Malay clerics, pols have trouble with reality

Spinoffs of U.S. skeins upsetting detractors

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Reality shows here are coming under fire from religious and government leaders who say they threaten traditional values in this Muslim-majority nation and steer viewers toward moral and cultural corruption.

“Looking for Love” is the latest in a flurry of Malaysian reality shows. Ten Muslim bachelors vie for the affection of 29-year-old Elly Zakaria. The men flirt innocuously with Elly on innocent dates or group outings, while she boots them off the show one by one.

It’s tame by Western standards, where such shows thrive on scandal and sensationalism.

However, local officials see it differently.

“Programs that promote extreme behavior should be banned,” Harussani Zakaria, a prominent cleric with the Malaysian Council of Muftis, says. “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, though 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, making Malaysian adaptations inevitable. The spinoffs are upsetting detractors.

A planned version of “Survivor” was scuttled partly because the idea of men and women living in close quarters is unsuitable for Muslim contestants.

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.

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 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,” Najib says, urging producers to develop reality programs that “help instill good values among the younger generation.”

Networks are defending 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 the subject of polygamy, which is allowed by Islam.

“Our reality programs are not just for entertainment,” TV3 said 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 “Akademi Fantasia” was praised by Muslims because he had previously won a Koran recital tournament and often spoke passionately about religion.

Concessions are being made to conservative critics.

On “Fear Factor Malaysia,” which will air on ntv7 starting Nov. 11, contestants will likely be spared from eating bugs, worms and animal organs — common tasks on the U.S. version — because this might contradict Islamic dietary rules.

Meanwhile, “Malaysia’s Most Beautiful” will highlight Malaysian 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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