Globalization & popular culture in M’sia

April 30th, 2006 by Mabel
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Here is the outline of my masters research thesis on globalization and popular culture in Malaysia.




The topic above is suggested for ICOM 818 research module and it has to be noted that the issue above (as known to the author) has not been tackled in Malaysia mainly because of political and social reasons. Therefore official research (books and research papers) on the issue is limited and ideas here are based on general popular consensus as well as observations made by the author as a Malaysian citizen and resident. The theories and hypothesis made is based on observations of the structure of Malaysian society and culture, keeping in mind that these structures are reflected in the film Spinning Gasing.


Since the turn of the century, the world has become smaller with the advent of modern communication technologies and the invention of flight. With exploration becoming easier and ultimately, transformed into tourism, culture can easily be exported and imported. As we can observe in our every day lives, culture has been exported through other ways than just tourism. It is through the globalized media than we consume certain cultures more than others.

Globalization is a relatively difficult term to describe as it involves a multitude of transformations that occur around the globe. Globalization, Albrow states, refers to the multiple processes that allow the people of the world to be incorporated into a single society and ultimately, the ‘global society’ (Albrow, 1990 in Cohen, 2000). These processes can occur in many different places regardless of the geography, individuals and situations. They do however share one thing in common: their increase in scope and intensity as is evident in current changing trends in one region or country that have a global effect.

Therefore, globalization can be best understood as a set of reinforcing changes that occurring simultaneously or at slightly differing intervals of time. It has to be taken into consideration that individually, these changes are not more significant than the other (Cohen, 2000). Globalization can be examined in six different components (Cohen, 2000):

  • Changing concepts of space and time
  • An increasing volume of cultural interactions
  • The commonality of problems facing all the world’s inhabitants
  • Growing interconnections and interdependencies
  • A network of increasingly powerful transnational actors and organization
  • The synchronization of all the dimensions involved in globalization

Each different component is a vital factor in the process of globalization but this thesis will only concentrate on the factor relevant to the spread of mass or popular culture: the increasing volume of cultural interactions.

The Macquarie Budget Dictionary defines culture as “skills, arts, customs, etc., of a people passed from generation to generation” (1998). Sociologists define culture as a word that is broadly used to describe or depict all train of throught, behaviour and “artefacts that are transmitted from generation to generation by example, education or the public record” (Cohen, 2000). In our every day lives, the things around us are richly saturated with remnants of our culture as culture itself is “rich in imagery, metaphors, signs and symbols”.

As cultural interactions increases from the rising rates of interaction between people of different cultures, so too the exposure and expansion of “cultural meanings and knowledge” (Cohen, 2000). It is through the mass media that we are exposed to cultures that our forefathers would have never experienced in the past. Communication has become more ‘fast’ with the invention of the telephone, the Internet and satellite telecommunications. As such, we have come to live in a world that is increasingly exposed. Nevertheless, despite its seemingly perfect outlook, such increasedof cultural interaction has generated several consequences (Cohen, 2000):

  • Cultural meanings have been lifted out of its original context and transplanted into other societies.
  • The ability to access greater quantities of cultural meaning rapidly and from a variety of sources has now increased.
  • Visual images obtained from the audiovisual media have given individuals an insight into the ‘naturalized’ world of other cultures.
  • The knowledge obtained about other cultures has become essential to our own cultural survival. The risk of exclusion occurs when individuals feign ignorance.
  • The exposure to mass media and new technologies have tied individuals to the single experience called the ‘global village’ (McLuhan, 1962 in Cohen, 2000).
  • Individuals are constantly bombarded with messages of global multiculturalism, pluralism with invitations to partake in the varied cultural customs.
  • The dominance of Western and especially American culture is evident in the flow of cultural knowledge.

Because of the dominance of Western and especially American culture in the mass media, many countries with differing cultures find themselves and their cultural identity challenged. The increased in “hybrid identities and overlapping communities” as well as the formation of a collective identity has been linked to globalization (Scholte, 2000). It is argued that globalization has “promoted the growth of alternative frameworks of communities” and this in some ways, have compromised the current government systems in countries where traditional structures are being challenged daily (Scholte, 2000).

In Malaysia where the state used to own majority of the telecommunication networks, the culture formed reflected the state’s ideology on what the Malaysian culture was – predominantly Asian beliefs. It is difficult to classify what exactly is the Malaysian culture as the country is made up of three key races – Malays, Chinese and Indians – with smaller ethnic groups like the Iban, Dayak and Eurasians. It is observed that the Malaysian culture is a reflection of the society – multicultural, tolerant, peace-loving and Asian at heart. This has meant that issues such as homosexuality, divorce, cohabitation, gender equality, sexuality and other more ‘liberal’ views on such taboo issues were swept under a carpet of ignorance or nonchalant outlooks.

At the turn of the twentieth century, when the term globalization began to hit countries world-wide, it was observed that the Malaysian premier, Dr Mahathir Mohamad – has time and time again – launched an attack on globalization. He correlated it to being the Western tool to dominate developing countries through cultural and economic values. He had every cause to be worried, since Malaysian society were being exposure to more Western cultures that were deemed unsuitable for an Asian multicultural society. Cable television with series such as Ally McBeal, Sex in the City and Dawson’s Creek were available for viewing to the masses. Apart from that, Malaysian students who were educated abroad, brought back with them certain Western values which were deemed unsuitable for an Asian community.

More pressure was added to the mechanics behind the formation of culture – the state controlled boards such as the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, the Ministry of Education, and the Film Censorship Board. Famed in Malaysia for its hardcore traditional unchanging outlook, the film censorship board deemed physical contact as innocent as a hug explicit for viewing. It would also have seen any underlying political and social messages as disturbing and ‘unsuitable’ for public screening, hence the ‘scissors’ would be applied to the film. In its aim to resist certain aspects of popular culture, such measures have been taken to ensure that Asian values to have its core in Malaysian society.

