World: Insider's View - Malaysia

A 'can-do' spirit means the Malaysian ad industry is thriving despite a ban on exposed flesh and a propensity for overkill, Publicis Malaysia's Steve Clay writes.

Curvaceous Cantonese cleavage. Malays in miniskirts. Tamil teen-agers in tube tops. Some see titillating images as offensive. Others, like those of us in Malaysia, don't see images like these at all.

At least not on television, billboards or in magazines. Sex may sell in London, but not in Kuala Lumpur. Neither does violence. Nor armpits - shaggy or shaved.

Rangkaian Television Malaysia is Malaysia's version of the BBC.

It enforces extremely strict guide-lines that dictate what can and cannot be broadcast.

For creative staff at local advertising agencies, these restrictions are compounded by the fact that most clients insist on adapting their communications to run in three different languages. They do so in an optimistic attempt to appeal to all three of the major cultural groups in Malaysia - the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians.

Of course, we could bitch about such stifling circumstances. But instead, we choose to boleh. Boleh is Malay for "can". It has become a Malaysian catchphrase - a shorter version of Nike's "just do it". It is a term of enthusiastic encouragement, meaning you can overcome any obstacle that stands in your way.

Somehow, these two syllables have managed to fuel the spirit of a nation.

They explain the country's rapid transformation from a sleepy South-East-Asian backwater to a regional technology hub that is now turning in consistently strong performances at international awards shows, including a Grand Prix for Channel 9's "missile car" at last year's Cannes Advertising Festival.

How are Malaysian agencies finally managing to scale such heights? By presenting clients with a plausible paradox: if we are expected to do more with less, we must be given the freedom to prove that less is more.This may not sound like a new concept to anyone working in the West, but to many clients in the East, it's a revelation. You see, out here we have to overcome yet another hurdle: the dreaded Malay-sian quest for value for money.

According to the prevailing mentality here, if you have the opportunity to run a 30-second spot, then you can commmunicate 30 different messages.

Such infallible numerical logic can be difficult to counter, even with the best abacus.

But with the boleh spirit, quality is gradually winning the battle against quantity.

- Steve Clay is the executive creative director at Publicis Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.