IF you have always dreamt of watching Madonna, Shakira or Lady Gaga performing live in Malaysia, you can dream on.
According to Sepang International Circuit CEO Datuk Razlan Razali, they would not even get through the pre-approval stage in Malaysia. (Concert promoters need to seek a pre-approval before submitting a full application to bring in a foreign artiste.)
He has tried to bring them to Malaysia, says Razlan, but as soon as their names come up, religious objections are raised. This does not include the international stars, namely Beyonce, who pulled out of their agreed show due to their unwillingness to comply to the strict concert rules in Malaysia and fear of religious backlash. And this was before the latest updated guidelines on entertainment from the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim).
“We already have a flawed and archaic permit application system for concerts and live events that is damaging the industry.
Razlan: ‘The government’s vision versus what is happening or being implemented on the ground is not in sync. There is a clear disconnect.’
“Jakim’s new guidelines are taking us 10 more steps backward,” says Razlan who is also acting president for Arts, Live Festival and Events Association (ALIFE), an association representing concert organisers and other players in the local live event industry.
Already nervous about the new rules, the industry was slapped with the return of an old disease – last-minute cancellation – when the Thirst 2015 Dance Festival had its permit revoked at the eleventh hour last Saturday.
It has been a while, Razlan dryly concedes.
“We hope the authorities can seriously and proactively engage with ALIFE to review and improve the permit application process.”
As he alludes, the modus operandi of the authorities seems to be “ad hoc” and “knee-jerk reaction”.
“They usually don’t take into account the industry or stakeholders.”
To address the issue, ALIFE is currently working to meet up with the Central Agency Committee for Application for Filming and Foreign Artistes Presentations (Puspal), which is in charge of coordinating and processing the permit applications to bring in foreign artistes to Malaysia. It was set up in 2001 as a one-stop centre to facilitate the process for live event promoters and organisers, who have to obtain at least 12 approvals and permits to bring in an international star.
With all these “problems”, however, Razlan thinks that it is time to review Puspal’s role.
“My personal view is that we can self-regulate. It is an ongoing battle for us with Puspal to keep our live event and live music scene alive.
“I don’t even know why we need Puspal now – it is supposed to be the central organisation for the permit application process but promoters still need to do the running around and do everything ourselves anyway,” he laments.
One sore point for ALIFE, whose members are the country’s big and major concert organisers, is that most decisions concerning the industry have been made without engaging or consulting them.
“After all these years, Puspal still does not understand our business, and sometimes it feels like it is refusing to understand the business, especially the cost,” he says.
When a promoter secures an international artiste, they will have to sign a contract of agreement with the artiste and pay a booking fee, which usually comes up to 50% of the total fee. Needless to say, a last-minute cancellation will be costly for the promoters.
Another issue is the pace of the scene where, sometimes, decisions have to be made at the spur of the moment.
“Most of them (in Puspal) don’t understand the business of securing an artiste. They also think you can plan six months ahead, or a year ahead. You can’t.
“When an A-list artist decides to do a concert tour and is going to Japan or the Philippines in Asia, they might suddenly decide to add Singapore and Malaysia, and you will need to say yes or no there and then.”
Similarly with Jakim’s new guidelines, “None of us was called in to discuss the new guidelines with them. We definitely would not have agreed to it.”
The most damaging effect of Jakim and Puspal’s “dinosaur” guidelines is the loss of reputation for Malaysia in the world as a good destination for live events, says Razlan.
“Being host to world-class quality festivals, celebrations and events has placed Malaysia in a positive light in various foreign press and rankings.
“Malaysia is No.19 in Business Environment Rankings (2014), World Bank’s ‘Ease of doing business’ (2014), Top 10 travel destinations for 2014 by Lonely Planet, and Kuala Lumpur was ranked 80th most liveable city on the EIU scale (2014) and 16th most liveable city for expats in Asia (2015).
“How do we continue to strengthen our rankings when small waves of conflicting efforts are stumbling blocks to such efforts?” he grouses.
True, this year alone, many big acts have bypassed Malaysia on their world and Asia Pacific tours including Katy Perry (who is stopping in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia this month), One Direction and even ballad star Sam Smith. This is despite it being the Year of Festivals for Visit Malaysia 2015.
“Malaysia is gearing up for live creative content – the arts, festivals, events – to contribute RM30bil to Malaysia’s economy by 2020.
“But we cannot even get enough international stars and artistes to perform in Malaysia for the Year of Festivals celebration this year. The government’s vision versus what is happening or being implemented on the ground is not in sync. There is a clear disconnect.”
Razali believes the main reason for the disconnect is that the members of Puspal, made up of representatives of some 27 government ministries and agencies such as Jakim, are not familiar with the current entertainment scene.
“Many of the committee members are over 50 and religious people. What do they know when it comes to Katy Perry, Taylor Swift or Jennifer Lopez?”
Razlan feels that although Jakim has retracted its original announcement and clarified that the new guidelines will serve only as a reminder to practitioners, the religious authority will have a lot of say in the final decision of whether an artiste gets approval or not.
“The Puspal committee includes Jakim and, at the end of the day, the religious authority will call the shots.
“No one dares go against Jakim when they bring up something that is supposedly religiously sensitive or un-Islamic. If they bring up the fact that an artiste is “anti-Islamic”, the chairperson is put in a spot – should we approve this artiste? No one wants to be called un-Islamic.
“And the other committee members are also left in a bind as soon as Jakim raises an issue that is sensitive to religion. It is difficult for anyone to go against it in the fear of being called un-Islamic.”
Razlan believes it is important to leave religion out of the concert permit process.
“If you look at it from a religious aspect, then almost all foreign artistes will not be acceptable. We need to keep religion out of it – it is a thin line, what is Islamic or not – so we need to take it out of the equation totally.”
He warns that it is very easy for these guidelines to “creep” into other areas.
“Does the buck stop there or will this creep into the way sports activities are organised? Will we be seeing sports events in a different light where males and females sit separately and our national players tutup aurat (cover their modesty) during squash or badminton tournaments? How will this impact festivals, theatres, weddings and government events?
“Where do we draw the line? Who is overseeing this whole space?”
To Razlan, the best solution is to let the industry self-regulate.
“Let the promoters self-regulate – the mechanisms are already in place at the individual agencies for the permit application process and our crowd know how to differentiate between what is good and what is bad when they attend a concert.
“If an artist misbehaves, I am sure that the crowd will complain or report to the authorities and that is when action can be taken against the promoter,” he says.