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The performing arts industry of Malaysia is drowning

Photo: The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

By Joe Hasham

(986 words, 2-minute read) 
As many parts of Southeast Asia are hit by recurrent waves of Covid 19 infections, arts industries across the region face imminent collapse due to prolonged closures and scant state support. In Malaysia, The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre’s Artistic Director Joe Hasham and his wife and co-founder, Datuk Dr. Faridah Merican, recently released an open letter directed at the government, urging decisive action. Here, in their own words, Joe and Faridah share with ArtsEquator’s readers the perilous state of the performing arts industry in Malaysia. 

Faridah and I are left with no other option but to scream it out as long and as loud and as often as we can in the hope that someone out there will hear our plea and do something about it. It is imperative that all ‘red tape’ solutions be totally disregarded. We do not have the time. This needs to be acted on immediately. Yes, we are aware that many other industries are also suffering, but the arts always seem to take last place in our country’s list of ‘essential’ priorities. While other areas of our community, and some not as tightly regulated and safety conscious as the arts, are given some leeway to ensure the survival of their members, there is no such regard or respect for the arts.

We have never needed to travel this road before. It breaks our hearts and pains us beyond belief; but it has now become absolutely necessary to make our voices heard. We have always preferred to have meaningful and convivial dialogue with the powers that be. We have tried this, but nothing! This last week, especially, has been filled with bittersweet experiences. Our appeal letters have touched many members of the general public but, unfortunately, the same cannot be said about those responsible for our wellbeing and who are able to put an immediate end to this crippling situation.

Our theatres, three at The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Center (klpac) and two at The Performing Arts Centre of Penang (penangpac), have been unnecessarily deprived of audiences for almost a year. When we first reopened in July 2020 our heartfelt message of thanks was ‘without you, our audience, we are nothing.’ So, for the past 12 months, we have been… nothing; an empty space collecting dust, an empty space that continues to be sanitised on a daily basis, a devastating void that can only echo the voices of past productions.

The COVID-19 pandemic that started in March 2020 has resulted in our struggling to raise enough funds to survive on a monthly basis. Miraculously, by the grace of all the gods, we did, which left our Group General Manager, Ian Chow, with this to say: “We’ve built the bridge for this month!”. Because oftentimes when asked how do we get through this and what’s ahead, the only answer we can provide was “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it!”.

We’ve had over 15 months of this uncertainty. The stark reality is that after clearing our cheques for this month we are left with RM5,000 in our bank account. One of the many sadnesses is the fact that our staff have had to suffer. We have kept them informed of the situation through every step of the way. Already their pay cut was increased from 40% to 60% when the third full movement control order was declared in June. We are fearful of the possibility that all staff, some 50 pax, may have to be switched to contract staff if change is not forthcoming. We have tried our best to hold fast to our promise that not one staff member will be retrenched and, to date, we have been able to adhere to that promise.

klpac’s team with Joe and Faridah. Photo: The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

 

There is no end in sight. COVID-19 may be around for some time to come. If the past 15 months is anything to go by, should we assume that the arts will be shut down indefinitely through to 2022 and beyond? If so, it will be too late for any sort of recovery.

The question, therefore, is ‘Does Malaysia still want the arts to be part of the local landscape when we emerge from this catastrophe?’ Our audiences, our artists, our students, our arts workers all respond with a resounding ‘yes’, but as yet, no definitive word from the powers that be.

Instead of putting the arts on a negative list, shut down indefinitely and the last to reopen, we have to accept the facts and change the narrative. Yes, COVID-19 will be around. How then do we continue to live with it safely, while minimising risk?

We could, perhaps, consider vaccination for all artists and arts workers. Faridah and I are more than willing to open klpac and penangpac as vaccination administrative centres (Pusat Pemberian Vaksin, or PPVs) for the arts industry, similar to how KLIA is for the aviation industry. We could also help to ensure the arts industry’s immediate survival if we were permitted to record programmes and performances, sans live audiences.

It still leaves Faridah and me totally perplexed as to why the arts and live events are put in the same category as ‘social activities.’ Perhaps we could take a leaf from Singapore’s book where performances can still continue while social gatherings are capped at two pax. Why? Because our audiences wear masks while adhering strictly to SOPs. One is more likely to remove one’s mask in a personal setting. It should be noted that no clusters have been traced back to theatres.

We are not yet ready to throw in the towel and hope to God we never will be. We are more than willing to put our backs into it despite mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. All we are asking for is fair consideration, nothing more and nothing less. We are baffled by the fact that many other industries have been/are operating despite being the source of cases and clusters.

We are asking for a chance to safeguard our livelihoods, and to return some dignity to artists and arts workers.

Our gratitude is extended to all those who have supported us either financially and/or morally throughout this crisis. Thank you to the ordinary folk from around the globe who have expressed their love, support, and concern for our beloved performing arts. Thank you to the retirees, the fellow artists and arts workers; and thank you to our long-term partners who have stayed with us.

Please help Malaysian performing arts to survive in any way you can.


klpac has launched an urgent appeal to raise funds. To donate to klpac or The Actors Studio Theatre, go here

Joe Hasham OAM is the Artistic Director and co-founder, with his wife, Dato’ Dr. Faridah Merican, of The Actors Studio Malaysia, kplac and penangpac.