Advertisers ordered to drop models with non-Malay faces

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2007, 12:00am

The Malaysian modelling and advertising industries are in shock after the government announced it was reviving a ban on the multiracial Asian faces that dominate billboards and magazines.

Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin said yesterday that models with so-called 'pan-Asian' features were not representative of Malaysian demographics.

'Using pan-Asian faces means downgrading local faces,' he said. 'We have to give priority to models with local looks.'

Pan-Asians are popular in ethnically diverse Malaysia, where advertisers tend to use their neutral features to avoid alienating any customers. A prime example is model and actress Maya Karim, 27, who is of Malay-Chinese-German parentage and is the latest poster girl for L'Oreal Malaysia.

A ban on pan-Asian faces is already in force at two government-owned television stations that cater mainly for majority Malays, who form 60 per cent of the population.

The announcement on Sunday extended the ban to advertising carried by private television stations, the print media and billboards.

The minister said the ban would eventually cover all media, but it was unclear when it would take effect.

The ministry would have the power to decide on whether a model's features were appropriate, and be backed up by the weight of law.

A similar ban was imposed in 1997, but the law was later shelved amid an outcry. Now, the government is again under pressure from cultural and religious purists who want to promote 'local faces' in the media.

The issue is often debated in Muslim publications and websites, where Eurasian models are criticised for dressing scantily, smoking and visiting night clubs.

Model Betty Ibtisam Benafe, 28, who is of Malay-Arabian-Javanese parentage, said the ruling would affect her work and income.

'We might end up jobless,' she said. 'The government should have an open mind ... we are also selling Malaysia to the world.'

Copywriter Alwin Tan said the ruling, if it took effect, would seriously damage the advertising industry, which was already held back by more than 30 different rules.

'We are a multicultural society and pan-Asian faces like Maya Karim are neither Malay, nor Chinese or Indian, but all of them put together,' he said.

'We should celebrate diversity instead of banning it.'

Karim told Kosmo! magazine that the ruling was 'confusing and unfair'.

'Our looks may differ but we are all Malaysians,' she said.

Human rights lawyer Anuchuthan Sivanesan said the government should let the advertisement industry manage itself.

'Anyway, who is to decide whether a face is Malay or Chinese or pan-Asian,' he said. 'This is ridiculous.'

The Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Malaysia said rigid guidelines were already 'killing creativity' in the industry.

'We are far behind other countries and Thailand in this matter ... Malaysia is a black hole by comparison,' a spokesman for the association said.