Malaysia’s Defining Political Tension Takes the Concert Stage
The degree to which Anwar caters to conservatives—and how that ends up being received by both sides—“will have long-term implications that could potentially worsen divisions among different communities in Malaysia”
(Time) – Just before Coldplay took to the stage in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday night for their final stop of the year on their Music of the Spheres world tour, Malaysian authorities announced that a “kill switch” would be available to the concert’s organizers should they need to pull the plug on the show on account of any misbehavior by the band.
In the end, to the relief of the more than 75,000 fans in attendance, the mechanism wasn’t used—but it’s emblematic of the precariousness that now hangs over international performances in Malaysia. The precaution was implemented in response to a July incident by English band The 1975, whose frontman Matty Healy drunkenly criticized the Muslim-majority nation’s anti-LGBTQ laws and kissed bassist Ross MacDonald on stage in protest. The entire Good Vibes Festival at which the performance took place was promptly canceled and the band blacklisted from playing in the Southeast Asian country again.
In the run-up to Coldplay’s concert, conservative leaders called for a cancellation of their show, too, arguing that the soft-rock group promotes “hedonism and deviant cultures” through its public advocacy for the LGBTQ community. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, in turn, pointed to Coldplay’s longstanding support for Palestinians, which aligns with the Malaysian government and most Malaysians’ stance, as reason not to call it off.
The concert scene in Malaysia, which has long been subject to strict performance restrictions, is increasingly becoming a high-pitch political battleground, spotlighting growing tensions over the direction of the country of more than 33 million people. On one side are conservative Islamists who have continually opposed international artists on religious and moral grounds; on the other are event organizers, vendors, and other business interests, who prioritize the commercial potential of concerts, as well as predominantly urban fans, who are more willing to embrace Western culture.
As Anwar struggles to maintain his grip on power, amid dual trends of rising religious fundamentalism and growing economic concerns, it’s a needle that’s becoming increasingly difficult to thread.
With the leading opposition party now regularly using concerts to “pressure the government” and label the ruling coalition as “immoral,” James Chai, a visiting fellow of the Malaysia studies program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, tells TIME, Anwar will continuously find himself having to decide whether to disallow concerts, reneging support for what his own government’s languishing tourism department identified last year as a vital industry, or “continue to have them and take the risk of getting criticized by the Islamic opposition.”