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Malaysia’s Defining Political Tension Takes the Concert Stage

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Just before Coldplay took to the stage in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday night for their final stop of the year on their Music of the Spheres world tour, Malaysian authorities announced that a “kill switch” would be available to the concert’s organizers should they need to pull the plug on the show on account of any misbehavior by the band.

In the end, to the relief of the more than 75,000 fans in attendance, the mechanism wasn’t used—but it’s emblematic of the precariousness that now hangs over international performances in Malaysia. The precaution was implemented in response to a July incident by English band The 1975, whose frontman Matty Healy drunkenly criticized the Muslim-majority nation’s anti-LGBTQ laws and kissed bassist Ross MacDonald on stage in protest. The entire Good Vibes Festival at which the performance took place was promptly canceled and the band blacklisted from playing in the Southeast Asian country again.

In the run-up to Coldplay’s concert, conservative leaders called for a cancellation of their show, too, arguing that the soft-rock group promotes “hedonism and deviant cultures” through its public advocacy for the LGBTQ community. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, in turn, pointed to Coldplay’s longstanding support for Palestinians, which aligns with the Malaysian government and most Malaysians’ stance, as reason not to call it off.

The concert scene in Malaysia, which has long been subject to strict performance restrictions, is increasingly becoming a high-pitch political battleground, spotlighting growing tensions over the direction of the country of more than 33 million people. On one side are conservative Islamists who have continually opposed international artists on religious and moral grounds; on the other are event organizers, vendors, and other business interests, who prioritize the commercial potential of concerts, as well as predominantly urban fans, who are more willing to embrace Western culture.

As Anwar struggles to maintain his grip on power, amid dual trends of rising religious fundamentalism and growing economic concerns, it’s a needle that’s becoming increasingly difficult to thread.

With the leading opposition party now regularly using concerts to “pressure the government” and label the ruling coalition as “immoral,” James Chai, a visiting fellow of the Malaysia studies program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, tells TIME, Anwar will continuously find himself having to decide whether to disallow concerts, reneging support for what his own government’s languishing tourism department identified last year as a vital industry, or “continue to have them and take the risk of getting criticized by the Islamic opposition.”

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The battle over concerts in Malaysia is not new. Shows by international artists have long been a touchy subject in the country, where conservative religious groups are known to oppose performers they deem provocative. In 2007, Beyoncé canceled her planned concert in Kuala Lumpur after Islamic groups protested her sexualized image; and in 2013, Kesha’s concert was canceled by authorities just one day before it was scheduled to take place, despite the singer agreeing to self-censor her lyrics and outfits. 

But while there remains some room for the world’s biggest artists to perform in Malaysia—after Coldplay’s sold-out show on Wednesday, Ed Sheeran is scheduled to perform in Kuala Lumpur in February—the country’s viability as a concert destination is growing increasingly uncertain amid heightened political scrutiny.

In July, after the controversy involving The 1975 at Good Vibes Festival, American singer-songwriter Lauv canceled his two sold-out shows in Kuala Lumpur; and in September, K-pop group Mamamoo was forced to cancel their November concert after their permit application was rejected by authorities. “Despite our constant efforts, the related issues were unfortunately beyond our control,” the Mamamoo concert organizer said in a statement, without specifying reasons for the rejection, though the group is known for its support for the LGBTQ community and for challenging gender stereotypes.

MTV World Stage Malaysia 2015 - The Concert Event
Fans attend MTV World Stage Malaysia at Sunway Lagoon on Sept. 12, 2015.Kristian Dowling—Getty Images

The impetus to ban performances or pressure artists to cancel, says Kevin Fernandez, a senior lecturer of political science at the University of Malaya, is “surrounded by this conservative idea of what's considered halal”—an Arabic term denoting what’s permissible among Muslims. “These foreigners have been seen as people that are going to bring about a bad influence on local [Islamic] values,” Fernandez adds.

Leading the charge is the hardline Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), an opposition party that saw a surge in popularity during the November 2022 election and now holds the most seats in parliament of any single party. PAS has long taken aim at concerts, which it deems the cause of “immoral behavior” in the country. Last year, after Billie Eilish performed in Kuala Lumpur, the group’s leaders warned that holding such events would incur the “wrath of Allah.” In August, PAS’s youth wing went as far as to call for a ban on all upcoming performances by international artists, claiming that they promoted hedonistic culture, and it threatened to “stir up resistance across the country” if its demand was not met.

But not everyone is pleased with concerts coming under the crosshairs—especially those whose livelihoods are tied to the entertainment business. “We lead a dangerous life,” says Rizal Kamal, the president of the Arts, Live Festival and Events Association (ALIFE), a group that represents the interests of the industry and has been calling for an end to the politicking around Malaysia’s concert scene. Rizal says his association tries to mitigate the risks of event cancellations by “having continuous dialogue with the government and getting them to understand our business and our point of view.”

Malaysian authorities are also keenly aware of the lucrative potential of the live entertainment industry, which contributed to 6.8% of Malaysia’s GDP pre-COVID. Neighboring Singapore and Thailand are already enjoying the economic windfall of hosting some of music’s biggest names. 

But as identity politics exacerbates in Malaysia, Anwar’s embattled government, led by the Pakatan Harapan coalition of center-left parties, has had to navigate a delicate balance between pursuing economic interests and shoring up political support.

Read More: Voters in Malaysia Jaded by Corruption Charges Are Turning More Toward Identity Politics

In October, in a bid to encourage the hosting of more music events in Malaysia, the government announced tax exemptions for local artists and tax reductions for international performers. But at the same time, Pakatan Harapan has attempted to win over conservative Muslim voters by trying to “out-Islamize” PAS. In August, the Malaysian home ministry announced a ban on a series of rainbow-themed watches from Swatch’s Pride collection, saying that the products were promoting LGBTQ rights, “which is not accepted by the general public in Malaysia.”

Authorities have also been taking steps to regulate concerts in public universities, with Anwar saying in June that he was not “giving leeway for youth to be corrupted,” though authorities were later forced to review their guidelines—which included a cut-off time of 10.45 p.m. and a ban on male and female attendees sitting together—after they sparked backlash from student groups.

The tension over concerts—and over the broader centrality of Islam to Malaysia’s government—is notably split more by geographical lines than age, with rural youth among the most prominent supporters of the country’s conservative parties and urban youth more in favor of Anwar’s liberal coalition.

With this division set to define voting patterns in Malaysia going forward, the degree to which Anwar caters to conservatives—and how that ends up being received by both sides—“will have long-term implications that could potentially worsen divisions among different communities in Malaysia,” says Fernandez, “leading to increased polarization and political tension.”

It’s also an issue that seems doomed to persist beyond Anwar’s tenure. “PAS has used international concerts as a political marker of their morality,” says Chai. “Every government that comes into power would have to contest on where the red line is and how frequently to hold international concerts like that.”

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