Muslim NGO apologises after Merdeka film cops flak for racism: The road to PR recovery

Muslim NGO Ikram has apologised for its Merdeka Day video titled “Mak, Dah Siap!” which has copped flak online for being racist and perpetuating stereotypes about Indians and Chinese. While Ikram has since removed the video from its social media channels, the clip is still circulating online and shows a Malay father using derogatory terms such as “keling” and “cina bukit” (Chinese rednecks) to describe Indians and Chinese respectively.

In the video, the father sits on a chair next to his son and scrolls through videos on his phone, commenting: “What is wrong with these India keling? They are always fighting. What is happening to Malaysia?” Shortly after, he said “These cina bukit are the same. Always driving drunk and running into others. What is wrong with them?”

His wife chides him for making such statements, explaining that Islam does not teach believers to say things like that. Thereafter, the son runs up to the mother and proudly shows her his drawings. Her initial joy quickly turned to shock when she realised her son had included racist descriptions.

The sentence “He is keling, he likes gangsters” were written under the Indian character named Mutu. Meanwhile, the sentence “He is Chinese, he likes to get drunk” were written under the Chinese character named Chong. The video ends with: “I was not born to be racist but I was taught.” before wishing everyone a happy Merdeka Day. The logos of Ikram and Sinar Harian were included at the end.

At the same time, the video also included a disclaimer at the top that read: “The racist words observed in this video are for filming purposes only and should not be practised at all.”

Ikram and Sinar Harian apologise

In a post on its website, Ikram explained that the original intention of the video was to educate Malaysians on the national spirit. The main message of the video aimed to show the current reality faced by some members of society in Malaysia who tend to assign negative labels to other races.

The Muslim NGO explained that it is important to put an end to such stereotypes, especially among young children, and parents should set a good example and educate their children on the value of unity in Malaysia. “Out of a sense of responsibility to preserve interracial harmony, Ikram withdrew the video on all social media channels operated by Ikram,” it said. The NGO added that it always strives to deliver positive messages and advice to Malaysians regardless of race and religion.

Meanwhile, Sinar Harian said in a statement on its website that while it had agreed to work with Ikram for the latter's Merdeka Day campaign, it was not involved in the production and the publication of the video, which it said has "caused uneasiness among some Malaysians". Sinar Harian also apologised for any inconvenience and misunderstanding caused by the video published by third parties. At the same time, Hussamuddin Yaacub, chairman of Karangkraf Media Group, Sinar Harian’s parent company, explained that while the video was not uploaded onto Sinar Harian’s social media channels as its editors felt the video “was a bit sensitive”.

He added that while the messaging in the second half was clear, Sinar Harian's editors felt the first half was “a bit crude”. While he believed that Ikram had no bad intentions, he felt it was a wrong judgement and advised Ikram to remove it quickly. Hussamuddin also reiterated that the publication “played no part at all” in the production of the video.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Film Directors Association (FDAM) has protested against Ikram’s Merdeka Day video, saying that despite the disclaimer, the video is still offensive to the various races who respect the unity established in Malaysia, Bernama said. Citing FDAM president Ahmad Ibrahim, Bernama added that the clip “was highly unsuitable for public viewing” and called on the authorities, especially the Home Ministry and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take appropriate action against those involved.

Ahmad explained that the publication of a video with such a public service announcement can impact the unity among the communities in Malaysia. He was also concerned about the clip going viral on social media despite being taken down by the publisher.

Good intentions, poor execution

While the video had good intentions to teach adults that racists are not born but made, Syed Mohammed Idid Syed Ahmed Idid, PLUS’ head, strategic stakeholder engagement, said the content creator could have conducted a dipstick survey among its network of other races to garner feedback and a reflection of the optics of how its creative execution will be viewed or understood. According to Syed, there was no brand defensibility procedure and that resulted in "a rather insensitive projection" of non-Muslims and Muslims. 

"The ad stereotyped all three races in the archaic viewpoints of gangsters, alcoholics and religious bigots. This begs the question - wouldn't it further reaffirm these stereotypes to the young and impressionable? It would have been in better taste to develop something that showcased all the races coming together to quell any insinuation of racism," he explained. 

