As a couple, you've got to have a bit of notoriety to earn yourself a portmanteau. While they might not be a Kimye or Brangelina quite yet, the Malaysian sex bloggers known as Alvivi – Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee – certainly caused enough of a hot and sweaty scandal in their hot and sweaty homeland for Tan to consider it prudent to jump bail and flee the country. In her erstwhile lover's absence, Lee awaits trial under Malaysia's notorious Sedition Act, a sort of catch-all device to induce compliant, self-censoring passivity.
It would be tedious here to recount all of Alvivi's many ins and outs, but the whole affair is as much indicative of Malaysia's starchy discomfort around freedom of expression (sexual or otherwise) as it is about an exhibitionist young couple who opted to have sex in a metaphorical glass box in order to stimulate debate as well as each other. Either way, it is very much a story of the social media age (the pair met on Facebook), a sort of bottom-up approach to fame.
Alvivi started in 2012 as a low-key Tumblr called Sumptuous Erotica, where they posted their homespun porn to a handful of friends and a few international followers. Lee has said she merely wanted an outlet to be her true self, but their near-anonymity vanished when Tan – either to connect to likeminded swingers or simply to promote the "brand" – started to post links on Singaporean tech forums, whereupon a local newspaper, The Star, broke the story in October that year. As the Tumblr was shut down, Lee's family spurned her, and Tan (who has also lost touch with his own family) was stripped of his ASEAN scholarship to read Law at the prestigious National University of Singapore.
Undeterred, the outcasts launched a YouTube channel and Facebook page where devotees could keep abreast of the soap opera's comings, not to mention its threatened goings. Those grainy, fixed-camera skin flicks were abandoned for "a more conservative path": swinger party call-outs; tongue-in-cheek posts about breaking Annabel Chong's world gangbang record; casting calls; a theory of how to reduce rape; competitions in which the best finish to the sentence "I love sex because..." won you a pair of Vivian's G-strings; merchandise offers, including €10 T-shirts announcing "sex is good"; and "Sexcussions", a series of talking head pieces covering such matters as foreplay tips and ways to get laid (a sort of South-East Asian Dapper Laughs), as well as vox-pops in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore on homosexuality, vaginas, balls and local sexual fantasies and preferences. Panorama it was not.
Nevertheless, their notoriety grew (so much so that Malaysians, fearful of "haters", became reluctant to participate in Sexcussions) and local media became interested in these "YouTube personalities". Vivian was interviewed by the local Marie Claire ("V Is for Virtue"), while the pair of them reprised John and Yoko's famous Rolling Stone cover for a feature with Esquire Malaysia. They were hot, the establishment was bothered.
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Having aroused a throbbing anger in their homeland (Vivian was even involved in a knife attack), what really brought the Malaysian authorities down on them was an injudicious Facebook post on the eve of Ramadan depicting Alvivi eating bak kut teh, a Chinese pork soup, with the slogan "Selamat Berbuka Puasa" ("happy breaking fast") and a halal symbol. A calculated insult of Malaysia's 62 percent Muslim majority – and, more particularly, of the ruling National Front coalition's tendency to cloak its diktats in the name of religious observance – it was a provocation too far, and the pair were promptly arrested and jailed.
It was while in prison in July of 2013 that Alvin claims to have begun to think about absconding. The pair were bailed a week later for 60,000 ringgit (about €16,000), and while writing his memoirs, Sex, Pork and Persecution, Tan started to research asylum in the USA. Then, last May, he persuaded the presiding judge to temporarily return his passport so he could go to Singapore to film a documentary. He never returned. Instead, he fled across the Pacific to Mexico, crossed into the US and spent three months at the San Diego Correctional Facility. The duped Malaysian authorities were irate and clamoured for his extradition, but he was one step ahead of them: not only did he know that he could only be extradited for an act that was a crime in both nations, he realised that the more they called for the American authorities to return him, the stronger his case for asylum would grow.
Meanwhile, back in Malaysia, Vivian was left to face the music alone. Unsurprisingly, Alvivi's following were appalled at this, calling him a coward, a charge he has vigorously denied. After a few months of keeping a low profile, during which time Alvin accused her of working as an escort, Vivian, in her "final act of love", took to Facebook to chastise "ALVIN TAN THE ALMIGHTY" for the callousness of abandoning her and for not replying – either to her or his mother – to any of the attempts to find out if he was OK. It was all lapped up by the local media.
