Photo by Hailey Oldfield on Unsplash

COVID-19 and the arts in Southeast Asia

by Nabilah Said

As the world contends with the new normal of temperature checks, home quarantines and travel restrictions in the age of COVID-19, artists find themselves reckoning with a lack of paid jobs coupled with an existential question of the meaning of art in these times. There has also been an awakening of sorts as communities find ways to band together, finding strength in solidarity. There have been personal acts of philanthropy to help others who are in a bind, while some naturally turn to art to spread a message of hope to the world. 

This is a global pandemic, yet people are subject to the actions of their governments, some of whom have been slow to respond to the growing crisis. We look at what’s happening on the ground around Southeast Asia, and how artists and cultural workers are doing.



National total: 683 cases, 2 deaths. [Source]

Official picture: Singapore is implementing a strict 14-day quarantine for returning Singaporeans, and closed its borders to short-term visitors. Outdoor gatherings can only number 10 people or less, and theatres and entertainment venues across Singapore have gone dark. This means that major arts events, such as the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2020 and National Theatre’s War Horse, presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre at The Esplanade, have been cancelled.

The Singapore government has just announced a budget that includes S$55m for the arts and culture sector, focusing mainly on leading arts groups, retraining and digitising efforts. Freelancers are eligible for a relief scheme, with a monthly S$1,000 payout for 9 months. Government agencies will also waive rental for two months for eligible tenants. These are on top of previously announced training and development support. 

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives:

SG COVID-19 Creative/Cultural Professionals & Freelancers Support Group: A Facebook community offering advice, info, community action and support. 

Singapore Unbound Relief Fund: Initiated by US-based Singapore poet Jee Leong Koh, this no-strings-attached fund is specially for Singapore writers affected by COVID-19 disruptions

ilostmygig.sg: An online initiative to help track the financial impact of COVID-19 for Singapore creatives

The Necessary Stage has put a recording of its play, Good People, online.

Name: Ruby Jayaseelan

Occupation: Movement Artist

City/Country: Singapore

How I have been affected by COVID-19: All my jobs have been postponed or cancelled. This includes performances in international festivals, classes in local schools, art residencies, local art performances, workshops, etc. It’s financially very trying at the moment.

During this time: I have been focusing on my physical and mental well-being by practicing more yoga, meditation, reading, going to the beach more often, biking or taking long walks, and working on works in progress and exploring new and ongoing movement material.

What gives me hope is: The people in my life, our interactions, and fellow artists in the same situation everywhere.

This too shall pass but I hope we can stay calm, think about each other, be helpful and look at the bigger picture through all this.



National total: 2,031 cases, 24 deaths. [Source]

Official picture: Malaysia’s restricted movement order by the government has been extended to April 14. All public gatherings are prohibited, schools and all non-essential businesses are closed, and the country is closed to foreign visitors. In the arts, large organisations such as the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, Damansara Performing Arts Centre and Istana Budaya have had to cancel major shows. Penang’s George Town Festival 2020 has also been cancelled. ArtsEquator understands that the Malaysian government might make an announcement about COVID-19-related support today. [Update] The Malaysian government unveiled a RM250 billion economic stimulus package on 27 March.

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives:

eMERGE by Manamana Productions is conducting focus group sessions to understand the digitalisation needs of the Malaysian arts community. E-mail rosheen@manamana.com.my to participate.

Covid vs Culture: An open documentation of arts-related events and work opportunities that have been cancelled, postponed or affected in Malaysia

#lockdownart: An initiative by KLPAC on Instagram to get people to continue to be creative

Drama Kilat by Moka Mocha Ink: An episodic series of audio drama written by playwright Ridhwan Saidi

Ask an Artist: An interview series on Instagram Live with performing arts practitioners in Malaysia, organised by Manamana Productions. Happens nightly till 29 March, 8.30pm.

