Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Future of Arts and Culture in Malaysia

by Carmen Nge

Fathi Aris Omar, one of the recipients of the Asian Public Intellectual (API) grant this year, is a scholar who carries the weight of our intellectual capacity on his slim shoulders. It is an extremely light burden, which is precisely why Fathi’s brow is often furrowed and his gaze intense.

“The quality of our intellectual debate is shameful. Even university students from Indonesia can do better!”—these were Fathi’s words that resonated and hung in the air for the entire duration of a recent public seminar entitled “The future of arts and culture in Malaysia,” organized by the Institute for Policy Research (IKD). Conducted almost entirely in Bahasa Malaysia, the 2-day seminar (25-26 September) marks the first in a series of intellectual discussions that will eventually culminate in a Cultural Congress at the end of 2005.

The scope and duration of the congress will remain to be seen but 34 years after our first National Cultural Congress in 1971, IKD’s efforts to convene a similar congress is more than timely. Unlike the first NCC, which was government-initiated, the 2005 event appears to be a grassroots endeavour.

Amir Sari, one of the organizers, told this writer in an interview that the purpose of the first seminar is to bring together different arts groups—from the mainstream as well as the fringes—including non-governmental organizations, other cultural workers, the public and politicians. He commented that such groups have become fragmented, rarely meet and almost never dialogue.

The goal of these dialogues is simple: to contemplate the future of the arts in 2 stages. The first stage would be to figure out what are some of the problems facing creators and audiences in the arts scene; the second stage would be to continue this dialogue towards the 2005 Cultural Congress.

Inevitably, the 2005 Congress will involve re-examining policies from the first NCC, especially the issue of Malaysian identity and Malay culture. Is this issue still relevant in the wake of others, namely globalization and postmodernism? What might be a new platform for rethinking and reconceptualizing arts and culture in Malaysia? Unlike the NCC of 1971, which was galvanized by the events of May 13, 1969, the Congress in 2005 operates without such an urgent mandate for national unity. If so, what then is its agenda?

Fathi kicked off this first seminar with a theoretically rigorous working paper about the relationship between culture and power, based on his observations of the Indonesian scene. According to Fathi, all arts practitioners need to be aware of their embeddedness within their socio-historical contexts and cultural milieu. Aesthetic appetites are not simply culled from idiosyncratic posturing and inner desires but are largely the products of our socialization and acculturation processes. Thus, the cliché that no man is an island is not without its layers of truth.

Drawing from semiotics, linguistics and cultural studies, Fathi’s observations are not new; intellectual giants such as Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, among many others, have written and debated similar issues with greater philosophical complexity and theoretical insight. What is certainly unique about Fathi’s paper is, however, his ability to access ideas that are crucial to our cultural compass and to examine them with unusual critical rigour.

Without fear and with remarkable candour, he challenged the rapid depoliticization of Malaysian civil society—art practitioners included—and the ease with which we have been co-opted into the present economic, religious, linguistic and social systems that limit our creativity. Fathi also admonished our intellectual stagnation: “We are 20 years behind the intellects of the world!” he raised his voice to a disbelieving audience.

It has often been touted that part of this mental malnutrition can be attributed to the dearth of newly released, influential texts translated into Bahasa Malaysia—contrast this with the proliferation of books from all spheres of thought translated into Bahasa Indonesia. This dearth can be further attributed to non-existent independent publishing houses, few independent bookstores and a stifling Printing and Publications Act.

Hasmi Hashim, a panel discussant, chastised arts practitioners’ over-reliance on the government and the crisis of ideas facing the creative community. Due to a lack of ideas being generated from within the artistic community, Hasmi claims that we then look to politicians and those with power for ideas instead. In Indonesia, leaders take their cue from the people and they steal ideas from artistes; in Malaysia, the reverse is true.

Hasmi elaborated that what Malaysian artistes lack is not only the public space within which to create and express but the freedom to think. Deprived of decades of freedom to think, we become incapable of thought; our capacity as creative people is an imagination of fear—we spend more time imagining our greatest fears than working to dispel it.

A point that was raised more than once was the artistic community’s tendency to genuflect at the altar of religion. Due to Malay-Islamic hegemony, the ideology of moralism has become static and incontestable. Fearful of social backlash and buckling under the pressures of conformity, artists yield to moral dictates, regardless of their untenability.

As Fathi notes in a later interview, “The tendency to conform is dangerous because artists are historically individualistic. They contest the dominant paradigm.” In his view, because “ideas are not considered the dynamo for our cultural make-up,” we live in a culture that is uniformly and politically shaped. “Our culture has become monolithic, not diverse,” he concludes.

Dinsman, the foremost Malay absurdist playwright-director of the 70s, was not a presenter at the seminar but was present in the audience, listening intently to the proceedings. At some point during the question and answer session, he eloquently proclaimed that “artists have power as well. The power lies within us to create. We are powerful if we know how to birth the power within us. The question lies with us; our limits are only dictated by our creativity and our knowledge.”

Dinsman’s bold statement was met with a round of applause. Audience members were clearly more encouraged by his mention of the artists’ agency than they were with the previous presenters’ criticisms of structural and intellectual problems within the Malaysian cultural landscape.

This first seminar, though modest in scope and attendance (about 100 participants registered for the event), managed to bring together a variety of arts practitioners from various fields and sectors of the arts world—ranging from Malaysian Idol’s slickly-suave Roslan Aziz and more understated film director, Adman Salleh (of Paloh fame) to Malaysia’s laureate, Professor Dato Muhamad Haji Salleh and the seminar’s sole woman and non-Malay presenter, Kathy Rowland, director of the arts website,

Surprisingly, the panel discussion that garnered the largest crowd—the one with industry types such as Roslan Aziz and Adman Salleh—was the most lacklustre and superficial of the lot. Panelists circulated around the issue of financing, the economics of arts and its commodification but no-one really critiqued the pervasive and insidious infiltration of American hegemony and global capitalism into the creative industry.

Roslan Aziz advanced a few maxims that went completely uncontested: “mimicry is good, necessary and inevitable” and “commercialism is an impetus for creativity”. Kathy Rowland’s probing question: “what kind of arts diet do young people have?” died quietly on the floor.

When faced with bigwigs from the media industry, it is as if Malaysian audiences lose their ability to speak, to think, to be critical and to debate. This writer also found it difficult to discern if the nodding heads were nodding in avid agreement or merely nodding off from an almost 3-hour panel that was high on star power but short on intellectual might.

What was most encouraging to this writer, however, was a significant contingent of about 30-40 young people at each forum. A majority of them were university students, some of them were writers and there were a few visual artists as well. What was most discouraging was the gender and racial disparity—hardly more than 10-15 women showed up each day and only about a handful of non-Malays.

If the 2005 Cultural Congress has any hope of transcending the narrow racial and cultural confines of the 1971 NCC, organizers will have to be more concerted in their attempts to initiate and nurture inter-racial, inter-generational and inter-gender discourse not only leading up to the main event for 2005 but most certainly, beyond it as well.

This piece was published in the final (December 2004) issue of Options2, The Edge.


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