SOMETIMES the best ideas start with simple conversations. I was worried about the numbers of women becoming infected with HIV and was trying to think of a way to educate them about the virus. I was also conscious that education alone was not enough; women who became infected were invariably women who had no rights simply because they were women.
My friend Lina Tan had been producing TV programmes and had done some videos for the Malaysian AIDS Council. I mentioned a TV programme I had seen in Manila that was geared specifically for young women. Could we do something like that? I asked Tan. Why not? she replied.
That was how 3R – Respect, Relax and Respond came to be, amazingly enough, 10 years ago. It was a simple idea: we wanted to produce a TV programme for young women that gave them ideas and options they had never been exposed to before. We never realised what new ground we were breaking.
Our idea was to produce a lively programme that presented issues, not just on HIV/AIDS, relevant to young women in Malaysia. These could cover career options, relationships, health, and all their myriad manifestations. We wanted to show them that they could do things they never thought about, such as firefighting or flying a jet plane. We wanted them to have exceptional women role models, from a variety of fields. Most of all, we wanted young women to know they had rights.
From the beginning, Tan, the editorial team at Red Communications and I were clear about one ideological stand: men and women are equal. That stand informs our scripts, our visuals, and the way we portray women and men in our show. When that’s clear, everything else falls neatly into place.
Therefore, we wanted three hosts who were clued in on issues and could discuss them naturally. We auditioned many young women, most of whom had no TV experience. Finally we settled on three — Azah Yasmin Yusof, Low Ngai Yuen and Rafidah Abdullah — because they were bright, socially aware, and had good chemistry among them.
The advertising game
Tan and I were not keen on the usual advertisers for women’s programmes: the soap, shampoo and make-up manufacturers. After all, we wanted to change the way people saw women. We were also afraid that the messages in the commercials might contradict those we were presenting on the show.
So Tan hit on an idea: we needed a small group of advertisers to be core supporters of the show, and they needed to see women in a different way. So we went to a mobile phone company, a bank, and a car company. We convinced them of the obvious fact that their customers included young women, a market that they had pretty much ignored or not marketed to directly.
Unfortunately, it was really only multinationals that bought the idea. For us as producers, funding remained an issue, and eventually we could not resist the offers made by more traditional women’s products.
But even then, we tried to exert some form of control. At that time, sanitary-pad manufacturer Kotex was lagging in sales and had an image of being staid, dowdy, and more suitable for older women. So when they approached us, we agreed to accept their offer on one condition: that we produced their ads for them.
At that time, no sanitary products could be shown on TV. We came up with an ad featuring the 3R girls telling the audience, “Don’t let the Red Dot stop you” from doing everything you want to do. As a result of that positive and empowering ad, Kotex became the number one sanitary product in the country.
Nevertheless, we still had to give up some of the advertising time to TV station TV3 to sell. Hence, sometimes 3R has been interrupted by commercials for Barbie dolls, for instance.
Still, I believe 3R had an impact. Our episodes on relationships and on issues such as violence against women were particularly successful. Mothers often came to tell me that 3R helped them to break the ice with their daughters to talk about many tricky issues. Boys watched it to gain insight into their sisters and girlfriends.
Our outreach programmes extended that impact even further. The 3R hosts conducted many workshops, in collaboration with women’s organisations such as the All Women’s Action Society, on reproductive health, women’s hygiene, and sexual harassment in schools and workplaces.
Tackling censorship creatively
Besides funding, censorship was also a problem. As co-executive producer, it was my job to deal with the Malaysian Film Censorship Board, which had to screen all episodes prior to airing. The problem was this tended to be just a few days before broadcasting, and if there was an issue, there was very little time to negotiate or make changes.
It was hard to second-guess the censors’ interpretation of the rules. We knew, for instance, that men were not allowed to dress like women and vice versa. Once, however, the censors wanted to cut out an interview we did with a young man because he wore an earring. That apparently was deemed “feminine” dress, even though that particular young man had been on a “most eligible bachelor” list. In the end, we reached a compromise. The Board agreed for us to pixellate his earrings, much like how private parts are pixellated in Japan according to the law. Of course, this only drew more attention to his earlobes.
On another occasion, an entire episode on discrimination against women because of their sexuality was banned. In it we featured two interviews with gay women who said their families continued to love and support them even after they had come out to them. The Board’s view was that we could not say that families continued to love their gay children because “this would lead to the destruction of society”.
There was nothing we could do; without the Board’s blessing we could not show the episode. But Tan and I wrote a letter to the editor of one newspaper after the banning became a small controversy, questioning why family values such as unconditional love should be a bad thing. The episode was subsequently shown in private colleges to audiences who were puzzled as to why it was banned.
Nevertheless, we had always been concerned that there might be censorship. So, from the beginning, we decided to have a website where we could deal with issues more fully, provide resources for more information and help, and also obtain feedback from our audience.
What the future holds
Censored or not, 3R has made some great strides. In our second season, we won the Best Infotainment Programme Award at the Asian Television Awards. We are the first Malaysian TV programme to be franchised overseas, in the Philippines and Vietnam. Our hosts have spoken in overseas seminars, and are the first Malaysians to have been made United Nations Children’s Fund Goodwill Ambassadors.
They themselves have blossomed — Low going on to direct movies and plays, Rafidah writing award-winning scripts, and Azah being a spokesperson for Kotex and talking about body image to young girls. Of the second batch of hosts, Kartini Ariffin hosts radio programmes, and Celina Khor has started her own business.
For our 10th anniversary, we have spun off 3R into a company in its own right, which would allow us to do more with the brand, particularly in pursuing our agenda of empowering young women. But at the core will still be the TV programme, now geared towards older women, those with careers, and also those starting families.
We are also going to premier a new series, tentatively called Freshy, catering to teenage girls and university students. Our hope is that a new generation of young women will be freshly empowered.
Marina Mahathir is an activist, writer, and blogger.
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