Anyway, with the star-crossed lovers thousands of miles apart and no longer speaking, it seemed the storm of controversy had blown over, and that would be that. The final chapter would simply be the Malaysian court's verdict. Not so. After a short hiatus Tan has been more active than ever on his own Facebook page (URL: alvintan.yolo), regularly regaling his 20,000 or so followers – roughly the same amount as Vivian – with tales of his uncharacteristically orthodox take on the American Dream: living in LA, waiting tables and pursuing a career in acting, "pure survival of the fittest". Indeed, he has described his Facebook postings as "a manual" to help fellow emigrating Malaysians follow in his footsteps. Only last month, while Lee was back in the dock and facing a potential five-year sentence for sedition, her erstwhile lover was ever so helpfully aggregating tips on how to black over the tiny swastika at the centre of a large iron cross tattooed on his chest because he had an audition to play a gay Asian in a condom ad. Ah, the American Dream.
If the sex-centred content of Alvivi – who have since reconciled and discussed reprising their tag-team – was a sort of oblique critique of the prevailing values in Malaysia (the lack of freedom of expression, the increasing hold of Islamic morality on civic life) then Tan's posts from the USA have made that criticism explicit. He has gone on the offensive (definitely the mot juste in this case) against what he calls a "hellish failed state bat-shit-crazy Islam craphole", last month stirring fresh outrage with a garbled R&B cover version of the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer. The video went viral and prompted renewed calls for his extradition. He was interviewed by the BBC. Unrepentant and insouciant as ever, the former law student again goaded the authorities with their faulty understanding of the concept of "jurisdiction" and their attempts to charge him in absentia, while mocking the requests of Malaysia's "internet police" (MCMC) that YouTube and Facebook take his videos down.
In his own words, Tan is "trolling Islam", which he considers the greatest counter-democratic force in his homeland. However, he is adamant that his problem with Islam is not as a faith per se, but as a "political ideology", which, given its increasingly prevalent role in public life, makes it a legitimate target of political satire. "Sure, I'll respect your right to practice your religion," he has said, "but when you use your religion as a basis of government, your religion is no longer a matter of personal choice and personal faith. It affects everyone's lives, especially including non-believers, so your religion is now in effect a POLITICAL SYSTEM, A POLITICAL IDEOLOGY. You mean to say I can't criticise political ideas? What ass-backward horseshit is this? Suddenly, just because you slap the name of God on it, a political ideology becomes so sacred that it can't be discussed or criticised, even though in practice it's nothing more than a way to control people's lives?"
While Tan now sees himself as a " free speech Messiah" (of which sexual revolutionary would presumably be a pungent subset), not all his posts are unimpeachably progressive. There's the odd rape fantasy; some crude racial profiling of various ethnic groups' likelihood to tip in restaurants (more than a little ironic given Malaysia's bumiputra system of privileges for ethnic Malays), with borderline sociopathic hints on how to use emotion as a strategy; stereotyping of "a certain community" as freeloaders; a theory that lesbian sex isn't real sex; updates on his Tinder liaisons; and compulsively sharing a more serious squeeze's sweet nothings (if she isn't a giant fabrication, of course).
How much of this constitutes fearless free-speech advocacy and how much is pathological narcissism is a matter for more discerning judgment, although the apparent corroboration of his profile pic ("U jelly of my aesthetics, brah?") and page description ("I love me. If I weren't me, I'd wish I was") would suggest this is beyond ironic posturing, a notch up from exhibitionism. Regardless of the crude and dubious content – a storm in a teacup from a liberal, Western standpoint – what is certain is that Tan's attention-seeking – part-business strategy, part-compulsion, part-provocation – is, by simple virtue of its existence, an important test of Malaysia's maturation, its ability to tolerate dissenting opinion. At times puerile, at others eloquent, Alvin's voice cannot be just dismissed as a mouthy irrelevance.
In many ways, he is the pathological symptom, the outgrowth of the repressive straitjacketing of sexual and political expression by mainstream Malaysian culture (he has said he's seeking asylum from "Malaysian ignorance" as much as its "political tyranny"). He may at times be a prick, but there's no doubt he is getting under the (thin, sensitive) skin of the authorities back home.
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