Of Moral Panic and 30 Hours of Non-Stop Rock: The Malaysian Woodstock of July 1972

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Words by Azzief Khaliq, with research assistance from James Rivers. Illustration by Szwan Asri.

1969’s Woodstock is probably one of the most iconic and influential music festivals to ever take place, with its 32 acts and 400,000 attendees making it not just the zenith of the whole counterculture movement that was such a big part of 1960s America, but also one of the most iconic events in the history of popular music. Never mind that the dream arguably died barely four months later on an ugly day in Altamont, California; the peace-and-love waves of the hippie movement and of Woodstock 1969 in particular reverberated across the whole planet, making their mark on Malaysia as well, and in a much bigger way than simply inspiring a generation of twenty-somethings to start growing their hair long and smoking weed.

Malaysia, like presumably many other countries all across the world, had its own Woodstock in the early 70s. In fact, there were apparently multiple Woodstock-alikes organised across the country during the first few years of the decade, but the most prominent, and certainly most mythologised one, was the event organised at Camp Semangat, Cheras, in July 1972, organised by the Scouts. It’s an event that has become something of an urban legend, with numerous tales of drug-fuelled debauchery and rock and roll excess being associated with the event. But what really happened during that weekend at the end of July 1972?

Joe Rozario of Joe’s MAC fame was around back then, and went to Camp Semangat that weekend. We met up with him to talk about those heady days, and to try and find out more about the event itself. He recalls that “there were a lot of young people by the roadside hitchhiking, dressed in the big long American hats, torn overalls and all. There were a lot of young people by the roadside going to Woodstock, in Cheras. It was a very nice feeling; people were coming from Singapore, Johor, Malacca, Penang, Ipoh and all the surrounding small towns.”

He continued, “it was a new generation of people, you know, who refused to wear ties and follow the normal generation of the time, the older generation. So I hitchhiked down from Pangkor Island with my friend Raj, and we came to Cheras. We had to stop at the 9th Mile and walk about two kilometres into the jungle. And there was this large group of people, of hippies, [at an event] organised by the Scouts! Imagine that!”

It’s unclear how many people showed up at Camp Semangat for the festival; newspaper reports range from 500 (The Straits Times) to 700 (The Malay Mail), while Rozario claims that there were closer to 3000 people, and the small reported number was just an attempt to play things down. We’ve not been able to ascertain the veracity of Rozario’s claim, but the idea of the media purposely under-reporting the number of people at a countercultural or possibly subversive popular gathering isn’t exactly unheard of.

There’s also the possibility that the reporters, who probably didn’t care about the event at all, were just lazy and decided to base their reports on numbers provided to them by the organisers. Or, most likely, Rozario’s recollections have been distorted by the 44 years that have passed since. It’s impossible to say without any concrete evidence, and such evidence is in somewhat short supply. Or, at least, the evidence isn’t quite as easily accessible as we would like it to be.

The full list of bands that played has also probably been lost to the mists of time, but Rozario remembers that bands such as Illusion Revival, Sweet September, Ash Wednesday and Mushroom Alice were on the bill. There was also a Filipino band that stuck in Rozario’s memory because they kept throwing money at the audience, although he was unable to recall the name of the band. Charles Tyler, one of the organisers of the Camp Semangat Woodstock, who popped into the comments on a post on Ricecooker, doesn’t remember there being a Filipino band, although he does mention that there were also Indonesian bands at the festival. Sadly, he neglected to mention any specific names.

Despite the presence of international acts, one of the highlights of the weekend, at least for Rozario, was a band haling from much more familiar environs: Kuala Lumpur band The Falcons, who counted the relatively well-known musician Jerry Felix amongst their ranks. Rozario recalls:

“They turned up in a long trailer with big amplifiers–Marshall valve stacks–and Fender guitars, like Jimi Hendrix. Once they came, the whole area became wild. Before that, everyone had been sleeping; three days of music and a lot of grass led to people sleeping all over, waiting for this great event. And when The Falcons came it was a burst of joy. When they started, it was unbelievable, everyone was super happy, and for the next two hours or so, The Falcons played.

And I remember Mr Nan Hong, who rented the amplifiers, being so angry at the young fellows that were trying to climb the amplifiers, because they were so tall. The sound was so big; you can’t hear a sound like that even today, unless you use valve amps. It was a total knockout! By the time The Falcons finished the show, everybody was on their feet, clapping and dancing and singing.”

Rozario recalls that, in general, the festival was “a good time. Everybody was happy, it was just like a holiday in the forest. Every person there was your friend.”