Kita Jaga Kita: A verified listings site for Malaysian civil society COVID-19 efforts, led by Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf and the team behind #PulangMengundi

Name: Adrian Milang @ Adrian Jo Milang

Occupation: Full-time practitioner of Kayan Oral Traditions Parap & Takna’, and Community Manager, The Tuyang Initiative

City/Country: Bintulu, Sarawak, Malaysia

How I am affected: All the shows and tours that was planned since last year has either been postponed or cancelled. Although I am working with The Tuyang Initiative now, a community-based social enterprise that works in uplifting dayak livelihood, half of my annual earnings depended on those shows and tours, locally or internationally. 

Besides that, the continuation of my learning process with our community elders on cultural traditions and knowledges have had to be put on halt, due to restrictive orders to avoid any possible spread of the disease into the community, especially the elders. 

During this time I have been: After the implementation of movement control order in Sarawak, then Malaysia in general, I had been grounded in my hometown for at least a week, and then topped of with another two weeks. Since then, I have spent much of my time working from home, reading, writing, sometimes singing, and reflecting the survival of my community’s art forms. These knowledges whence I learnt to sing and perform came from our elders. It’s these kind of circumstances that put the importance of continual practice of ancestral cultural traditions and knowledges into perspective.

Mundane aspects of these living repositories, such as being vulnerable to sickness and other age-related ails, begs for immediate attention and actions from practitioners, and everyone in general. Therefore the postponement and cancellation of shows is one example of a setback of our efforts to share the beauty of our cultural traditions. 

What gives me hope is: Nevertheless, there are of course other channels and avenues to keep these cultural traditions alive. Online sites that document the work we’ve done with the community so far, such as thetuyang.com, Facebook page and Instagram account. In the midst of this crisis, most are spending their time on their phones, therefore these are some channels for dissemination of our cultural traditions and knowledges. We, The Tuyang, are also exploring more innovative ways to continue the work and share hope and love with people. 

I look forward, post-this pandemic, for more awareness of the general public on the importance of indigenous knowledges, through these channels and other platforms.



National total: 893 cases, 78 deaths. [Source]

Official picture: The Indonesian government insisted on the nation’s clean sheet up till early March. Faced with a hospital crunch and inadequate testing, the numbers of those infected have increased exponentially, and some experts have cautioned that Indonesia may go the way of Italy. Regional governments have taken action, such as the Jakarta governor closing school for two weeks since mid-March. Art Moments Jakarta, scheduled for April 17 to 19, has been postponed. 

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives:

#menaridirumah: An initiative by Paradancer Jogja for dancers to post videos of themselves rehearsing or practising at home

SINDIKASI’s survey for freelancers working in media, creative, arts and cultural sectors (via New Naratif)

Quarantine & Chill: A track released by Indonesian rapper Ramengvrl and DJ/producer SIHK to encourage people to stay at home. 

Konser Musik #DiRumahAja: A fundraising initiative supported by prominent Indonesians musicians who will perform live from their homes between 25-28 March, initiated by television personality Najwa Shihab

Name: Robi Rusdiana

Occupation: Musician, composer and lecturer

City/Country: Bandung, West Java, Indonesia

How I have been affected by COVID-19: After several weeks of COVID-19, the epidemic was everywhere. The place where I live, Bandung, a city surrounded by mountains, became tense – we could not go anywhere. Meeting friends to practise, and making small shows or discussions have become very difficult. I have an ensemble with quite a large number of personnel, of course it makes it quite difficult for us to get a comfortable atmosphere when we meet, the authorities will disperse us, especially if we make noise.

During this time I have been: Staying at home, keep on practising and writing compositions, lecturing online, and selling honey from Kanekes Baduy, Java, online (drink raw honey, it is good for us).

What gives me hope is: People getting more aware about the dangers of COVID-19, someone to find a vaccine or that it will be gone by time soon. We’re musicians in Bandung – now we make our online gigs and jam from our home, so it will keep our spirits up to play music.

Keep safe, stay clean, keep on working on your art, enjoy!



National total: 114 cases. [Source]

Official picture: The country is closed to foreigners, and all classes have been moved online. 

