His company has suspended its operations there pending an investigation by the country’s National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
It’s the latest controversy involving Yassin, who in the last year has faced a backlash and boycott in Arab countries over accusations he promotes normalization with Israel.
It started when Gracia Palicas accused Yassin of exploiting her grandmother Whang-od Oggay, an Indigenous tattoo practitioner from the northern province of Kalinga.
Palicas accused Yassin of offering an online course to teach Whang-od’s craft without obtaining appropriate approval. Yassin’s company Nas Academy had apparently listed the course with the title “Whang-od Academy.”
“Whang-od Academy is a scam. My grandmother did not sign any contract with Nas Daily to do any academy,” Palicas wrote on Facebook on 4 August.
“Some people are taking advantage of our culture. Please help us stop this disrespect to the legacy of Apo Whang-od and the Butbot Tribe,” she added.
Whang-od is believed to be the last and oldest practitioner of Kalinga tattooing – a practice tied to the culture and life of the indigenous Kalinga people.
Yassin’s company denied that Whang-od didn’t know about or approve of the course.
“We pitched her family the idea of creating Whang-od Academy,” Nas Daily’s Philippines branch stated.
The company also shared a video that appears to show Whang-od stamping her thumb in ink on what appears to be a contract with Nas Education Pte. Limited, Yassin’s Singapore-based company.
“Her and her family present both loved this idea, and have worked with us to build it, with Whang-od teaching herself.”
Yassin’s company claimed that “Whang-od’s trusted niece, Estella Palangdao, was present and translated the content of the contract prior to Whang-od affixing her thumbprint, signifying her full consent to the project.”
However, Whang-od’s thumbprint alone may not constitute the necessary legal consent.
A resolution signed last year by the elders of the Kalinga Indigenous Cultural Communities determined that certain Kalinga tattoo designs are owned collectively by the Indigenous community and are intrinsic to their cultural identity.
In other words, no single member of the tribe has the authority to unilaterally sell, commercialize or appropriate those designs, as they belong to the community as a whole.
“Apo Whang-od has her own artistic freedom, or artistic expression as an artist,” Marlon Bosantog, the regional director of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples in the Cordillera region of the Philippines, told The Electronic Intifada.
But he is investigating whether Yassin’s contract with Whang-od “involves something that belongs to the community.”
“That’s my concern,” he added. “Because if it’s shown on television or on that particular media site and without the consent of the community, he could be violating the consent of the whole community.”
Bosantog, who is also a lawyer, is investigating whether Whang-od understood the contents of the contract, since it was written in English, and whether a lawyer adequately explained its terms to her.
It appears that the team which conducted this deal with Whang-od may have “failed to conduct their due diligence,” Bosantog told The Electronic Intifada.
He is traveling to the region where Whang-od lives this month to speak to her.
“We do really welcome endeavors to promote, protect, and advocate our cultures and their ancestral bearers,” Bosantog said in a Facebook post.
“However, attempts to monetize without consent, diminish and demean such practices and even its peoples will be dealt with harshly by appropriate penal laws.”
“Bandying a contract on social media is not a proof of compliance,” Bosantog said in a Facebook post responding to the video posted by Nas Daily.
The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples announced it was conducting an investigation to determine whether the contract complied with laws designed to protect Indigenous cultural rights.
“The NCIP will make our review and onsite validation and interview, whether the free, prior and informed consent process should have been implemented on this incident,” Bosantog explained.
Given Whang-od’s status as a national icon, there was a swift backlash from Yassin’s fanbase in the Philippines.
A Nas Academy course by Filipino-Australian model and Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray will no longer be taking new customers.
Gray’s agent, Cornerstone Entertainment, stated this will remain the case “until the issue of Whang-od is resolved.”
Veteran broadcast journalist Jessica Soho also pulled out of teaching a Nas Academy course, citing the controversy over Whang-od.
The Nas Academy Philippines branch announced it was suspending operations to work with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples “towards a resolution with all relevant stakeholders.”
Meanwhile, a Filipina celebrity chef and media personality is also accusing Yassin of being offensive and disrespectful.
Louise De Guzman Mabulo won a United Nations Environment Program award in 2019 for her work to promote sustainable farming with her initiative The Cacao Project, after her Bicol region was devastated by a typhoon a few years earlier.
The project involves giving cacao tree seedlings to local farmers and educating them on how to care for the plants.
Mabulo said that following the exposure the award gained, Yassin came to cover her project.