On the other hand, Ng Foo Ngok, reporter for The Straits Times, reported that the weekend was a “flop” in his piece on the event in the August 1 edition of said paper, with the bands giving “the audience more headaches than pleasure” and some audience members allegedly struggling to keep themselves awake despite the noise.

Of course, it’s very likely that Foo Ngok was a bit of an incentivised square, a supposedly neutral voice of reason encouraged to be a bit of a wet blanket lest youth cotton on to the dangerous fact that rock and roll was fun. The fact that he bothered to mention that one of the bands played “a number called Sweet Leaf” without naming the band or knowing—or maybe he was just told to not bother—that “Sweet Leaf” was originally a song by Black Sabbath would seem to lend some credence to this interpretation. Better not be giving the kids any ideas, after all, lest they end up grabbing a copy of Master of Reality.

Foo Ngok also claims that the event was indeed quite a place for “potheads”, with marijuana being “smoked and offered openly” and cheap weed being sold openly over the weekend.

Charles Tyler remembers things differently, however. He claims that while some attendees might have been smoking some weed, “all of the people who came were just average guys and gals. I didn’t notice any drug use at all myself. The irony was that all the people I knew who helped put it on … were the most clean-living, non-druggie types you could possibly find.”

Tyler also claims that it was “a nice event that a lot of people enjoyed … There was swinging and swaying and guitars playing and dancing in the fields – but it was all very nice and everybody was incredibly friendly and well-behaved.” Even our friend Ng Foo Ngok had to concede the latter point, pointing out that the crowd was “remarkably peaceful and friendly”, with “race and colour [having been] put aside.”

It would be reasonable to think that Foo Ngok’s claims of drug use were an attempt to demonise the festival—it’s a tried-and-true media tactic that we’re probably all very familiar with—but Rozario actually corroborated Foo Ngok’s claims. He recalls that there was a lot of marijuana being smoked, and that yes, there were also dealers. But he remembers that there were also some other drugs, namely “toon”—a black opium paste of some sort—and heroin.

The latter was apparently the drug of choice for some of the festival’s western attendees, and did result in some police trouble: “when the heroin came in, the police came. There were some raids on the third morning, if I’m not mistaken, because they caught some people taking drugs.” He stressed that it wasn’t as bad as the papers made it out to be, though, and that it was, at the end of the day, just a large group of young people “being happy”.

Despite—or because of—the drugs, he remembers the festival as being a peaceful affair. “There was no violence, it was absolutely a very nice good gathering of people of all races,” Rozario recalls. And, while we’re on the subject of intoxicating substances, there was apparently very little to no alcohol being consumed over the weekend, too, with the prevailing mood of the time seemingly one of stoned reverie rather than alcohol-fuelled chaos.

It’s important to point out that despite the hippy and counterculture associations of the term “Woodstock”, the festival seems to have been organised generally as an above-board, completely legal event: the stage was sponsored by Coca-Cola, which topped the stage with a—“ridiculously commercial”, in the words of one reporter—selamat datang signboard, and there were food and drinks stalls, film screenings, workshops and even stage shows, according to accounts from The Straits Times and The Malay Mail.

And the festival wasn’t some self-organised, spontaneous and lawless temporary autonomous zone either: a report from The Straits Times on August 3 notes that the organisers of the festival had sought out the assistance of police and security guards to maintain law and order at Camp Semangat, and that the same organisers also went to the police when they started learning of the drug-taking that was going on during the weekend, which is most probably what led to the aforementioned police intervention.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about Camp Semangat Woodstock. We don’t know for sure who did and didn’t play, what drugs were or weren’t actually taken, and what did or didn’t happen in general that weekend. But we know one thing for sure: the Malaysian government and its attendant apparatuses came down hard after the festival. Charles Tyler, in the same comments section, relates that when the organisers got home after cleaning up the camp site, they “found that police had visited all of our apartments and searched them and left instructions that we had to report to the local police station … At the police station we were each given two weeks to get out of the country. No rough stuff. Just visas cancelled.”

That the Malaysian government considered rock music a serious threat, with or without drugs, is borne out not just by Tyler’s story, but also by the things that were said by politicians and policymakers in the months immediately after the festival. In The Straits Times, for instance, you’d be able to spot headlines such as “‘Ban Long Hair by Royal Decree’ Call”, “Woodstock Show ‘A Plot to Weaken Youth’”, “Team to Probe Drug Taking at Scouts’ Festival”, and so on, all within a few months after the event. Headlines that could have been written yesterday; depressing and amusing in equal measure. Tyler even made the newspaper front pages over the days after the event, presumably cast as the white demon bringing forbidden fruit to pure and unsullied Malaysians.

