IN 2007, a young Malaysian man studying mass communications in Taiwan uploaded a video onto YouTube. In this video, he stood in front of a Malaysian flag, singing a soulful rendition of Malaysia’s national anthem before breaking into rap verses about corrupt officials and ethnic discrimination in his home country. He called the video Negarakuku and uploaded it under the name “Namewee” – a pun on his actual name, Wee Meng Chee (Meng Chee sounds similar to the Mandarin word for “Name”).
It didn’t take long for the video to spread like rapid fire across Malaysia and even abroad. Here was an ordinary man from a small town in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor who dared to voice his controversial opinions in a country where people had been arrested for much less.
“Why must I be a politician to say something? I worry about my country so why can’t I say something?,” Namewee reasons.
“Even if you are nurse, or a cashier, you should care about your country.”
Namewee and his video soon caught the attention of the Malaysian government. As a nation known for its intolerance of “seditious” material – let alone anything that could incite racial tensions – this was not a surprise.
Prominent politicians soon came out in opposition of him and the government even imposed a gag on local media from giving him any further coverage.
The public, however, continued to circulate Negarakuku online even after Namewee pulled the original video off YouTube (a copy currently has more than a million hits).
Namewee had struck a chord with them.
Four years and 19 million views of his videos later, it seems like he continues to do so.
Unsurprisingly, his most popular videos have been in a similar vein to Negarakuku – strongly-worded clips that express his personal views about issues such as “F**k TNB Malaysia” and last year’s “Nah!”. These videos garnered thousands of views, once again inciting reactions from politicians including Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
There’s more to him than just controversy, says Namewee. Photo: Alvin Chia
Despite this notoriety, Namewee feels that his more controversial videos haven’t allowed the public to see who he really is.
“People judge me through my YouTube videos but (they haven’t watched) all of them. If they watched all of them they would understand me,” he says earnestly.
“I upload my songs to YouTube every month but maybe each year there’s only one hit song. They only focus on the critical songs. But I have many love songs and many patriotic songs as well!”
The critical videos and the media hype surrounding them have also created an image of Namewee as someone who is constantly in trouble with the law – something he is keen to change.
“Since Negarakuku, I’ve never had a case opened against me because according to the law, I’m innocent,” he says. “I’ve never been to court in my life.”
With the release of his new movie, Nasi Lemak 2.0, in Malaysian cinemas on September 8, Namewee hopes to send a more accurate picture of himself out to the public – that of a Malaysian who loves his country and its people.
“There will be 70 cinemas screening this movie across the country so I won’t be controlled by the media. Everyone can watch it (and let the movie speak for itself). So please, if you hate me or misunderstand me, just come and watch the movie,” he implores.
Written and directed by Namewee, Nasi Lemak 2.0 tells the story of a chef (played by Namewee) who ultimately discovers that being Malaysian transcends ethnic differences – a message that may seem ironic given his reputation.
However, he wrote the movie two years ago with Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s 1Malaysia in mind – a concept about unity in diversity in Malaysia.
Despite a message that could only be seen as positive, Namewee’s movie was rejected as a recipent of government funding on the basis that not enough of his script was in Malay (Malaysia’s national language).
“My movie is 60 percent Mandarin but I have about 10 different languages in my film - bahasa bangsa Malaysia (languages of the Malaysian race). But (the funding bodies) couldn’t accept it,” he says bitterly.
“Tamil, Hokkien, or Mandarin are one of the Malaysian languages. They shouldn’t be judging how to fund a film by its language. They should judge it by the spirit of the story and maybe by how many percent of the investors are Malaysian.”
Namewee, however, persevered and managed to get the film off the ground with the help of private investors and the involvement of a host of local celebrities including Adibah Noor, David Arumugum, Alfdlin Shauki, Reshmonu and Nadine Ann Thomas – people he hope will help shake the “racist” assertions made about him as well.
“If I’m a racist person, why did they join my film? They’re not stupid people, they’re very famous artists. They’ve got brains,” he says.
“I’ve always been anti-racism.”
That being said, Namewee does not disappoint when it comes to delivering the controversial content people have come to expect from him.
“There are many sensitive, very Malaysian jokes…but I did many things to make them cut only one scene. I did many things,” he laughs, adding that he would be uploading the censored scene onto YouTube.
Despite his shaky relationship with Malaysian media and politicians, Namewee is still a huge advocate for Malaysia, even calling it a “colourful Heaven on the Equator” in the song he wrote for the movie, Rasa Sayang 2.0.
“Malaysia is the best country of the world for me,” he says sincerely.
“I lived in Taiwan for six years. I even found a good job there. But I came back to Malaysia. It’s my home.”
His desire to spread his love for Malaysia is also why he chose to screen Nasi Lemak 2.0 in Melbourne last Wednesday night.
“One of the points of this film is asking people to come back so I think it’s meaningful,” he says.
“I think many people studying and working in Melbourne want to stay here. I think they better go back to Malaysia because this is still people’s country. It’s not our country.”
Namewee says he is living proof that Malaysia really isn’t all that bad.
“I think Malaysia still has freedom,” he says. “Many, many people disagree with me but I’m the person who always gets into trouble and I’ve never been to jail or court!
“So don’t worry lah – go back!”