What the Arts in Malaysia Needs: More Transparency, Less Intermediaries

By Kathy Rowland

(2145 words, 8 minute read)

2 July 2018 – The receding brown moon on millions of Malaysians’ fingernails are a biological marker of the eight weeks since the end of the Najib administration. These past 55 days have seen stunning institutional changes, monitored by an activist public that almost, almost, makes the chaos of the past 20 years worthwhile.

For art and culture in Malaysia however, the announcement today of a new Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture is a reminder that some hierarchies may take longer to upend than even Barisan Nasional. The arts community’s push for a ministry dedicated to arts, culture and heritage, separate from the resource grabbing Tourism portfolio, was not to be. There was some comfort though in the re-inclusion of “Arts”, removed in 2011. The appointment of Sabah MP, Mohammad Din Ketapi as Minister, also rang a hopeful note that Malaysian Borneo will begin to emerge from decades of neglect.

Arts and culture may occupy a miniscule space within the national consciousness, but it has an outsized potency: for critical thinking, challenging repression, fostering emotional and social well-being. Artists can offer new imaginings of what Malaysia, post GE14, can become.

Creative Industries

In recent years, the creative industries has been the buzzword in Malaysia. In 2009, the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture launched the National Creative Industry Policy (Dasar Industri Kreatif Negara, DIKN). Researchers Barker and Lee write that while the policy itself has receded from view, over RM600 million was budgeted for the creative industries between 2009 – 2017. While most of the funds have been directed at what is termed the Multimedia Creative Industries, i.e. gaming, film, multimedia content, DIKN’s second focus area, Creative Cultural Arts, has also received state attention.

Arts and culture can and do bring enormous economic benefits to artists, audiences, communities, nations, but from its hey-day in the 1990s, the thinking on the cultural industries/creative economy has shifted considerably against the narrow commodification and instrumentalisation of the arts. The primacy of economic development over the intrinsic benefits of arts and culture can have a damning effect on creativity, making it ultimately, a self-defeating strategy.

In 2012’s Budget, Najib announced the setting up of a government investment arm, MyCreative Ventures Sdn Bhd with RM200 million to ‘spur’ ten creative industries, including visual arts, performing arts and literature. The funds were directed neither at developing arts infrastructure, addressing the fissures created by 1971’s ethnic-based NCP, nor rationalising the plethora of inefficient public arts and culture institutions. Instead, the monies were to be disbursed in loans and equity, with a set of pre-conditions that were not, in isolation, unreasonable.

However, in the local arts environment, the application for the funds was an obstacle course that seemed rigged to deny most artists’ entry to the race, let alone a chance at winning. The arts scene had by then fashioned an ecosystem that combined self-reliance and spotty private sponsorship with semi-professional practice: self-medication for decades of neglect, disregard and near invisibility of arts and culture within the national consciousness. While things were better in the visual arts, most arts groups operated as non-profits (although the restrictive ROS had typically forced almost all groups to register as limited liability, i.e. Sdn. Bhds.). Most were ill prepared to access MyCreative Venture’s investment funds.

More to the point, the singular push to commodify arts and creativity failed to understand the historical role of the arts in Malaysia as sites of criticality, resistance against abuses of power, social inclusion, community engagement and nationhood.

The opportunities presented by the policy and funds led to a proliferation of organisations, initiatives and agencies, giving rise to a new “class” of cultural intermediaries and agents, who appeared to style themselves as gatekeepers of the new creative economy. Gatekeepers may be sincere and committed to building the arts ecosystem, but without transparency in the appointment of leaders and accountability in the creation, running and governance of initiatives, programs and organisations, some may have been inclined to think that these gatekeepers had gained their influence and power purely through political patronage.

Misplaced blame

Most frustrating, under the new rubric of the creative economy, artists were berated for failing to monetise their “outputs”, accused of waiting for government hand-outs (oh, the irony), and charged with elitism for failing to extend their work beyond a narrow urban, middle class audience base.

