For someone who doesn’t believe in censoring himself, it’s strange that Malaysian rapper Namewee is wearing a pair of sunglasses that resemble censor bars. It’s the first thought that crosses our mind when we meet the beanie-loving 34-year-old, whose real name is Wee Meng Chee (‘Meng Chee’ and ‘name’ are like homonyms in Mandarin), when he was in town recently to promote the Singapore stop of his sold-out 4896 concert tour tonight (Feb 3). [P/S: ‘4896’ is a play on a Hokkien term that means ‘very strong and powerful’.]
The multi-hyphenate, who got his start on YouTube a decade ago (he now has 1.2mil subscribers), is not just one of Malaysia’s most famous stars but also one of its most controversial. His satirical lyrics and videos take aim at hot button topics like Malaysian politics and racism and they’ve made him the voice of a (disgruntled) generation and also a persona non grata in certain circles.
Namewee first gained notoriety in 2007 when he was still a mass comm student in Taiwan’s Ming Chuan University. He had released a rap-remix parody of the Malaysian national anthem that his critics said was anti-government. Last year, he was arrested and placed in remand for four days after 20 non-governmental organisations lodged police reports alleging that the star had insulted Islam in the video for his song ‘Oh My God’. But the Golden Melody Awards-nominated star, who is also a filmmaker and actor (his 2011 movie Nasi Lemak 2.0 was a big hit in Malaysia), insists that the song was meant to promote religious harmony. We guess Namewee’s love for film and music, his predilection for social commentary as well his controversy-fanning sensibilities kinda makes him an amalgamation of Jay Chou, Mr Brown and Xiaxue.
It’s why we jumped at the chance to interview the polarising star, now sitting opposite us in a small classroom of a private school on Prinsep Street. He’s still wearing those damn censor bar sunnies but he removes them just when we start the interview.
8 DAYS: When we Googled your name, the top search results were all about your controversies. What do you think of that?
NAMEWEE: It’s ’cos the media likes to cover those things. But [those articles about me] cannot be taken at face value ’cos a lot of [the writers] didn’t interview me. They wrote what came to mind or they listened to what some officials said. If you want to know [the full story], you should just go to my Facebook. Then [the coverage] would be fairer. In this day, the media is no longer the biggest. Some KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) are also very influential.
Do you think the controversies have taken the focus away from the messages you want to deliver?
I’ll look at the bright side. When people read those articles, most of the time, they will link to my music and that’s good.
Why is the addressing of social issues so important to you?
’Cos I am Malaysian. And there are a lot of social issues in Malaysia we need to talk about, like racism, which is very serious [in Malaysia]. Our education [system] doesn’t allow us to learn how to respect each other. I’ve been exposed to a lot of these things since I was young but no one dared talk about it [publicly]. What I want to express in my music, videos and movies is racial harmony… that different religions can co-exist in peace. Of course the way I express myself might not be accepted by everyone, but I hope everyone can see that I mean well.
It seems more Malaysian stars have started to be more vocal, like Sheila Majid who tweeted about the high costs of living in Malaysia.
(Looks incredulous) You follow Sheila Majid’s news? I think it’s celebs who limit themselves. The Malaysian government started to take notice of me ’cos I was the only one who dared to speak up. But there’s no rule that people cannot speak up. People are scared but in Malaysia, there’s actually a lot of freedom of speech on the Internet.
So what gave you the guts to speak up?
’Cos I started out on the Internet. I’m not a mainstream artiste. And I don’t see myself as a celebrity. I see myself as an online user. So when I’m not happy about a friend or politics, I’d just write about it on Facebook. But I didn’t know that when I did that, it would go viral. After realising that, I knew that if I stopped, it would be like putting an end to my freedom of speech. No matter what I do or whatever happens to me, I’ll still want to speak my mind. There are no restrictions on the Internet. I can turn what I want to say into music, or an essay, or a movie. It’s my responsibility as a creative person. If I want to create something, I cannot be scared. But I’m not saying I have no limit. My limit is what YouTube doesn’t ban.
Have you always been this ballsy?
Yes. I was always sent to the principal’s office for speaking up in class. When I was in Primary 6, I had a teacher who judged us according to what our fathers did for a living. There was a donation drive and instead of asking everyone to donate, he checked out what car everyone’s dad drove to determine how much each person should donate. I told the teacher I was not going to donate ’cos he was looking down on poor people. I said: “If poor people want to give more, why can’t they? Some rich people are stingy.” When he threatened to send me to the principal’s office, I said “Okay, let’s go now.” By then everyone in class was banging on their tables cheering me on (laughs). In the end, my principal told the teacher off.
How would you describe a typical Namewee fan?
Those who like creative types. And those who like people who dare to voice their opinions. They are mostly guys. I don’t have that many female fans.
And a typical Namewee hater?
Those who have eaten and have nothing better to do (laughs).
You recently collaborated with Jack Neo on a remix of the iconic Comedy Night theme song. How would you describe your relationship with him?
I’ve known him for like seven, eight years. I’ve written songs for his movies. He knows that I’m from Johor and that I watched Comedy Night growing up just like many Singaporeans. We’ve always talked about collaborating but it never happened. But this time I was proactive and told him I wanted to remix the song and he said okay.
Why Comedy Night, though?
It’s a very important show. It’s my youth. Not only did I grow up laughing along to it, it also showed me how comedy can be turned into an experiment — the way he added different elements to create different types of comedy. You can say that the show is passé now but a lot of YouTubers are doing the same things. And YouTube can be edited but Comedy Night is live so it’s tougher. It’s really a national treasure of Singapore. Not just Jack Neo but his whole team. It really influenced me. When the cast came to Malaysia, I would squeeze with the crowd just to see them. Jack Neo is my comedy hero. That’s why I really wanted to remix the song as a tribute to him.
Who was your favourite character?
Liang Popo, of course. I would laugh so loudly my neighbour would complain. I mean I would be kicking the table or throwing things. He even gave my Ah Gong the namecard of a shrink ’cos he thought I was crazy (laughs). I was super naughty when I was a kid. I would be out playing till like 8, 9pm every day. But every Monday night at 7.30pm, I would be in front of the TV with my dinner without fail…. Just waiting for the show to start at 8pm.
Did you tell Jack that?
Yes, he said he’s very happy to be part of my childhood (laughs). It’s one show you could not miss ’cos everyone in school would be talking about it. If you couldn’t join in the conversation, you would lose face (laughs).
Namewee is performing tonight (Feb 3) at The Star Performing Arts Centre.
[This story first appeared in Issue 1420, Jan 1, 2018]