Malaysian firms tap into K-Pop power

Young Malaysian Chinese at a K-pop fans event in Mutiara Damansara, north west of Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur Korean pop has a significant fans base in Malaysia

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Korean pop culture is sweeping Asia by storm and its popularity in Malaysia is now becoming so mainstream that big business is taking note.

Malaysia's main ethnic groups - Malay, Chinese and Indian - tend to have different tastes in music and television, and many prefer to be entertained in their own language.

But Korean pop songs, movies and soap operas, collectively known as K-Pop, seem to be crossing the divide.

The music is regularly featured on Malaysian radio stations, alongside the latest Malay and English hit songs. The difference is that Korean is a foreign language in the former British colony.

"K-Pop has gone beyond the language barrier and connects well with different ethnic groups," says Lim Teck Kheng, marketing director for Universal Music Malaysia and Singapore.

Its widespread appeal was evident at their K-Pop fan event just outside Kuala Lumpur. Malay-Muslims wearing hijabs cheered alongside Chinese people, as well as Indian Christians and Hindus.

No Korean artists were present but home-grown K-Pop acts performed to their favourite music videos.

K Pop fans at an appreciation event in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur

At times they struggled with the suggestive dance moves, but the crowd screamed and clapped as if they were watching the original K-Pop artist.

"I like K-Pop because the song is very catchy and very fresh and I like the outfits," said Laura Yap.

Her Malay friend, wearing a black and red hijab, nodded in agreement, saying she only listened to K-Pop now.

Nationwide frenzy

It is quite unusual to see people from all ethnic groups excited about the same artists.

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country but politicians worry that young Malays, Chinese and Indians are increasingly living separate lives from each other.

They have their own schools, live in neighbourhoods dominated by their own ethnic community and have dedicated entertainment channels in their mother tongue.

This lack of shared culture has made it difficult for advertisers.

"If I bring in a local Malay artist he would be huge but much more with the local Malay fans than the Chinese or the Indian," says Pearly Lim, of mobile operator DiGi.

"Similarly if I bring in a Chinese artist then obviously it's only going to work for the Chinese base."

Young Malaysian from different ethnicity at a K-pop fans event in Mutiara Damansara, north west of Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur Marketing agents say K-pop has greater reach across Malaysia's different ethnicities

Ms Lim says at times they alienate certain ethnic groups with marketing campaigns targeted elsewhere.

K-Pop artists, however, draw in a mixed crowd with an almost even split between ethnic Malays and Chinese, she says.

That is why DiGi was one of the first companies to organise K-Pop events to boost its brand. The results were almost instantaneous. Within the first two months over 40,000 people joined their Facebook page to participate in their contests.

DiGi once ran a campaign where customers had to buy pre-paid phone credits in order to win a chance to meet a K-Pop star. One female student bought so many top-up cards she might as well have bought a brand new phone, says Ms Lim.

The crazy thing is that this contest did not guarantee that the winner would meet a K-Pop star, it was just a chance to see one, she says. "We've never had this type of response before."

Leading budget carrier AirAsia also sponsored a K-Pop concert to promote its route from Kuala Lumpur to Seoul last year.

There are other music acts that can cut through racial barriers in Malaysia - Western artists, for example. After all, English is the second national language.

Yet advertisers say that K-Pop can appeal to the mass audience in Malaysia better than Western music.

That is partly because the English language still carries elitist connotations in this former British colony. It is spoken largely in major urban centres among the wealthier class.

In Malaysia, that usually means the ethnic Chinese.

American Idol finalist Adam Lambert is well known here but the kind of people who turned up for the concert DiGi sponsored were more urban Chinese than ethnic Malays, says Ms Lim.

"Whereas for K-Pop you see a good spread," she said.

'Shared values'

To understand the K-Pop phenomenon, one must look beyond the music to the TV dramas. The leading actress in Korean soap operas is usually the girl next door who lives at home to take care of her parents.

In other words, plots tend to be rooted in traditional Asian values - something that speaks to a Malaysian audience.

Korean pop band MBLAQ perform at a K-pop concert in Hong Kong, 23 June 2012 Some Malaysian K-pop fans are immersing themselves in Korean culture and language learning

Companies like Maaduu.com are feeding this demand. The site is Malaysia's first legal video site dedicated to Korean dramas. It is funded by ads so that Malaysians can watch the latest show for free.

"Certain dramas that perform poorly in Korea, [it] makes no difference here," said co-founder Dennis Lee.

Any Korean drama made available to fans did well, which clearly showed the demand, he said.

It may seem like a risky option to base an entire business on K-Pop but Malaysians are immersing themselves in the culture.

At the Universal Music Malaysia event, K-Pop star Jay Park called in to speak to fans. Most seemed to understand him when he spoke in Korean.

Many fans told the BBC that they were teaching themselves the language using the internet or attending free classes at the Korean Tourism Organisation.

Siti Nuraviqah is one of them. She has been listening to K-Pop music for the last seven years.

"I'm learning Korean because I want to understand the songs more," said the 22-year-old.

Many advertisers in ethnically divided Malaysia hope that this is a sign that K-Pop is more than just a passing fad.

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