Some of these charges are, on the surface of it, true. Dig a little deeper, think a little harder and it becomes apparent that rather than causing these problems, the story of Malaysian arts practitioners is instead one of perseverance and sacrifice. Artists are in fact, making work despite these systemic failures. Recognition for our artists’ creativity and commitment, when it came, came from outside the country, such as in the case of Ramli Ibrahim, who was awarded India’s Padma Shri award and Five Arts Centre which received the Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists from the Japan Art Association in Tokyo.

Building an arts audience takes long term policies on education, raising disposable income, infrastructure planning that locates arts venues in communities and more. Inculcating a sense of value of the arts, providing artists training and resources to make and present work, an arts-friendly tax code – these are mammoth tasks beyond the abilities of even the most energetic individual artist or arts group. Laying the blame on the backs of arts practitioners reveals how some self-styled creative experts misunderstood the relationship between public policy and arts practice.

Art and Propaganda

For centuries, the political class has used arts and culture to communicate power, inspire awe, convey benevolence. The Marcos’ were renowned supporters of the arts in the Philippines, and Anwar Ibrahim is well known for his facility with literary quotations. As controversies mounted and Najib’s popularity plunged, the former Prime Minister attempted to burnish his tarnished image through the inward facing soft-power of arts and culture. He was in the news, announcing initiatives to develop the arts, gracing book and arts festival launches. All this while actual artists such as Fahmi Reza and Zunar were facing state persecution.

The Institusi Terjemahaan dan Buku Negara (National Publication and Translation Institute), a government agency, received regular tranches of state funding, including a RM5 million fund, announced by the then PM, to ‘develop original works by Malaysian writers’. Three years later, it was one of the organisers of the Art Economy Conference, which proposed “an open dialogue toward new ideas and collaborations for the future of Malaysia’s creative economy.” Yet, ITBN remained silent on the banning of books by the state, including the works of one of Malaysia’s most prominent writers, Faisal Tehrani. ITBN did however support the works of one other prominent Malaysian writer. It published Najib’s book, “Jawapan Najib” (2010), and translated it into Mandarin, Tamil and English.

Arts in Malaysia
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, at the launch of the Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival 2015. Image: (c) BERNAMA

The Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival (KLIAF) was launched in 2015 by a former investment banker, Datin Sunita Rajakumar. Datin Sunita says that over three years, she was able to raise RM 7.5m in government seed funding from the Ministry of Finance (MOF), every dollar of which was matched by between RM2 to RM3 from private and public sources. Datin Sunita explained that each year, “audited annual statement of accounts and … with an accompanying economic impact report” [1] were submitted. We were unable to determine what public scheme or grant system within the MOF the funding was accessed through, despite requests sent to the organiser of KLIAF.

In a recent article in The Edge, Datin Sunita writes that KLIAF is “laser-focused on building capacity amongst local arts practitioners”. However, some of those involved in the festival described experiences that were less than positive: one dancer spoke of dismal marketing; an art lover spoke ruefully of sitting in the DBKL auditorium with only a handful of people to watch a performance. Ramli Ibrahim, Chairman of Sutra Foundation, was the curator of the dance program for the inaugural KLIAF in 2015. Ramli says that he came away “completely disenchanted” by the experience, and claims to have resorted to sending legal letters for payment. Datin Sunita on her part cites difficulties with the festival model in the first year, a dispute arising over a ticketing system and lack of claims documentation. The matter was eventually settled out of court.

KLIAF had received the support of the ex-PM, who launched all three iterations of it. The festival is perhaps most known for dance producer Bilqis Hijjas’ act of releasing several yellow balloons with the words “democracy”, “free media”, and “justice” over the podium that held the ex-PM and his wife, Datin Seri Rosmah, at the official launch of KLIAF 2015. The then-government’s relentless prosecution of Bilqis made the news locally and internationally.

Najib launched CENDANA in 2017 with a RM20m fund to “spearhead arts and culture development”. CENDANA has produced some solid research on the KL creative sector and offered grants for local artists. However, with Ahmad Farid Ridzuan as Chairman of CENDANA and also communications adviser to the then Prime Minister, it might have been hard to shake off the perception that this was yet another political vehicle for the besieged ex-PM.