Shariff Ahmad, the then-Parliamentary Secretary for Malaysia’s Information Ministry, opined that the event could have been an “international conspiracy” to weaken Malaysian youth, stating that “it’s possible that this conspiracy is specially aimed at influencing the youth with drugs to break their spirit to seize the opportunities provided by the Government”. Mr. Shariff’s opinion, such as it is, is particularly amusing (in a bit of a depressing way, naturally) because it’s so easy to imagine one of our current politicians, regardless of party affiliation, saying something similar.

On a similar note, we have Radin Supathan, at the time the president of the Federal Capital Cultural Organisation, who wanted the government to ban long hair and hippy fashions, adding that “by having long hair and consuming drugs, these youths have gone against their religion”. The seemingly-inexorable link between long hair and social (and religious) deviancy, in full effect.

The Malaysian government also wanted to ban hippies, “unkempt looking foreigners and anyone sporting long hair and shabby clothes” from entering the country outright. Immigration department officers were actually given guidelines on how to identify hippies, although at the end of the day it was at the end of the day left up to the “discretion” of the officers on whether a person was or wasn’t a hippy. The uses and abuses of these guidelines and the extent of immigration officers’ discretion, sadly, don’t seem to have been recorded for posterity’s sake.

A certain Anwar Ibrahim, who was president of the Malaysian Youth Council back in 1972, put the blame squarely on the organisers and their fellow westerners, claiming that it was the westerners that had influenced and led to the allegedly-rampant drug taking at the festival, going so far as to claim that the drug taking wouldn’t have happened had the festival been organised by locals, since “they wouldn’t have allowed such a thing to happen because it is foreign to our way of life.” And, in a depressingly familiar turn, he continues by pointing out that “certain people, mainly the English-educated, think it is all right because they have been influenced by Western beliefs. They think it is harmless. I must say it isn’t. We have our own way of life. Woodstocks are not in it.”

There’s a somewhat-popular notion that the term budaya kuning actually came into use due to Camp Semangat Woodstock and the belief, exemplified by what Anwar Ibrahim had to say above, that Caucasians had brought their immoral, drug-abusing ways to these fair shores. We’ve been unable to truly verify or disprove this, but it does seem to make sense. Of course, a lot of these sorts of etymologies seem to make sense on the surface, but given the situation at the time and the prevailing moral mood, it’s not entirely improbable either.

Rozario had this to say about the allegedly negative influence of western ways: “of course it was very western-influenced, but I don’t see anything wrong with that, because the young people were getting very frustrated with the government’s pretentiousness.”

He also felt that the whole event had been blown out of proportion by politicians and the media: “when I was reading the media reports I felt that that wasn’t where I was! They made it look like it was a very ugly affair by these young people … but no, everybody was happy, and they would grow up with good memories. But the media portrayed it like that because of the politicians, and they banned open-air concerts after that, which I think was a big mistake. Just because you can’t control the people, you ban it.”

It wasn’t just open-air concerts that were banned; the weekend at Camp Semangat was also the catalyst for the government’s decision to require all youth movements and volunteer organisations to apply for permits before organising any gatherings, with such events having to be screened and investigated by police as well as the Culture, Youth and Sports ministry, presumably to ensure that these movements weren’t out to corrupt Malaysian youth.

As mentioned at the start of this piece, the Camp Semangat festival wasn’t the only attempt at a Woodstock-styled festival to have been held in Malaysia back in the 1970s. Joe Rozario recalls having organised a similar happening in the woods of Kajang, and there seems to have been at least two other Woodstock-inspired concerts from the same general period, one held at a university in Penang and another held on top of Fraser’s Hill that was apparently named “Windstock”.

This article is quite obviously woefully incomplete, yes, but it was never intended to be a definitive piece about the events at Camp Semangat at the end of July 1972, or about the moral panic that followed. Instead, the hope is that this attempt to try and cut through some of the mythologising and nail down some facts about the event and what followed can be seen as a start, an attempt to kickstart more discussion about the history of Malaysian alternative culture, including its ever-present tangles with moral and authority figures.

There are definitely many more people to talk to, and we know for sure that there are many more archives to look through, but until we can return to this topic more thoroughly, we’ll leave the final words to Joe Rozario:

“[When the festival was over] we left the place slowly and reluctantly, with our long hats and overalls, and we walked all the way to the main road of Cheras to take buses, walk back home, or hitchhike. Nobody who left the jungle that day was the same. It seemed to have changed everybody I met.

It was a spontaneous happening of the youth. It didn’t matter if you were American or European or Malaysian or Asian, it was a universal spontaneous get-together of young people to rebel against the establishment. Not in violence, but in peace.”

Azzief KhaliqAzzief Khaliq mostly spends his days thinking about, buying or listening to music.