HONG KONG – From saving James Bond from harm in Tomorrow Never Dies to standing firm against political tyranny in Luc Bresson's Aung San Suu Kyi biopic The Lady, Michelle Yeoh is known for playing strong-willed characters on screen. And now the Malaysian-born actress has proven to be just as tenacious in real life, via her dogged support for her country’s beleaguered conservative prime minister.
Yeoh has come under social media attack since she appeared at an election rally in support of Najib Razak’s ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, in the southern state of Selangor on Apr. 20. At the event, the actress said Najib, who is running his first electoral campaign after ascending to his post in 2009, is a leader “who has done so many good things and will do more… I hope from the bottom of my heart that he will remain as the Prime Minister and I ask all of you to give him a strong mandate.”
Since then, critics of the Barisan-led government have rallied against Yeoh, with postings on a Facebook page supporting the opposition party, the Pakatan Rakyat, questioning the actress’ knowledge of everyday life in her home country and urging her to “not become a traitor.”
Having ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since the country’s independence in 1957, Barisan Nasional (which was known as the Parti Perikatan before 1973) has seen its grip on power gradually loosened in recent years amidst corruption allegations and political scandals, with its once overwhelming control in the federal legislature whittled down to a narrow majority as support surges for the Pakatan Rakyat, led by former Barisan Nacional deputy leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Yeoh has since remained steadfast in her support for Najib. In an interview with Channel News Asia, the actress said: “This is a democratic country and we are free to voice our opinion… I believe all of us want to do good for our country.” Speaking to the Chinese press at a cosmetics launch in Hong Kong on Monday, Yeoh said she “is a straight-talking person, and I will speak out if I have something to say.” The Hollywood Reporter’s requests to her agent for clarification on the matter were not answered at time of writing.
While some might see a paradox in the actress’ support for Burmese pro-democracy activist (and possible president-in-waiting) Aung San Suu Kyi and Barisan Nacional -- a coalition criticized for its track record of suppressing dissent, including a stringent censorship regime against films touching on sensitive subjects like the communist insurgency in the 1950s and 1960s -- Yeoh’s support for the ruling coalition is hardly a surprise.
Her father, Yeoh Kian Tiek, is a veteran member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, one of the founding members of the umbrella political front. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in March, the actress said her father's political engagement rubbed off on her, and has likely played a part in her enthusiasm for championing social causes such as Suu Kyi’s fight in Burma or the introduction of traffic safety education around the world.
Yeoh's father himself has spoken out in support of her daughter’s political views, saying how the public should respect the actress’ right to support any political party.
Yeoh is not the only Malaysian celebrity receiving a massive critical backlash at home for support of Barisan Nacional. Singer Eric Moo was also censured for appearing at a concert linked to the ruling coalition, and bloggers have called for a boycott of his albums as protest.
Analysts are predicting the upcoming election, which is to be held on May 5, will be one of the tightest-fought in Malaysian history. The political uncertainty has led to more than just star-bashing in the country, however: the Kuala Lumpur Communications and Creative Mart, which was supposed to be held from March 26 to 29, was postponed to make way for the elections. The organizers have yet to announced when the event will take place, if at all.