Kuala Lumpur - A Korean boy band has found itself in the middle of a public storm over pop culture and religion in Malaysia, after its members were caught on video with a group of Muslim fans during a recent mini-concert.
The authorities have threatened the three girls involved with arrest and Cabinet ministers have weighed in, while some critics even claimed that the Korean K-pop genre is a Christian conspiracy.
The controversy began when a three-minute video was uploaded last Sunday on the Sukan Star TV Facebook page with the suggestive title, Malay Girls Molested On Stage By K-Pop Artists Last Night.
The video, which quickly went viral, showed a member of K-pop band B1A4 hugging a girl from behind. She then turned around to hug him. In another scene, another girl was kissed on her forehead by a band member.
The three girls were wearing the tudung, or headscarf, and this partly triggered the swift criticism on social media.
"It is disappointing to see these women properly covered up but with their souls laid naked by these K-pop band members," one person wrote on the Sukan Star TV Facebook page. Others said the girls had "no dignity", were an "embarrassment" and behaved like "they have no religion".
The authorities then asked the girls to own up. Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department director Paimuzi Yahya said the case was being investigated under the Syariah Criminal Offence Act for indecent behaviour in public places.
"We have given the girls seven days to come forward," he said last Wednesday. There have been no reports so far of the girls coming forward to help with investigations.
Other organisations called for action against concert organiser TGM Events, but the company denied claims that the members had molested the girls. It said the event was a special fan meeting tailored for engagement and interactivity.
The fans present were picked randomly based on questions they posted on a message board with only their first names, and were willing to go on stage.
"We do not discriminate against any fan based on their race and religion... It is not within our authority or jurisdiction to restrict fans from activities that they willingly partake in," TGM said, adding that the company was "run primarily by women" and "never will condone molestation or sexual harassment".
Amid the controversy, Malay-Muslim NGO Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) claimed K-pop was a Christian conspiracy, declaring that the "K" in "K-pop" stands for "Kristian" and pointing out that South Korea was a Christian-majority country.
"Most of them (K-Pop artists) were Gospel church singers when they were in their teens before becoming popular," its website quoted Mr A. Karim Omar, leader of another Malay-Muslim NGO, Muafakat, as saying. "Some even say that the K-Pop genre is an evolution of the Korean Contemporary Christian Music which started in the 1970s."
Separately, a satirical cartoon with Malay-language captions appeared on Facebook, glorifying women who joined Islamic militants in Syria but condemning female Muslim K-pop fans as degrading the religion.
Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin tried to make light of the situation, tweeting: "I hope Malaysian girls return to tall, dark and handsome men and not pale, skinny and pretty men. Those are not real men." He later clarified that he was only joking, when netizens accused him of being racist.
Others urged the authorities not to overreact.
Counselling and advice are the best options for the girls, said Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek.
"This is about people's action and in this case, it was the audience who got over-excited seeing their idols. Someone went up on stage and did something more than she should have as a Muslim. It is not (the fault of) K-pop, rock or jazz."