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives: None at the time of publishing

Name: Khai Anwar

Occupation: Writer and entrepreneur, AD Comics

City/Country: Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

How I have been affected by COVID-19: As a writer and retailer of comic books, I’ve had to pull the brakes on both the retail business and the publishing as:

1) the retail business is located in a cinema and cinemas are closed till further notice. As we are dependent on the cinema, we are closed till further notice too.

2) the publishing arm relies heavily on distribution to bookstores and it involves a lot of face-to-face discussions with the team, printing samples, etc.

Given the slowdown in retail activity at bookstores, we aren’t able to print and distribute until the demand picks up.

During this time I have been: Outlining the rest of the issues of the comic book that I’ve published, events to kick start interest in comic reading again and cross promotion with the cinema when the movies start playing again.

What gives me hope is: Seeing how the country has come together to fight and contain this pandemic. Everyone from frontliners to our ministers are doing exemplary work and are doing their best to keep the publics mind at ease. That is inspiring to me and gives me hope.

We’ll get past this, we all will. It’s just a matter of time before everything gets going again.



National total: 3 cases. [Source]

Official picture: All tourist visas are suspended, schools have been closed and mass gatherings are discouraged, including celebrations of the upcoming Lao New Year, taking place from 13-15 April. 

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives:

LAO All Star Artists Group: A football team made up of artists, entertainers, singers, who give people support through music and other ways, and spread messages of social responsibility.

Name: Anouza Phothisane 

Occupation: Managing director of Laobangfai Prime Association, a creative arts group

Country/City: Vientiane Capital, Lao PDR

How I have been affected by COVID-19: I can say it’s 100% affected. Most of my early year events have been postponed. Many of our sponsor partners, with whom we’ve had deals for our upcoming project, have cancelled and pulled back their sponsorship. As a producer of events and arts,  this is a very difficult time for us. We have reduced our staff and volunteers and cut down on unnecessary projects for the 2nd half of the year to ensure our postponed projects do well. 

During this time I have been: In the meantime, it gives me good pause to sit back and look back at the reality of our situation, the structure of my life, my family, work, and post-COVID-19 goals. It’s given me the mindspace to really focus on what is the life I want and the work I want, and to really focus on the goals I can reach. It gives me time to manage and pick the best choices for the next chance that is coming.



National total: 98 cases [Source]

Official picture: The Cambodian prime minister is considering declaring a state of emergency in the country. Schools, religious sites, entertainment venues, cinemas and museums across the Kingdom have been ordered to be closed. The Cambodian International Film Festival, scheduled to take place from March 13-22, has been cancelled.

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives: None at the time of publishing

Name: Phina So

Occupation: Writer and publisher

City/Country: Cambodia

How I have been affected by COVID-19: Slow buying and cancellation of reading events

During this time I have been: Besides working full-time, I use my weekend time to translate my novel and finish another novel. I also commit to write poetry that reflects the situation of COVID-19. 

What gives me hope:  It is hard to say since the response to the pandemic is slow. However, I could see that NGOs plays active roles in spreading informative messages on how to stop the spread of the virus. I just simply stay positive. 

I wish this could end soon and the economy would recover sooner. 



National total: 1,045 cases, 4 deaths. [Source]

Official picture: A state of emergency has been declared in Thailand. Its borders are closed, and gatherings have been banned, save festive ceremonies allowed by the government. The Songkran celebrations have been postponed indefinitely. The Thailand National Book Fair and Bangkok International Book Fair were both cancelled. 

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives: 

Playlist of films by Thai Film Archive

Name: Aacharee Ungsriwong aka Ohm

Occupation: Film editor

City/Country: Bangkok, Thailand

How I have been affected by COVID-19: I think my mental health took the hardest hit. As a film editor (By the Time It Gets Dark, Krabi, 2562), I work from home most of the time so it didn’t seem too bad at the beginning, but when I lock myself inside my room for more than a few days, I began to feel depressed. Before COVID-19, my huge stress reliever was doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. While sparring, you just cannot think of anything else. It’s so meditative. Being a part of a community is great as well. BJJ kept me strong physically and mentally. But now I can’t do it anymore so I’m working out at home though staying connected with the BJJ community.