“I’ve held my silence for two years, however in light of recent news, it’s high time I break it,” Mabulo wrote in a Facebook post on 5 August.
Mabulo claimed Yassin imitated and mocked the Tagalog language, failed to thank her family for hosting his team, refused to eat her mother’s food and made fun of local people for being poor.
Mabulo accused Yassin of “blatant discrimination of my people” and of showing “no regard for local customs or cultures.” She said he had “built a story in his mind without meaningfully understanding the context of what he was going to cover.”
She claimed that Yassin was only interested in getting “clickable viewable content.”
“He didn’t care about making change or shedding light on real issues – he only wanted content, a good, easy story to tell that would get him more Filipino views,” Mabulo stated.
“He even joked at the start of the day that all he needed was to put ‘Philippines’ in the title, and he’d rack in millions of views … and the comments would come flooding with brainless ‘Pinoy pride’ comments,” she asserted.
Mabulo accused Yassin of deciding not to make a video about her project because he didn’t think it would get him the views he wanted.
“He was disappointed that my work wasn’t the perfectly packaged story he’d pre-determined and imagined,” adding she was “fully transparent” with him on the phone that she didn’t believe there would be much visual appeal.
Mabulo’s post, which includes photos of her and farmers with Yassin, has been shared and liked hundreds of thousands of times. She said she was following in the footsteps of Palicas’ defense of her grandmother, Whang-od.
“His response to the issue illustrates a video of Apo Whang-Od signing a dubious contract – the same strategy colonizers used to mislead Indigenous people to sell off their land, happening now [in] action in the 21st century, except instead of land, it’s data and content and tradition being sold,” Mabulo said.
Yassin pushes back
Yassin responded by saying his team’s “investigation has made it clear that your story in the media is false.”
He said there were no “200 farmers” that Mabulo worked with and “no cacao plantations that you don’t personally profit from.”
While Yassin did not provide evidence for that assertion, Mabulo’s family does own a cacao plantation.
Agon Hare, who runs a page called Project Nightfall and regularly appears in Yassin’s videos, accompanied Yassin on the visit.
“We literally have footage of dying cocoa trees because the whole program was a failure,” he commented on Yassin’s statement.
“It was supposed to be a non-profit that helps farmers. In reality, it’s a for-profit that exploits farmers,” Yassin said in a video commenting on the matter.
Yassin also rejected as false Mabulo’s claims that he had mocked local people and refused to eat her family’s food.
While The Electronic Intifada cannot independently confirm Louise Mabulo’s assertions, it is notable that Yassin previously made racist and derogatory comments about “Arab civilization” in a 2020 video claiming that widespread criticism of his pro-Israel stances was motivated by jealousy.
He even titled the video “Beware of the Arab loser.”
Louise Mabulo’s father, Fermin Mabulo, the mayor of their home town of San Fernando, also waded into the controversy.
He offered his own account of hosting Yassin and Hare, including picking them up from the airport and taking them to their hotel.
“During breakfast at the hotel, [Yassin] was busy trying to come up with a script on how to present his content,” Fermin Mabulo said. “Louise told him to see the farm first because his script may not be consistent with the reality on the ground.”
Yassin “thought of presenting Louise as The Chocolate Lady from the Philippines,” according to Fermin Mabulo. “But Louise said her venture is not yet at that stage. We’re still in the process of propagating the cacao trees. The content he wanted is still a few years in the making.”
He also called Yassin “arrogant” and “full of himself.”
Fermin Mabulo’s post includes a short video clip of Yassin standing next to Louise and declaring, “This is the story of the Chocolate Lady of the Philippines.”
Filipina actor Kylie Verzosa offered a testimonial of working with Louise Mabulo for a report for MTV Asia’s Generation Change.
“We went to visit the plantation sites and I was able to talk to the farmers firsthand, they were very thankful for Louise and her program,” Verzosa wrote on Facebook. “Louise provided seeds and educated farmers on how to plant the most sustainable crop for her region, cacao.”
Verzosa also posted the video of the MTV report.
Louise Mabulo is hitting back too, with a complaint about Yassin to the country’s Commission on Human Rights.In his video responding to criticism in the Philippines, Yassin confirmed that “we paused Nas Academy for now” in order to work with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples “to make sure everything is legal and everything is okay.”
He claimed he’s still planning on opening an office in the country “and will be creating hundreds of jobs.”
Yassin, who does paid promotional work for governments, has previously said he only wants to “promote tourism and love, not politics and hate.”
The growing controversies around him seem to be denting that upbeat brand.
Ali Abunimah contributed reporting.