Since it has been said that films and television portrayed realism in a certain manner, Spinning Gasing would then be a portrayal of the real-life battle between traditional and modern structures of Malaysian society. Directed and written by an Australian-educated Malaysian, it is the epitome of the struggle faced by many young and modern Malaysians who are striving to find an identity in a community that is constantly bombarded with messages of change. It also provides an insight to the changing relationships between the three predominant races in Malaysia and an insight into the changing identity of the Malaysian society. It has to be noted that Spinning Gasing had trouble getting approval for distribution and public viewing from the Censorship Board mainly because of its underlying political, religious and cultural notes. Certain scenes were taken out and when the movie was finally released in mid to late 2001, the director had lamented that those scenes were crucial to the understanding of the movie and ultimately, Malaysian society. It would seem that the role of the Censorship Board still has not changed much after observation of its treatment of the film Spinning Gasing.

The film Spinning Gasing attempts to give an understanding into factors that affect a multicultural nation such as Malaysia. In the film, Harry Lee, an overseas educated Chinese returns to Malaysia without any academic success stories. Deemed a failure by his father who chants the motto ‘money is king’, Harry leaves with dreams of achieving success in the music industry. He teams up with old childhood friend, Yati, a Malay girl who is the epitome of the traditional rural Muslim girl torn between her own identity and her love for Harry. Together with JJ, an regular Joe who thinks that the world is against him for being Indian; Arif, the Muslim homosexual who hopes to step out of the closet; and Chantal, the Eurasian who is viewed upon as liberal and loose; the band of friends travel from the city to the rural area. Along their way, they run in with the gangsters of Chinatown and the religious department in Northern Malaysia. Ultimately, the tribulations that they face transcends more than their current financial and business problems. The issues tackled in the film involve religious, political and cultural undertones, reminders of the fact that the Malaysian society is striving to find its identity amidst a globalized and multicultural surrounding.

At the end of the day, several questions need to be asked and examined. Are Asian values still the core in Malaysian society? Has popular culture really affected Malaysian communities in the urban and rural areas? What are the dynamics and consequences of the relationships change between the three races predominant in Malaysia? Ultimately, the question that needs to be answered is this: what is the Malaysian identity and culture?

By looking at the issues challenging the structure and culture of Malaysian society (and ultimately, its identity) through the theories of globalization, media, culture, and identity, this dissertation would provide an understanding of the dynamics of change in a multicultural environment. It would also provide an insight into the changing relationships between the races in Malaysia and how the media naturalizes certain aspects of these relationships through stereotypes.


  1. What are the issues challenging the structure and culture of Malaysian society pertinent to mass spread of popular culture and globalization as depicted by the film ‘Spinning Gasing’?
  2. How did the film ‘The Spinning Gasing’ present the stereotypes of various cultures of Malaysian society?
  3. What are the effects of popular culture and globalization on the relationship between the various races in Malaysia?


  1. To examine the issues challenging the structure and culture of Malaysian society as depicted by ‘The Spinning Gasing’.
  2. To analyse the way the film ‘The Spinning Gasing’ presented stereotypes of the various cultures of Malaysian society.
  3. To examine the effects of popular culture and globalization on the relationship between the various races in Malaysia.


  1. The issues challenging the structure and culture of Malaysian society depicted in the film ‘The Spinning Gasing’ revolves around cultural and religious values. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, conversion of religions and the very essence of difference in the three predominant cultures are the issues that challenge the traditional structure and culture of Malaysian society.
  2. The stereotypes presented are not the typical general perceptions although they do exist in the film (the bitch, the mob, the damsel and others). These stereotypes are unique to the Malaysian society – the laidback, traditional and religious Malay, the uneducated, ignorant Indian, the cunning, resourceful and contemporary Chinese, and lastly, the Pan-Asian who is does not fit anywhere.
  3. Popular culture does affect the relationship between the three predominant races in Malaysia as well as the culture of each race itself. Mixed marriages, cohabitation, religious conversion are some of the by-products of the effects of popular culture on the relationship between these races.
  4. The film ‘The Spinning Gasing’ brings a new definition to political, social, economical and cultural aspects of the Malaysian society.


Cohen, Robin, and Kennedy, Paul, 2000, Global Sociology, New York: New York University Press.

Scholte, J.A., 2000, Globalisation: A Critical Introduction, Hampshire: Palgrave.

The Budget Macquarie Dictionary, 1998, Australia: The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd.

This entry was posted on Sunday, April 30th, 2006 at 10:59 am and is filed under Prose. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses

  1. Nurul

    hello Miss Mabel.
    my name is Nurul and i am a university student, and i would love to cite your research for my research paper. (the influence of american popular culture in malaysia) is there an official documentation that i could possibly attain?

  2. Mabel

    Hi Nurul,

    Sorry for the late reply – I was busy at the hospital, etc, attending to my preemie son. Am not too sure what you mean by official documentation – care to clarify? In any case, I’d be happy to help. :)

  3. Nurul

    oh thank you so much for responding! i came across your blog just by chance, and who knew this was written in 2006! not many articles discusses about popular culture in Malaysia. Your research has content which i would love to cite from. but apparently i cant cite your work because it is just an excerpt from your blog so it is considered to be an “in valid resource” as it is not “scholarly” my lecturer had advised me to find scholarly articles. (such as official news clippings or journals from credible sites) so i was wondering, was this research of yours published to any journal sites? and is there anyway (by any chance) you still have the full report? again, thank you so much for responding! Hope you are doing well! :)

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