Not being able to go hang out with friends is also bad. Even though we can still call each other, it’s not the same. However, I think this limitation will force us to think of something else, maybe something better. I’ve started to reconnect with nature again by growing microgreens, sprouts and mushrooms. I’m also cooking more so hopefully that would help with my mental health.

What gives me hope is: People who are staying in because they know it matters. People who don’t give up and constantly fighting for equality. People who help others.

We could use this time at home to think about what matters to us and how we want to actually live our own lives, and also living as a part of a community.



National total: 5 cases [Source]

Official picture: The country has only recently announced its first few cases of the virus. The government has instituted restrictions such as the cancellation of events and mass gatherings, such as the annual water festival Thingyan, which marks the Burmese New Year in April. Recreation facilities such as cinemas and bars are closed till the end of April. 

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives: None at the time of publishing

Name: Phoo Myat Thwe

Occupation: Gallery Manager at Myanmar Deitta Photo Gallery and independent curator

City/Country: Yangon, Myanmar

How I am affected: I have been planning an exhibition with young artists in Yangon since last year, which is getting postponed due to COVID-19. It’s quite a common thing that’s happening now but I feel sorry and upset that the artists who have worked so hard won’t be able to showcase their works. Another thing is that the space I am working in is closed due to COVID. We were closed a week ahead of the official announcement of outbreak in Myanmar. I feel sorry for all the efforts we have put out to bring people to the space and do events, just to shut down when it was gaining momentum. Personally, I feel restricted, not in the sense of movement but in my professional growth and wonder where is the space to talk about art in a time of global pandemic, and whether it is appropriate.

During this time: I have been reading books and writing content for my art website which I have neglected for so long. But at times, I feel like I should get up and do something to fight the disease. I think I am starting to attach art as a form of luxury that only happens without crises and right now I feel guilty for being luxurious.

What gives me hope is: That I work in an industry of people with great resilience. We are good at making impossible, unknown things happened, run well and known in a place where people don’t give a shit about visual culture. This give me hope that we will bounce back from whatever we fall into collectively.

My headshot is a photo I took on a plane last year because I miss travelling, possibility of new experiences, freedom, seeing friends, hugs.


The Philippines

National total: 707 cases, 45 deaths [Source]

Official picture: The island of Luzon in the Philippines, where over 57 million people live and work, is under “enhanced community quarantine”, which prohibits mass gatherings and non-essential businesses and suspends public transport services. Local governments in Visayas and Mindanao have also put their areas under quarantine. Parts of the country are under a strict curfew – in some cases 24-hour curfews – with curfew violators given strict penalties and checks by uniformed personnel. In Manila, schools are shut, cinemas and concerts have also been banned – the annual Wanderland Music and Arts Festival has been postponed. 

Artist-led initiatives to check out: 

Online conference: Reimagining How We Gather, Creatives in the Time of Corona: Organised by Pineapple Lab/ Fringe Manila, this online conference will take place on 27 March, 5.45pm. 

ilostmygig.ph: An online initiative to help track the financial impact of COVID-19 for Filipino creatives

http://puhon.ph/: An initiative led by folk pop band Ben&Ben to collect donations, spread hope through stories. An online concert is planned for 27 March.

@pagasa.ph: A new civil society organisation spearheaded by cultural critic Katrina Stuart Santiago which is collecting donations to deliver survival packs to affected communities

Name: Andrei Nikolai Pamintuan

Occupation: Creative Director for Pineapple Lab, Festival Director for Fringe Manila and freelance theatre director

City/Country: Poblacion, Makati City, Philippines 

How I have been affected by COVID-19: Personally I’ve been on self-quarantine after arriving from a work-related trip in Australia. We’ve had to cancel our Fringe Festival Hangover programme in March, the plays I am directing are postponed indefinitely, and our work at Pineapple Lab have all been on a standstill. 

During this time I have been: Thinking of how to utilise the platforms that we have as Pineapple Lab and Fringe Manila to be of service to the arts and creative sector. I have been doing research on quick response aid and grants other countries and foundations are implementing to help independent artists, collectives, creative hubs, and small businesses. 

