MAY 19 — Datuk Ramli Ibrahim shares his thoughts, ideas and recommendations to the PN government:

The idea of an Arts Council answerable to several dynamic and progressive Boards related to Arts and Culture, not unlike those installed in the early days of Australia and its UK counterparts, may be a good transitory model to govern Arts & Culture. However, the success of any concept depends on the right leadership – an enlightened and opened minded Minister and his/her officers-in-charge. It is vital that they have the passion, commitment and integrity to implement the changes that would translate visions into reality.

Suppose we take the above suggested model for an Arts Council, which would be able to undertake the development of the specific interests and expertises of the various communities of Arts & Culture — the Malaysia Arts Council/Advisory Board should include small independent Boards which specific focus on i) Performing Arts  ii) Music  iii) Visual Arts iii) Film iv) Community Arts v) Orang Asli/Asal vi) Literature  vii) Heritage, Conservation & Archival programs viii) Arts in Education ix) Crafts etc, each advised and headed by experts in its own (Please include a few more Boards and their specific areas if there are more relevant areas to be included).

Boards members must be carefully chosen to represent the cross sections of a) practitioners b) scholars and c) bureaucrats of the each field. Preferably, they should not be mere political appointments but are known dedicated figures of their chosen fields, backed by sterling track records. Recommendations must be studied and aligned to shared-objectives to provide the format for efficient strategies and execution at aiming to inject new life in the respective fields. (One is aware of the present unhealthy disconnect between functioning practitioners/scholars/bureaucrats — they have been operating discordantly and separately of each other. For instance, in the dance and the visual arts, the practitioners i.e. artists are charting their own narratives as they have been marginalised for so long with hardly any sustainable funding. Consequently, they no longer believe in government agencies to champion their cause — simultaneously, the scholars and bureaucrats are ‘shiok sendiri’ and are ignorant of the creative impulses, vagaries and flow, of the fields mentioned above which are in constant change).

Though the ‘industry’ and money-making potential of the arts must encouraged and taken into consideration, the Council must be aware of the importance of ‘serious’ Arts and Culture as different to ‘commercial’ arts. The former’s raison d’etre is not driven by political, propaganda and profit-making motives, whereas the ‘commercial’ arts are driven by profit incentives and generally play to market demands. Also, the Council must take urgent heed of our ‘intangible heritages’ especially those of the few existing traditional forms and living masters – the latter are fast disappearing and with them, precious library of our past are already irretrievably lost with the passing of our old artistans.  And, we will continue to loose out unless these repositories of our culture are recorded and archived for future generation.

One of the major stumbling blocks of staging a performance in Malaysia is the associated high cost, which adds to the ‘performance unfriendly’ situation here. This include i) advanced ‘entertainment tax’ incurred to sale of tickets (outside Federal Territory) of non-commercial productions. This inhibits ‘serious’ arts performance efforts of groups which are not of the commercialized genre. ii) the lack of available existing small and well designed venues iii) expensive rents and lack of government subsidy and grants to pay for this high production cost. 

Difficulty in the bureaucratic process and the high expense involved to procure work permit for genuine foreign artists (again, in the ‘serious’, not commercialized performing arts). PUSPAL’s role and efficiency must be reviewed as its getting to be almost impossible to function with the present state unless the process is undertaken through an expensive agent fee or when the performance is facilitated through Government to Government impramatur. These obstacles inhibit many genuine individual and private artistic bi-cultural exchanges and cultural links between nations to prosper.

The New National Cultural Policy must be reviewed and its general cultural span must be more inclusive. (There has been a relatively recent study made by UKM scholars, the outcome of which must still be debated upon as it is still mired by conservative Malay (rather than ‘Malaysian’) sentiments. The policy is defined more by the ‘don’ts’ rather than the ‘dos’.  Culture (like education), must be discouraged as a platform to further religious dogmas nor propaganda. Multi-culturalism/Pluralism/ Inclusivity in shared positive values of multi-racial community which celebrate our rich diversity of cultures should be the Council’s new mantra.

Arts and Culture ministry should also be integrated with Education – thus, it should work together with the Ministry of Education towards cultivating an all-embracing and integrated mindscape, enriching the creativity of our youths with Arts & Culture along with the other Social Sciences. The importance of Arts in Education must be reviewed, re-emphasised and reinstated in our Education curricula. (This integrated point of view will hopefully filter into the psyche of future leaders of integrity and sensitivity who will be groomed to be caring champions of our eco-environmental system, concerned with town-planning and aware of humane values which truly count towards enriching the quality of life of the rakyat. 

Efforts of activating Arts & Culture must be coordinated and acted at various levels of City Councils, State and Federal Levels (apart from schools/colleges/Universities – i.e. Education system). Activities of Arts & Culture must not only concentrate in Kuala Lumpur but de-centralised to reach out to those outside city-centres.  Outreach programs should stimulate rural communities to once again chart and revel in, their own localized cultural activities. (Please employ arts activists as caretakers of these field works (turun padang) – and not civil servants who do not possess the inherent love, depth of knowledge, passion nor interest in Arts and Culture)

A major setback is the lack of funding of genuine groups who have sustained the Arts and Culture Cause, over those dire times. Each Board must identify areas, communities, groups and creative individuals that need assistance and must be supported. The Council should single out catalyst groups (not fly-by-night groups and cultural brokers), which have sustained and undertaken sincere programs related to Arts/Culture during the difficult times of the previous government. Those with genuine track records in providing the community service during the years of neglect now deserve the sustenance to continue with their work in driving their existing programs.

