Under the stewardship of the late, great, Yasmin Ahmad, Petronas Malaysia's festive commercials by Leo Burnett Malaysia have grown to be a tradition with Malaysians over the past two decades. Carrying heartwarming, and often tear-jerking, messages of unity and harmony among the nation's three ethnic groups, the ads have earned a place in the nation's cultural consciousness.
Which is why the tone of the latest, much-awaited, festive commercial from Petronas has disappointed at least the two Malaysian-Chinese working on the Campaign Asia-Pacific news team.
Beautifully shot and well-written, 'Rubber boy' depicts Ah Hock (a name often used for Chinese boys in Yasmin's earlier commercials), the son of a single mother who ekes out a living with rubber tapping. Ah Hock is teased by classmates for his poverty and his mother's menial job until one day, he takes it out on her in a screaming tantrum, asking her to work harder and make more money. The next day, he accompanies her to the plantation and realises just how hard his mother works on a daily basis. He apologises and hugs her in gratitude as he glances over at an envied classmate, sitting in the back of a car while her parents argue.
The message is clear, the grass is not always greener, and sometimes "the greatest blessing has always been by your side."
While a moral sentiment has always been part of these commercials, we wonder at the wisdom of pursuing this particular worthy sentiment in the current political climate.
For non-Malaysians, here's a brief explanation. Petronas is a government-linked entity, and Malaysia's government has long accused the Malaysian Chinese population of ingratitude. When current and embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak lost the popular vote, he promptly blamed the Malaysian-Chinese via government-owned paper Utusan, asking, "Apa lagi Cina mau?" (What more do the Chinese want?). The paper pointed out that Malaysian Chinese are immigrants and should be grateful that they have been permitted to live and prosper in Malaysia.
So, for an entity popularly known as the Malaysian government's 'piggybank' to remind the Malaysian-Chinese to be more grateful, and to appreciate the blessings they have, seems to be a loaded statement for a time of festivity.
We could, however, be reading too much into this. A Malaysian-Chinese creative at a rival agency to Leo Burnett, still residing in the nation, said she was touched by the ad; it reminded her of her grandfather, who tapped rubber for a living. She also felt that it conveyed the Chinese New Year sentiment without resorting to garish "dong-dong-chang" music, red angpow packets and cheongsams.
In the "making of" video above, the team behind the ad explains that the intention was to spread a message of hope—to look to each other for inspiration at a time of need and that every Malaysian could be a source of inspiration.
We reached out to Petronas for its point of view, and the company issued this statement:
For the past two decades, PETRONAS’ festive campaigns have always centred around celebrating the common values derived from the diverse beliefs and traditions of multi-racial, multi-cultural Malaysia.
These common values not only define the country’s rich heritage but also help bind Malaysians as one people, epitomizing “unity in diversity” that is truly Malaysia.
It has always been PETRONAS’ intention to keep inculcating and promoting these common values through relatable narratives and everyday stories that resonate in the hearts of all Malaysians.
The latest Chinese New Year TV commercial, “Rubber Boy”, keeps to the same philosophy and principle, inviting all Malaysians to reflect on what they have and to appreciate that sometimes happiness lies [in] the everyday blessings around them.