Malaysian Rapper Under Fire for Controversial Film About Racism

Critics are applauding Malaysian rapper Namewee’s film 'Babi' for its depiction of racial tensions and hate speech. The government isn't so pleased.
November 20, 2020, 10:40am
Malaysia, rapper, racism
MALAYSIAN RAPPER NAMEWEE POSES AT A MUSIC AWARDS FESTIVAL IN TAIWAN. Photo: SAM YEH / AFP

A prominent rapper in Malaysia is facing police inquiries and attacks from local politicians after he courted controversy with a movie about a racially-charged school riot that he alleges took place two decades ago but was never investigated.

“Babi,” which translates to pig in the local Malay language, is popular hip-hop artist Namewee’s latest film. The rapper, whose real name is Wee Meng Chee, is of ethnic Chinese descent. The title of the film is often used as a derogatory slur towards members of the community in Malaysia, where topics of race and religion remain highly sensitive.  

The film, which touches on race, hate speech and abuse of power in the Muslim-majority country, opened to critical acclaim in overseas cinemas. It also bagged nominations for several awards at film festivals in Berlin, Bangkok and Toronto but remains banned in its home country, where a backlash against the movie is brewing among officials who see it as rude and derogatory. 


Watch the trailer for Namewee’s controversial release ‘Babi’


On Nov. 19, Mohammad Azwan Azmi, a youth representative from the ruling Perikatan Nasional political coalition made up of several conservative and pro-Malay political parties, lodged a formal police report in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Azwan took issue with posters shared by Namewee on his official social media channels promoting the film. “This insult and provocation are seen as outrageous and are a rude and insolent act, feared to cause inter-racial tensions,” Mohammad Azwan Azmi told local reporters, adding that the group had asked the media and communications ministry to block all content relating to the film on social media. “I am concerned that these insults on the poster could cause racial disharmony in Malaysia,” Azwan said.

VICE World News spoke with a producer for the film, who confirmed that he had been summoned to a local police station on Thursday.

Namewee took to his official Facebook page to defend his film, calling those who reported the movie to the police “extremists.” 

“The word in the Muslim world is filthy and impure,” Namewee told the Associated Press at a press conference promoting the movie in Taipei, where he is based. “If we use it in Malaysia, there might be riots. People might fight or call the police. This is the gist of my movie.” 

Malaysian social media users said that ploys to censor and block Namewee’s movie spectacularly backfired, only generating more “publicity”. “This film was made with no intention to be shown in Malaysia,” wrote one Twitter user wrote. Others noted the trilingual rapper’s “mind blowing” skills. 

Critics hailed the film, calling it Namewee’s most powerful and successful work to date, addressing issues like abuse of power, racial discrimination and sexual exploitation that continue to take place in the country. But Namewee revealed that he had struggled to find investors who would contribute to the film’s production due to its controversial nature. “Nobody wanted to consider investing in a zero-profit film that would be banned,” he told the Malay Mail newspaper.