What gives me hope is: People in the arts community are willing to help and collaborate! 

Any other thoughts: Perhaps organisations like ASEF can reallocate or redesign their grants (i.e. travel grants) to allow Southeast Asian artists to apply instead for a project that can be done digitally. Instead of using the money for travel, these funds can be used by artists for these projects that they do from home. Let’s rethink what artist in residency means during this time.



National total: 153 cases, 0 deaths. [Source]

Official picture: Vietnam’s borders are closed to foreigners, including those of Vietnamese origin, as quarantine sites in the country are overloaded. Mask-wearing in public is mandatory. Across the country, bars, karaoke parlours and tourist sites are shut until the end of March. Residents of Hanoi are advised to self-isolate till the end of March, and schools and entertainment venues have been closed. 

Artist-led Resources/Initiatives:

[Update] hỏi tí thời dịch covid-19: A group that connects arts and cultural workers with doctors, so that clarifications can be answered easily. The group name in English is “small questions during Covid-19”.

Name: Dương Mạnh Hùng

Occupation: Translator, publisher and writer

City/Country: Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

How I have been affected by COVID-19: As a publisher of a small press (Bar De Force Press) who constantly travels to attend events and implement projects, my work has definitely been hampered. The publishing industry, which thrives on personal connection and networking, has been one of the most severely-hit sectors. Since cultural funding for publishing is already slim, the restriction on travel could mean a matter of livelihood for some of us.

However, as a freelance translator and writer, it is business as usual. The number of clients for translation does drop, since everyone is reeling from the effects of COVID-19, but again writing/translating has always been a fickle career in terms of sustainable livelihood, so I guess I have been well-trained to face the financial uncertainty that might be aggravating and novel for many others.

During this time I have been: I think we are all grappling with the loss of a sense of normalcy: what we have been accustomed to/privileged to enjoy are now stripped from us, one by one. Thus, I choose to focus on maintaining my normal routine to a certain extent, albeit now within the confinement of my apartment. I work in the morning, make lunch, answer emails in the afternoon, nap, write, read, and learn new things. This routine helps me remain calm during time where laws change in a blink of an eye. Gardening helps too, as it sustains my connection with nature (I suggest you all get your hands dirty, literally haha).

I am still working on book projects to be printed, once the dust has settled somewhat. Call my friends and family often to check upon them. Work on my manuscript of my first novel. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. The most important thing is to not deny yourself time and space to grieve and mourn. Like anything that we have lost, our sense of daily routine forms the backbone of our life, and we do not realise the extent of its destruction until we no longer possess it. So, allowing yourself to cope with that grief, and working through it (alone or with the help of others) is of crucial importance during this time of limited physical intimacy.

Oh, and I have 5 cats and they have been amazing help!

What gives me hope is: This is not the first pandemic, nor will it be the last. What I hope we all realise from this is that, whatever the aftermath, we cannot return to the way things were before. We have to forge new directions, new perspectives, and new solutions. We cannot continue to recreate the system that directly led to this outbreak. We have to believe in a future where we can live with a sense of dignity and social responsibility.

Any other thoughts: If anything, we must realise how important art is for us. COVID-19 reminds us of the importance of bookshops, museums, theatres, music gigs, etc. We cope with isolation with the help of the arts. The book you are reading, the Netflix series you are watching, the Spotify playlists you are listening to, the free plays and orchestra pieces that help you sleep, the paintings that you hang in your room: they protect your sanity and nourish your imagination in this bleak time. So, I hope when we reach the other side of the pandemic, we would invest in the arts more, to show our gratitude to the arts and culture as well as artists and cultural workers.

Be like water. Flow where there is an opening, rest where there is a dent, freeze when snow falls, and melt at the first ray of sunlight. Let things go in and go through you. With some luck, we will all get through this. Together. With kindness.

Compiled by Nabilah Said and Kathy Rowland with thanks to the creatives featured. All information accurate as of 27 March 1400hrs. To add to the list of artist-led initiatives, please e-mail nabilah(at)artsequator.com.

Tags: Covid19

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top