Muslims": Reality shows
with a twist in Malaysia

From Yahoo! News of Sunday September 4, 2005

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Reality TV has taken Malaysia by storm, but instead of eating bugs or cavorting nude in jacuzzis, contestants in the mostly Muslim country observe a "hands-off" policy and face spot checks on the direction of Mecca.
Despite the attempts to bring them in line with Islamic precepts, the dozens of home-grown reality shows have scandalised politicians and religious leaders, who accuse them of promoting Western culture and offending local sensibilities.
Influential Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak has complained that the shows "borrow extensively from Western culture" which he fears could "threaten Eastern values and lead to moral decadence".
But cult phenomenon "Akademi Fantasia", which is based on a Brazilian talent search, has kept record audiences around the country glued to their screens, suggesting that the criticisms do not reflect society standards.
Featuring a group of ambitious young men and women confined in a house and given voice and dancing lessons, "Akademi" culminates in a concert finale after most of the contestants are voted out weekly via SMS text messages.
The conclusion of its third season recently attracted 12 million SMS votes, no mean feat for a country with a population of 25 million.
Its winner, 24-year-old Asmawi Ani, drew a cult following, and his popularity among the show's largely Malay audience was mainly due to his clean-cut image, religious background and past experience in Koran recitals.
However, Najib was incensed that some contestants were shown hugging each other tearfully as their peers were voted out.
"No hugging please, we are Muslims," he was quoted as saying. "This is about religion. It is forbidden in the religion."
"We should not blindly follow the west and come out with programmes like 'Mencari Cinta', 'Mentor' and 'Akademi Fantasia' where the scenes don't portray our way of life," he thundered.
Mentor, another talent search, sees wannabes teamed up with well-established chart-topping singers who groom their proteges for success.
Former premier Mahathir Mohamad, known for his outspoken anti-Western rhetoric, has also expressed his concern, saying reality shows could lead to moral decadence among Malaysians.
A mufti from conservative Perak state in the north, Harussani Zakaria, was so scandalised by reality shows that he declared them "haram" or forbidden in Islam, saying they promoted free mingling between the sexes which he feared could lead to moral collapse.
"Young people who watch reality TV concerts late into the night take the opportunity to mingle freely and the chances of them doing drugs is high," he said.
Satellite TV operator Astro has also been slammed by Culture Minister Rais Yatim for airing import "Fear Factor", where contestants perform stomach-churning stunts like eating worms or pigs' intestines for the chance to win 50,000 dollars.
"We don't have to eat worms here. There are other ways to earn a living in Malaysia," Rais said.
Of some 26 locally produced reality shows that the craze has spawned, the newest is "Mencari Cinta" or "Looking for Love", which showcases 10 men competing for the affections of a young woman named Elly.
However, fans of the American show "For Love or Money" or Britain's "Blind Date", with their smooching and suggestive pick-up lines, would be sorely disappointed as the show is firmly centered on conservative Muslim-Malay culture.
In a tribute to traditional values, the men in "Looking for Love" flaunt their domestic and social skills to not only to win Elly's heart but also the approval of her family, particularly her pushy brother-in-law, who grills contestants on whether they are sincere and have good intentions.
In one episode, the bleary-eyed men are awakened at the crack of dawn by the brother-in-law, to see if they have performed their morning prayers, testing them by asking them the direction of Mecca.
"Looking for Love" pointedly lacks any sort of physical contact between Elly and the male contestants, and other reality shows also appear to have a strict self-imposed ban on bikinis, sex, alcohol and tobacco.
Malaysia's censors are already infamous for their bans on films and books in a bid to keep sex under cover. And guidelines for locally made programmes on state-run stations enforce strict censorship on anything that could be seen as detrimental to moral values.
"Malaysian Idol" executive producer Michael Christian Simon says the contestants in the local version of the global reality phenomenon are instructed to avoid physical contact due to religious sensitivities.
"We do try to stay away from hugs, we tell them to avoid hugs as we don't want to arouse sensitivities. But people do get very emotional obviously when people are voted out," he says.
"It's all very innocent. There are no pre-meditated hugs," he told AFP. "Malaysian Idol is about giving talented Malaysians a break to go on to the world stage. How can that be bad for culture?"