Walk by any news or magazine stand in Malaysia and you’re bound to run into the glossy covers of longstanding magazine titles Mingguan Wanita, Remaja, nona, and Keluarga. Instantly recognisable for their iconic Muslimah cover girls, these well-known titles have enjoyed a successful run of more than 30 years and are household names for the Malay demographic. Most readers, however, are probably not aware that one company ‘rules them all’ – the Karangkraf Media Group.
The largest Malay-language publisher in Malaysia, Karangkraf Media Group owns 20 magazine titles that capture roughly 60% of the Malay magazine market. 80% of the titles cater to women, but there is something for everyone: There is a men’s lifestyle magazine (MASKULIN) and others that cover religion (Majalah i), technology (Majalah PC), gardening (Laman Impiana), and more. Today, the Karangkraf Media Group sits on a 12-acre piece of land in Shah Alam, enjoys an annual revenue of half a billion ringgit (USD130 million), and has 1,500 employees. The group also owns several related companies, including Ultimate Print Sdn Bhd, which contributes 30% of the group’s annual revenue. Although they publish books, too, the heart of the enterprise is its magazines.
What explains Karangkraf’s success? The staying power of Karangkraf’s magazines can be directly attributed to one thing – its distinctly aspirational, distinctly Islamic content. “We show that you can be an ordinary Malaysian and still be rich and famous,” Rashdan Rashid said, gesturing around the large expanse of the editorial floor. The general manager of the advertising department, Rashdan is a confident and flamboyant personality who sports long white locks à la Karl Lagerfeld and a brown leather Coach handbag on his arm. He has been at Karangkraf for more than a decade and knows the group’s magazine business like the back of his hand.
“Other magazines like to feature Westernised rich and famous people,” said Rashdan, almost to the point of ‘vulgarity’. In Asia, glamour and wealth are often depicted in the likeness of Western culture, with short skirts, cleavage, and alcohol-laced parties. All this can be alienating for followers of Islam craving aspirational references of their own, leaving a market gap for millions of aspiring Muslims. This is where Karangkraf comes in.
Karangkraf magazines present a bold alternative to the aspirations of the West. Flip through Mingguan Wanita, Remaja, nona, Hijabista, and a new vision of glamour emerges. The tudung-covered talents appearing throughout the pages are dazzling but demure. They are educated and have high-powered careers; they enjoy chaste and glamorous lifestyles. Although you’ll sometimes see lingerie, there isn’t a single bare shoulder or alcoholic reference to be found.
Karangkraf is clearly on to something. The rising popularity of Muslimah vogue around the world is impossible to ignore. In July 2015, Uniqlo teamed up with fashion designer and blogger Hana Tajima to produce a highly successful line for Muslim women throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia. In December 2015, the New Yorker profiled the rising Malaysian luxury headscarf brand dUCk and its founder Vivy Sofinas Yusof as part of the “growing number of Malaysian women who are trying to revolutionize the hijab’s contentious image.” Vivy’s enormous following on Instagram (currently at 404K) are a snapshot of the sort of young aspirational Muslims that make up Karangkraf’s readership.
Rashdan pointed out the desk of the popular women’s society magazine, nona, which enjoys a circulation of 50,000 copies. “nona has the same glamour [as Westernised magazines] but with Malaysian values,” he said. Visually, the result is a carefully curated image of the ideal Muslim: Devout and daring, headscarfed and headstrong. The message? Modesty can be stylish.
Lifestyle magazines have long determined for their readers what is current, modern, and stylish. They suggest outfits, products, trends, and role models. They are an aspirational reference for an entire way of life. In this way, the images and models chosen by Malay magazines are setting the tone for fashion-loving Muslims in the region. By combining glamour and modernity with Islamic values, they show how being religious can also be modern, carving out fresh visual references for young Muslims. Some look like Kayu Clothing‘s badass Muslimah gadis manis; others look like Karangkraf girls.
At the headquarters, the editorial department is a brightly-lit open area large enough to fit a basketball court, with cubicles for 19 editors and computer stations for some 80 journalists. A corridor filled with abstract paintings leads to an even larger space that houses the creative department and an in-house photography studio. This corridor between editorial and creative is the blood vessel that connects the two most important creative organs of Karangkraf’s magazine empire.
In the creative department, there is so much activity that we are constantly in everyone’s way. A team of photographers and a model dressed in a flowing gown appear out of nowhere and disappear into another studio room. At one desk, a professional retoucher rapidly brightens a portrait of a newly-wed couple, helping the groom shed a few pounds. In one studio, there is a food photoshoot going on, with food stylists and photographers bent over a table caressing what appears to be an onion. “Magazines are not like newspapers,” said Rashdan. “You have to do it with passion.”
Looking around, it’s hard to imagine Karangkraf’s humble beginnings in Kelantan as a small bookshop. An Islamic teacher and owner of a small family-run bookshop, Allahyarham Haji Yaacob Idris put his son through the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), where the young Datuk Hussamuddin Yaacob studied economics. In 1977, it was in an attempt to publish an academic history book that he first established the leading print publisher that we now know as Karangkraf. The business remains family-run to this day.
The conservative approach is not without its challenges: The editorial team frequently scrambles to find the right talent for each cover. “The market is very sensitive,” explained Rashdan. “If we do things that are not in compliance with our religion, the market will reject it.” As a result, “talent can be difficult to find for the Malay market.” When it comes to weeklies like the popular Mingguan Wanita, editors need to find 52 different cover girls a year. “The cover is very important. We cannot choose controversial talents with a lot of scandals,” said Rashdan. “A different segment of readers might like controversial artists, but not ours. They want Malaysia’s sweetheart.”
In any case, the approach is working. Some fans are so loyal that they regularly visit the leading Malay magazine publisher’s in-house bookshop (lovingly dubbed the “Karangkraf Mall”) every month to score magazines fresh off the shelves. For them, the visit to the headquarters in Shah Alam is well worth it: They get 15% off the sticker price.
“Newspapers give facts,” said Rashdan. “Magazines have to give much more. It’s a lifestyle.”