The area of Arts and Culture is vast. It is important to identify what is commercially driven and viable (these may not need as much financial support as a strategizing a different kind of economic boosting) and what is not ‘commercially-driven’; what are the underlying differences between Commercial Arts and what is ‘Serious’ Arts (those which do not measure their success in simplistic KPIs in terms of profits-money/cents). Serious Arts may be driven by non-commercial motives – such as research in indigenous music, exploring new avenues of contemporary expressions, sustainable outreach programs, new original works in music or dance choreography, archival & documentation etc). ‘Serious’ arts practitioners within the fields of our tangible and intangible heritages are engaged in less financial profitable activities but nevertheless contribute towards sustaining the ‘good life’ of the nation.

Connecting Arts and Culture with Business. The short-term and cheap manner in which Arts and Culture are associated and exploited as dispensable exotica for promotional purposes and as means to lure tourists is out-dated, regressive and eventually counter-productive. This view of culture is anathema to the kind of cultural eco-system we would like to promote for dignified and sustainable Tourism (Tourist Industry people please take note).  These outdated approaches are no longer tenable and must be abandoned. Penang is a good example of having now a good and vibrant Arts, Culture and Heritage awareness and heritage-drives, which enhance its own Business and Tourism profile and potentials, nationally and internationally. No city can be called an international commercial hub without the accompanying vibrant arts & culture life. Let’s encourage once again corporate sectors to sponsor Arts and Culture in their CSR programs. Corporates must be stimulated to sponsor the arts. Presently, this has almost completely stopped and lacks in corporate role-model to emulate.

Taking away the extremist and some times confusing Islamic factors out of our Arts & Culture policies and doing away with some religious Islamic requirements. Some practices, such as lengthy, out-of-place do’a are unsuitable religious rituals and are misplaced for the occasion and downright embarrassing, especially in the presence of international and non-muslim guests. (Nobody is brave except perhaps TM to say that they should be discontinued.) Others, such as the banning of ritual practices in our arts (silat, buka panggung in traditional theatre etc) have inhibited and destroyed the spiritual fabric of our own indigenous cultural practices, killing the very artistic/cultural endevours themselves in the process. We only have to look at Kelantan and Terengganu (the origin of many of our indigenous Malay arts par excellence, now banned) – once known as the cradle of Malay Arts and Culture, to witness how the last 25 years they have suffered from almost total cultural genocide due to the introduction of extreme ‘arabitisation’ of the Malay culture. The Malay culture is presently undergoing dire regressive trends due to the introduction of negative ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic values, inhibiting creativity. We now must realise (may be rather too late) that these new development are unsuitable, inorganic and unnatural for the Malays and for the Land but we find ourselves helpless to save whatever is now left of this once culturally rich and active region of the Malay culture. Unfortunately, some of these mistakes are irreversible have taken their toll in the cultural well-being of the community of wayang kulit, makyong, menora etc.

Auditing and checking existing institutions / venues and what can be saved. It is a tacit knowledge among artists that governmental Arts and Cultural institutions attached to City Councils, State and Federal Agencies, are dens of iniquities, cronyism and corruption. We need to have a transparent Istana Budaya, ASWARA, Balai Seni Negara, JKKN and other bodies. These institutions have been the guardians and also recipients of the major funds allocated for the Arts, leaving almost nothing for the rest of artists who are actually the real creators and artisans who are sustaining the creative impulse of the nation.  But alas, they have been marginalised and abandoned.

Check the under-performance, maintenance and feasibility of many Culture institutions and venues (at Council, State and Federal levels) and how they can be rehabilitated and their vigor, renewed. Example: MATIC, Auditorium Bandaraya, all JKKN theatres in city centres are generally badly maintained, poorly curated and has stopped serving the community. Their under-performance and lack-lustre existence in terms of engaging, and providing activities to the community must be reviewed

Similarly with other institutions such as BSN, National Library, DBP and others. Let us now give priority to artists themselves – those who really count, and weed out the useless dead-woods, arrogant and under-performing bureaucrats. The role, funding, performance-rating of institutions such as Istana Budaya, Matic, Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka, DBKL must be reviewed, rebranded, re-vamped and over-hauled. They all need a drastic make-over.

Stimulating international interests in our Arts – Malaysian literature, visual and performing talents who can be promoted overseas and their international profiles enhanced.

What stops all other cities (Ipoh, Seremban, Melaka etc) to, also be the hubs of cultural activities? But, these activities, which promote Arts & Culture must be well thought of, well curated and not just another poorly organised ‘arts festival’.

We need:

To take Arts and Culture OUT of Tourism. The Malaysia Arts Council MUST not be subservient to the highly money-driven Tourist Industry.

Make Arts Council/Advisory Board has to be an autonomous body so that the dignity of Arts & Culture can be maintained and in turn cease to be mere political and propaganda tools, and  as convenient dinner shows and opening gambits. The government should keep an arms-length policy with regard to their dealing with Arts & Culture less they kill it’s spirit when they interfere with its creative process. Government Ministry should be benevolent agents, as by its very nature, the executive government mindset tends to undermine creativity and the essence of authentic culture undertakings.

More people who are passionate and progressive in their vision of, commitment to, the arts, to run and advise on an independent Malaysia Arts Council/Arts Advisory Board.

We DO NOT need more arts-brokers and intermediaries who have been functioning under the guise of providing advocacy to the arts. They prove to contribute little to further the arts mission and have been found to be ‘musang berbulukan ayam’ and have been abusing funds on expensive and useless conferences.

A meeting with leaders of Arts within the above categories (pertaining to the areas of the Boards) to evaluate and mark problem areas, provide service and improve performance. This is crucial.

Judicious and transparent funding strategy and vision under the above categories.

Datuk Ramli Ibrahim


Sutra Foundation

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.