Michelle Yeoh’s success masks struggle of Malaysian film industry

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Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh made history last month when she became the first Asian to win Best Actress at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, raising hopes she might even take home an Oscar this weekend.

Yeoh’s second accolade for her performance in the indie sci-fi flick Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) marked another step towards inclusion in the predominantly white and male-dominated Hollywood film industry.

Back in multi-ethnic Malaysia, the actress’s achievements also triggered a debate on issues of inclusion.

Yeoh, a Malaysian of Chinese origin, got her start in the movie industry in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Other prominent Malaysians in the industry – such as Kuching-born director James Wan, the creator of popular horror films like The Conjuring and Insidious, as well as Malaysian-British actor Henry Golding, the male lead in Jon M Chu’s wildly popular romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018) – have also found recognition by going overseas.

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Like Yeoh, Wan is not part of Malaysia’s ethnic majority, the Malay Muslims, who with Indigenous people are granted a “special position” in the country’s constitution. Golding’s mother, however, is an Indigenous Iban from Borneo.

Small and fractured audience

According to the Malaysian Department of Statistics, 69.9 percent of the 30.2 million Malaysians are Bumiputera, an umbrella term encompassing the Malays and the Indigenous peoples of Peninsular Malaysia as well as the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

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