Monetising the arts, just not for actual artists

The narrow instrumentalist application of arts and creativity seemed to come at the expense of the very source of the creativity, the artists. Again and again, artists were urged by different agencies and cultural intermediaries to be more entrepreneurial, while being expected to work for either free, or for salaries below the minimum wage. Sean Ghazi, one of Malaysia’s truly international artists, recounts having a grant application to CENDANA, to present his show at a prestigious regional venue, rejected mainly because the grant covered most items, including international freight, but did not cover artists salaries or performance fees.

Contrast that with a claim on art historian Simon Soon’s Facebook post in November 2017, that “CENDANA, the newly established cultural funding agency under the Prime Minister’s Office, has been flying in collectors from around … Asia on business class tickets on our tax payer’s money, wining and dining them in the myopic hope that they would begin to collect Malaysian art.” While intentions may be good, the optics, when contrasted with the lack of support for actual artists, was not good. At press time, requests to CENDANA seeking clarification on the program and its objectives were unanswered.

Some gatekeepers gained influence and access by promising to professionalize the arts. One may say they fell short by a long way. There are tales told of the shoddy treatment of artists, promises broken, reneged payments and short-sighted programming. Dr. Joseph Gonzales, the dynamic former head of ASWARA’s Dance Department (now with The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts) says that it was “a time of unnecessary duplication and redundancy” in the programs and agencies created. He also cited the “innumerable stops and starts” such as MyPAA’s Royal Arts Gala and Kakiseni’s grants which each lasted for a couple of cycles only. Ironically the country’s longest running arts grant program, the Krishen Jit-ASTRO fund (2006 – present) is managed by an arts group, Five Arts Centre, with the steadfast support of the satellite media company.

Many artists have, for decades, fearlessly spoken out against wider injustices. Yet, curiously, when it came to the systemic failures within their own sector, many found it difficult to articulate publically what was whispered behind close doors. Artists in Malaysia, long neglected by older public arts institutions, had little choice but to “play ball” because of the influence, power and access to state funds held by these new agencies.

A rationalizing exercise of all arts and cultural agencies, private and public, would help to identify which ones are legitimately supporting the arts ecosystem, and avoid overlaps. For those that remain, an audit, and if necessary, an overhaul of their organisation and management structures – to be more equitable, transparent, inclusive and consultative.

With a new Minister announced, the absence of a transparent consultative process, combined with ingrained habits of patronage and access could so easily lead to the “same-old, same-old”. There is a likelihood that some of these cultural intermediaries will ride on, buoyed by the cultural capital accrued during Datuk Seri Najib’s courting of the arts and creative sector.

Some might say that the reinvention is already in progress: sycophantic selfies with Najib on social media now, replaced by equally toe-curling selfies with stalwarts of the new government. The sad reality is that so long as artists and practitioners continue to remain silent, and fail to collectively demand for accountability and representation with the new Ministry, these players have the talk, the shiny suits and cold-eyed pragmatism to take pole position in Malaysia Baru. At stake, meanwhile, is the very soul of the nation.


[1] Email from Sunita Rajakumar, Director of KLIAF 29 June 2018.

Cover image credit: Detail from Pangrok Sulap’s “Sabah Tanah Air-Ku”. Image: Ng Seksan

About the author(s)

Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.

2 thoughts on “What the Arts in Malaysia Needs: More Transparency, Less Intermediaries”

  1. Thanks for the provocative article! The relationship and balance between the state and the arts has always been difficult to navigate, as evidenced from the different models used all over the world. It would be useful for Malaysia to not only examine, but to also consider how these models apply to its social fabric, economy and its contemporary state. One question that pops up – why the need for these intermediaries in the first place? Malaysia has already an extensive Department For Culture and Arts, with a presence in every state running numerous cultural programmes, albeit mainly traditional. If things were deemed not moving fast or efficient enough, there was also the spurring from PEMANDU before it was disbanded.

    So, we are seeing a gap between contemporary artists and the state, if these intermediaries, these catalysts, have not managed to move the arts into an active, relevant sphere for the country. When more and more countries are questioning the application of creative industries for the development of the arts, Malaysia would stand in good stead by acknowledging and supporting the often tense, challenging, reconcilatory and critical function of art for the society. Perhaps this is the gap that needs to be looked at, first.

Leave a Comment

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

Scroll to Top