According to him, Sinar Harian should have checked the content before agreeing to have it uploaded. In this case, due diligence would have saved both parties a lot of angst. Unfortunately, in this digital age, what is shared on the Internet will remain on the Internet perpetually. "While social media can foster positivity, it is also a merciless court of public opinion and as a media outlet and NGO, netizens expect them to be more discerning," Syed said, adding:

They can only be sincere and come forth with their faux pas, admit it was done in poor taste and review this as an opportunity for them to rise with an authentic communications campaign to show Malaysia that their purpose is to honour all Malaysians as a united race.

Nonetheless, Syed said Sinar Harian as a media owner has its solid bases of followers and detractors. Hence, it will not be so easy to dilute the brand reputation as it has decades of goodwill and trust built. This incident will be viewed as a minor lapse in judgement as it was propagated originally from a good intention, he explained. 

Meanwhile, Liz Kamaruddin, MD of FTI Consulting in Malaysia said while the message around racial unity is strong, in terms of execution, Ikram should have steered away from the obvious racial stereotypes. "Malaysians are not ready for the concept as we can see from the public furore that ensued," she said. Nonetheless, she lauds the move to issue an official statement to explain Ikram's original intention and offer a formal apology, adding:

If you are going to say sorry, say it soon, avoid equivocation and accept responsibility. Otherwise, irrespective of intentions, your apology may fall on deaf ears.

"Building up and protecting reputation is likely what will get organisations through a crisis and protect their license to operate, drives employee retention, customer loyalty, investor confidence, partner and government confidence and brings competitive advantage," Liz explained. According to her, crises are after all unavoidable but adapting how we view and approach these struggles might actually allow us to turn them into something meaningful.

Also weighing in on the issue was Ashvin Anamalai, chief strategist at Be Strategic, who said Ikram took a stand to honour public emotions, taking responsibility for the deeply disturbing precedence set by the video. Any time that any party is hurt, Anamalai said it is important to relay empathy to make them feel validated, seen, and understood.

However, focusing on the impact of its mistake, rather than original intent would make for a better learning moment to share with the public.

"It is important for communicators to understand that it is not up to them to decide what is appropriate and what is not. To further keep out of the current negative attention, Ikram can benefit by listening and absorbing, rather than redirecting the narrative or changing the conversation," he explained. 

Anamalai added that Ikram's video did not represent the development of a strong, united and progressive society, which is something Ikram is passionate about and is core to its beliefs. "Simply put, it was a clumsy attempt at voicing out fundamental problems in our social landscape, and it should not have happened," he said.

Unlike PLUS' Syed, Anamalai is of the view that the "deeply offensive video" might have cost the brand an advantage it spent years building, especially among minorities. When a piece of content released in a particularly important time is generally called "racist" and "offensive" by rakyat across social media, he said it has definitely done a lot more than miss the mark, especially when Sinar Harian a reputable mainstream news publisher.

"Brands must honour the delicate place that organisations occupy in this modern age of social media, and be accountable for their actions. It must be a priority to re-evaluate internal planning and approval processes to prevent mistakes in future," he added.

Also, brands must not only claim to champion unity and harmony but walk the talk. According to Anamalai, this will not be the last time brands miss the mark in approaching important or taboo subjects. However, it is important that brands seek council and input from a diverse group of employees, consultants or agencies to provide a true perspective on critical events shaping the society.

Netizens’ reactions

Comedian Harith Iskander said the ad has got to be "the most misguided attempt at a 'Merdeka' ad ever" and was in disbelief that those involved in the production thought it was a good idea to insult half the country while pretending they are not racist. 

Meanwhile, some netizens remained divided on the issue. One called out the ad for being "inappropriate", a "gross generationalisation" as well as "glib and simplistic", adding that there are better ways to convey the same message. Meanwhile, another said: "Imagine a child seeing this and asking their parents what is keling and cina bukit. How is that in any way good?"

On the other hand, did not think there was an issue with the ad, with one stating that the video illustrates an ongoing racial problem. 

Another also cited Namewee as an example, saying that he too also uses racial slurs in his movie posters and trailers, and many felt it was permissible since the film's aim was to educate the reality of racism in Malaysia. Hence, the same should be applied to Ikram's Merdeka ad. 

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Photo courtesy: Screenshot of video from Twitter