Election years in Malaysia are a bit like the full moon; you can always count on some rather strange occurrences.

A productive period for bans started a week ago with matters reproductive, when British author Peter Mayle’s beloved book Where Did I Come From? was removed from shelves after outraging government officials with its “degree of obscenity“. And then, of course, there is Erykah Badu.

The singer was to perform in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, but her concert was banned after The Star, Malaysia’s largest English daily, ran a promotional photo of her with the Arabic word for Allah written on her body. It remains uncertain if the tattoos are temporary, but the ban certainly wasn’t.

Badu’s response was calm and dignified. On Twitter, she relayed messages of support from fans, and she later expressed her understanding and acceptance of the decision. “I love Malaysia and its people,” she wrote. “Art is often misunderstood in the name of religion. My body art has ALL the names of God. Not just one …”

(Also classy was her reason for the body art: it was inspired by Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose 1973 film The Holy Mountain featured a character called The Painted Lady.)

Despite issuing an apology, The Star has been issued with a show-cause letter, and is set to meet Malaysia’s Home Ministry for a second time to discuss the incident. There have been calls for its media licence to be revoked, and there is precedent for this — the Sarawak Tribune was shut down in 2006 after reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, re-emerging four years later with a new name.  The Star’s two editors responsible have been suspended indefinitely and have been replaced by associate editors who will guide the newspaper on “issues pertaining to Muslim sensitivity”.

The Malaysian government also has form with issuing stringent guidelines for overseas acts. In 2003, for instance, rap-rock outfit Linkin Park was banned from screaming, jumping and wearing shorts; four years later, Gwen Stefani was made to cover up after complaints that her “cheeky performances” clashed with Islamic values.

But Twitter activity featuring the hashtag #erykahbadu shows that while some call the Malaysian government intolerant, there is also support for the ban. Barisan Nasional, Malaysia’s governing coalition that has been in power since the country achieved independence from Britain in 1957, lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the very first time in the 2008 election. Playing on religious sensitivities can be seen as a way to win back support before the elections, which are expected to be held this year.

However, while Malaysia’s population is predominantly Malay-Muslim, with Chinese, Indian and other minorities, it is simplistic to assume that opinions neatly align with race or religion.

Of course, these divisions make it rather easy for journalists to apportion some measure of balance to a story — you can just interview one Muslim and one non-Muslim, like the Associated Press did with the Stefani gig.

There are some nice ironies here. First, while Badu’s personal beliefs are interesting to say the least, it is hard to describe her attitude towards religion as anything but respectful. Second, for a government still dazed from the spotlight after last year’s Bersih rallies, more global attention — the Badu story has been picked up around the world — isn’t quite on the election-year agenda. And finally, Badu’s next performance will be in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, which has yet to express any sort of displeasure.

Should that gig go ahead, Indonesians have much to anticipate. I had the utter pleasure of watching Badu two weeks ago in Melbourne; her walk on stage was somewhere between a sashay and a strut, her poise as perfectly modulated as her vocals, and from that moment every single person in the audience was hers.

The songs were soulful and s-xy and spiritual, and at the end of some of them — not all, so each time was a delight — she would stand, legs apart, head cocked, one arm curled behind her back and the other raised in glorious salute. For anyone else this would have bordered on arrogance; for Erykah Badu, this was an artist taking her due after a performance that scaled the pinnacle of craft and control. Malaysia, you missed a treat.

*Hari Raj was a journalist with The Star from 2005 to 2007

Peter Fray

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