Why Malaysia should be exporting durian, not culture

NOVEMBER 1 — A minister was ridiculed recently for suggesting Malaysia should be exporting its culture the way South Korea does. I should know, as I was doing a fair bit of the ridiculing myself.

South Korea’s genius at marketing its products is hard to deny. Look at the corporate might of Samsung, the reach of its food products (kimchi and Lotte snacks in particular) as well as of course, K-Pop.

I love Malaysia, I do. Even if its people and politics give me a lot of pain. But to compare what South Korea can export and what we can, it’s like comparing avocados to peanuts. 

Malaysian food, there’s a lot of promise there. The uniqueness of our tropical fruits, the flavour of our local dishes and just how easy it is to fool clueless Americans into paying top dollar for even the most mundane Malaysian food in the US — Malaysian food should be an institution.

Now, culture? We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a homogeneous nation. It is both a source of strength and a point of contention. We are a mix of many different cultures and elevating one race’s culture over the other, making it a representation of the nation as a whole is one can of worms we shouldn’t touch.

What South Korea has also done with its entertainment, technology and food is to create things that everyone wants — while possessing unique Korean character, they also possess intrinsic universal appeal.

Of course the cynical will say that is just part of the whole marketing spiel. I won’t deny that. I do however detest the notion that we have to be ashamed at targetting our own people. We want to make movies to please a certain demographic, sure. Go ahead.

What is important to note is that we can’t just retrofit our cultural offerings to suit international tastes. We can do that for durian or roti canai but we can’t do that for our entertainment or cultural products.

For instance, our local TV dramas, are, no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, awful. There’s no real money for high quality productions, not to mention the overzealous religious police and ineffectual censorship board ensure that our TV drama scripts will always be vapid carbon copies of previous shows.

We can’t compete in the TV drama segment and as for music? Well, Yuna had to run away to the US to make it big. And when she does come back, people won’t shut up about her clothes or about her hugging Usher. Even Shila Amzah’s made her base in China as she gets far too much criticism and hate here.

For all Finas’ talk about Oscars, it doesn’t address the amount of money it’s given to truly awful movies. I’ve seen the list, it’s terrifying. While serious filmmakers struggle to get funding, Finas has no qualms throwing money at films about zombies in villages. 

Let’s start making truly good entertainment for ourselves, without the interference of moralistic busybodies before we can even think of exporting it.

In the meantime, I’ve got an idea for designer dodol that would sell for a killing in New York. PM tepi, please.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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