- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - A young man’s evening bowling with his prospective girlfriend and then dining with her parents would seem the most innocent of dates, but not when millions of Malaysians are watching the courtship unfold on television.

“Looking for Love,” the latest in a flurry of Malaysian reality TV programs patterned on Western productions, might be considered tame in countries where this kind of entertainment often thrives on scandal and sensationalism.

Nevertheless, the reality-show boom in this Muslim-majority nation is facing criticism by religious and government leaders, who say the foreign-inspired fare threatens traditional values and steers viewers toward moral and cultural corruption.

“These programs that promote extreme behavior should be banned,” says Harussani Zakaria, a prominent cleric with the Malaysian Council of Muftis. “We’re supposed to be modest Asian people, but we risk our heritage when we borrow from the West’s lifestyle.”

Malaysia has one of the Islamic world’s most modern and open societies, although officials have long warned that the popularity of American movies, TV shows and music could contribute to sexual indecency, decreased piety among youths and other social ills.

U.S. reality shows, including “Survivor” and “American Idol,” have been big hits here, making Malaysian adaptations inevitable. Just as inevitably, such spinoffs are upsetting detractors who insist that Malaysians shouldn’t take part in such shameful shenanigans.

A planned version of “Survivor” was scuttled partly because the idea of men and women living in close quarters would be unsuitable for Muslim contestants, production insiders say.

Meanwhile, “Malaysian Idol” and other talent shows have been reproached because male and female participants, who include Muslims and members of Malaysia’s Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities, often wear tight-fitting outfits and hug and hold hands onstage.

Another controversy magnet is “Looking for Love,” on which 10 Muslim bachelors vie for the affection of 29-year-old Elly Zakaria. The men flirt innocuously with Elly, giving her kittens and teddy bears on innocent dates or group outings, while she boots them off the show one by one.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who heads a government panel considering whether to impose formal guidelines for Malaysia’s nearly 30 reality shows, has bluntly stated that “hugging scenes are not suitable” and has warned contestants to “act decently.”

“There are scenes in such programs that stray from the customs and cultural practices of our people in the East,” Mr. Najib says, urging producers to develop reality programs that “help instill good values among the younger generation.”

Networks have scrambled to defend their shows.

“Looking for Love” stresses the role of family and religion in choosing a partner, says the private channel TV3. In one episode, the men attend Islamic marriage instruction classes and debate whether they would consider polygamy, which is allowed by Islam.

“Our reality programs are not just for entertainment,” TV3 says in a statement. “They are filled with education and social responsibility in promoting positive traditional values.”

While “Malaysian Idol” contestants were chided for their onstage antics, the show was hailed as a milestone for racial tolerance when an ethnic Indian Christian won the debut season. The latest winner of another show, “Akademi Fantasia,” was praised by Muslims because he previously had won a Koran recital tournament and often spoke passionately about religion.

Still, new offerings indicate concessions are being made to conservative critics.

On the new “Fear Factor Malaysia,” contestants likely will be spared from eating bugs, worms and animal organs — common tasks on the U.S. version — because this might contradict Islamic dietary rules.

Meanwhile, the upcoming “Malaysia’s Most Beautiful” will highlight that Malaysia has it own set of values, with women “of all personalities, shapes and sizes” competing in charity events and workplaces to prove “who shines with inner and outer beauty.”


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