Red tape and religion: Malaysia missing out on hundreds of millions from entertainment tourism

If the missed gigs had taken place, receipts from entertainment tourism would have been up to a minimum of 30 per cent higher than the RM2.4 billion received in 2023.

Zunaira Saieed

Zunaira Saieed

The Straits Times


Industry players say a mandate is needed to boost Malaysia as an attractive destination, in the wake of Singapore hosting American pop superstar Taylor Swift in March 2024. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

March 26, 2024

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia lost more than RM1 billion (S$285 million) in potential entertainment tourism receipts in 2023, experts estimate, after concerts were scrapped amid stringent government rules and protests from religious parties.

Four concerts were scrapped in 2023, up from the two that were turned down in 2022, the Central Agency for Application for Filming and Performance by Foreign Artistes (Puspal) told The Straits Times.

Among the concerts that were not approved in 2023 were those planned for renowned Indian singer Karthik and arts and music festival Pinkfish Live, featuring American rapper Lil Pump.

An industry source told ST that the American singer-songwriter Lauv’s tour in Malaysia slated for September 2023 was also cancelled due to heightened political scrutiny on concerts amid opposition by Islamists who were against foreign performers.

Malaysia University of Science and Technology economics professor Geoffrey Williams, who estimates the lost revenue at over RM1 billion, said “onerous regulations” were to blame. “They create risk and make it more difficult for event organisers to put on shows,” he told ST.

If the missed gigs had taken place, receipts from entertainment tourism – which includes all ticketed entertainment events – would have been up to a minimum of 30 per cent higher than the RM2.4 billion received in 2023, according to local live performance association Arts, Live Festival and Events Association (Alife).

Concertgoers who flew in from overseas alone generated more than RM800 million in tourism receipts, contributing about RM83 million in taxes, in 2023, said the association.

“We are very much below our potential. The year 2023 was the biggest year of concerts globally, but we lost out on hundreds of millions due to our poor reputation affected by protests and strict regulations,” said Alife president Rizal Kamal.

Ticket revenues from the top 100 concert tours of 2023 jumped to a record US$9.17 billion (S$12.3 billion), industry magazine Pollstar reported in December 2023.

Industry players say a strong government mandate is needed to boost Malaysia as an attractive destination for concerts in the region, in the wake of Singapore hosting an exclusive six-show South-east Asia tour stop for American pop superstar Taylor Swift earlier in March. The event sold more than 300,000 tickets and brought in thousands of fans from across the region.

Experts estimated tourism receipts for the Swift shows in Singapore at between $350 million and $500 million.

“Malaysia is a jewel in South-east Asia. We have the largest stadium in South-east Asia – the Bukit Jalil National Stadium – (and) we’re cheaper for tourists in terms of food, hotel room rates and transportation, compared with Singapore and Indonesia,” said Mr Nur Jasni Mohd, founder of sports and events advisory company SportsWorks Group.

“We enjoy 30 per cent lower production costs than Singapore, so this is a good time to push for an overall nation-building plan that includes concert economics,” Mr Jasni added.

British rock band Coldplay’s concert in November 2023 at Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Jalil National Stadium drew the largest crowd concert in one night in Coldplay’s career, with more than 81,000 tickets sold worth RM51.9 million.

The youth wing of Malaysia’s opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) had called for the concert to be cancelled, saying that the group promotes “deviant cultures”.

The concert went ahead, after strong pushback from moderate Muslims on social media, and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim stepped in to defend the band, saying it supported the Palestinian cause.

Nonetheless, instead of encouraging artistes to perform in Malaysia, the government has been clamping down by adding more bureaucratic rules on the entertainment industry. Political analysts say this is part of the Anwar-led administration’s efforts to shore up waning support among the Malay Muslim majority, by taking steps to appease the more conservative voters who side with the opposition.

Under pressure from PAS, Singapore comedian Kumar, who is usually risque, performed one show in Labuan to only non-Muslims.

Previously, he had performed elsewhere in Malaysia to Muslims and non-Muslims, although not in drag.

In August 2023, PAS, which has the most seats in Parliament, warned of nationwide protests if all upcoming international artistes performances that year were not cancelled, saying that they promote a culture of “hedonism and perversion”.

The Islamist party threatened street protests, but these were not carried out.

In March 2023, the Malaysian government added new guidelines for Puspal, including the prohibition of cross-dressing for male foreign artistes when they are performing in Malaysia, according to Malaysian daily The Star. The guidelines already said female artistes are not allowed to wear revealing or tight-fitting clothes.

In October that year, the country introduced a “kill switch” that will cut power supply and end performances that breach the government’s guidelines, following an onstage same-sex kiss during British band The 1975’s show in Sepang in July.

“Political calculations in Malaysia carry greater weight than any economic considerations, as more average Malaysians today are socially conscious of their religious identities,” said Mr Halmie Azrie Abdul Halim, a senior analyst at political risk consultancy Vriens and Partners.

“The politicians in the government are not nipping these conservative voices in the bud, even though it affects an estimated 100,000 people in the industry. We see that the government does not protect us, and civil servants are scared to give approvals for concerts,” said event company Livescape Group founder and group chief executive Iqbal Ameer.

The actual number of concerts that are rejected every year is much higher than the official figures cited, as many organisers usually fail to get Puspal’s green light at the initial stage of the pre-approval application process, said Mr Iqbal.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s approval process takes 48 hours, compared with three months in Malaysia, added Mr Iqbal, who runs events in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Uncertainty surrounding the approval process also translates into higher risks of financial losses. Event organiser ElementX Strategies prefers organising exhibitions, seminars and product launches as they are a safer bet.

“Organisers fork out a down payment to bring in foreign artistes, and risk losing millions of ringgit if Puspal decides to cancel the concert,” said its CEO Jason Yap.

Industry players also compare their situation with more relaxed rules in Indonesia, which has a Muslim population that is among the world’s largest.

Malaysia banned heavy metal band Lamb Of God in 2013, but Indonesia will be hosting an upcoming show by the American band in May 2024.

Mr Para Rajagopal, whose company PR Worldwide has brought big acts such as Coldplay and South Korean girl group Blackpink to Malaysia, said a wrong perception has been created by politically motivated parties, making it appear as if Malaysia is not a thriving market in concerts, compared with other countries in the region.

“We have to correct the perception about our country to build the live entertainment industry,” said Mr Para.

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