Questions for a Malaysian Arts Council

Some questions and contemplations after reading Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s proposals for the creation of a Malaysian Arts Council, Malay Mail, ‘Fixing arts and culture 2020’, 19th May 2020. Accessed 21st May 2020.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in Malaysia reached severe levels right about the time a coup overthrew (perhaps this is generous, more like feebly but nevertheless winningly jostled aside) the Pakatan Harapan government elected in 2018, so as you can expect, much ire has recently been levelled at the government. In a way, the pandemic has helped to “legitimise” the coup government. In the midst of a pandemic, you can’t very well tell the government to fuck off when your job’s suddenly in question and you’ve still got rent and utilities to pay and, oh yeah, there’s an invisible virus ravaging the city. So we’re seeing more criticisms of the government, and some of the loudest and most prolific of these voices have been those coming out of the arts and cultural sectors.

Most people working and practising in the arts can probably be considered among those SMEs and freelancers whose livelihoods are totally thrown into limbo. Many of them have always been living day to day, sale to sale, without any fat company profits or personal savings to fall back on. Add to that is the burn of being totally overlooked and slighted by the government, after Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture Nancy Shukri went on air and tossed off the arts sector like a parent rolling their eyes at a teenager’s bad mood — they’re fine, they’ll get over it. It’s as if the government doesn’t notice us at all! …Which is a bad thing now as we’re ass deep in a global pandemic and capitalist crisis, but desirable otherwise.

This is a terrible time for the individual, and societies all over the globe are handing their lives over to their governments for protection (except for the US where many insist on “protesting” for their individual entitlements). But are we really sure that what we want is increased government involvement with the arts?

Recently, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim of Sutra Foundation published a widely-shared piece on the Malay Mail titled, ‘Fixing arts and culture 2020,’ in which he proposes the establishment of a Malaysian Arts Council, like they have in England. It is a very detailed article, not only calling for the establishment of an Arts Council but also stipulating its conditions and diagnosing current flaws in the way our government funds and organises arts and culture.

One of the issues he diagnoses is a failure to distinguish between ‘serious’ arts and ‘commercial’ arts, assuming that ‘serious’ arts are driven by more genuine “artistic” intentions, while ‘commercial arts’ are created to be crowd-pleasers. Datuk Ramli defines ‘serious’ cultural work as presentations, work, and research that ‘do not measure their success in simplistic KPIs in terms of profits.’ Not to be pedantic, but I’m not sure if the two words are really accurately used here, whether seriousness is totally incompatible with commercial success. It seems like a slippery slope into confusing ‘serious’ (and thus worthwhile?) art with poverty and a deliberate failure to garner mass appeal.

Datuk Ramli enumerates some examples of what he means by ‘serious’ arts and culture.

‘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.’

Ok, so what he means is arts work that does not produce an end product that is consumable by the general public, or cultural work/exhibitions that are more experimental and unconventional and therefore unlikely to gain a large audience, but are done for the sake of experimentation and testing conventions. That’s an understandable definition and can be gathered under a different designation than ‘seriousness’ (implying that any commercially-driven work is unserious; as if Parasite wasn’t widely considered serious and “radical” while also bagging the Oscars) — but, again, pedantic.

Even though the Arts Council should be funded by the government, Datuk Ramli argues that it should remain ‘autonomous’ so that it avoids turning into (or solidifying their identity as) a propaganda racket for the government. ‘The government should keep an arms-length policy with regard to their dealing with Arts & Culture lest they kill its spirit when they interfere with its creative process.’ This is wise, especially given the many mis-dealings that have happened in the past in our National Art Gallery (Balai Seni Negara). Most recently, the artist Ahmad Fuad Osman suffered four of his works being mysteriously taken down from his survey exhibition, At the End of the Day Even Art is Not Important, as ordered by persons unknown and for reasons unknown. Presumably because they offended Malay-Muslim sensibilities regarding pigs and nudity.

Currently, our art institutions suffer a lack of transparency and accountability to the very art community it is meant to uplift; hence Datuk Ramli accuses these government-funded venues of being ‘dens for iniquities, cronyism, and corruption’. He’s right that herein lies the pitfalls of government involvement with culture but I also wonder who, then, the autonomous Arts Council spending should be accountable to. Forgive me if I’m being overly literal or if I’m missing something. But if governments are created to represent and serve a nation’s people, and culture is being funded by the government, then shouldn’t those funds also be audited for how well it is serving the people? Is it realistic or even desirable to expect the government to give out public money to the cultural sector and then leave artists alone to do their own thing? (What other “autonomous” entities does it currently spend public money on?)

If we follow this logic, that governments should be answerable to the people, then bureaucracies and their requisite paper trails sort of start to make sense. The issue now is more that we have the bureaucracy without the citizen watchdog. Reams and reams of paperwork is filed and reports are duly submitted to higher-ups, but the rakyat doesn’t seem any closer to being involved with or consulted to in the arts. Many government agencies work on behalf of the people, assuming they understand the nation’s needs and desires through online surveys but not by adding them to their boards and panels. Many cultural practitioners perhaps make work with the people in mind, but, let’s be real, many of them already know their audiences.

In the battle between the cultural sector and the government (mostly fought by the former in the form of journalism and media appearances), where does the general masses of the population factor in? And, returning to the ‘serious’ vs ‘commercial’ dichotomy, why are certain cultural practitioners so averse to commercial success?… Unless the answer is that, deep down, they know and live in denial of the fact that their work can only be understood by certain intellectual and educated classes of people.

In each one of us, myself included, there is a (not-so) little narcissist who refuses to be understood by the masses, because mass understanding and appeal erodes the idea of our secret, unique, and transcendent genius. They just don’t get it. Even some of the people whose whole beat is campaigning for the masses or creating art about the masses probably act, even if just a little bit, on the influence of the little narcissist. This isn’t really a rare problem and we’ve learned to live with it; postmodern techno-capitalism has encouraged each of us to nurture this little narcissist our whole life, through rampant competition and obsessive concerns over individual identity. Who am I? What distinguishes me from everyone else? What is my “identity”? Or if we’re curating an Instagram account, What is my aesthetic?

When it comes to arts and culture, the presence of the ego is felt perhaps more keenly than in many other fields, because so much of art is an attempt by artists to sublimate their own egos or to grapple with their own lived experiences. Woody Allen is one artist who manages to pull this off — shamelessly culling material from his own life and inserting himself in nearly everything, but still creating something that is commercially successful and emotionally resonant. Many are not as successful and it sometimes shows!

In a contemporary global art market where names grow larger than their persons and a unique artist identity is nearly as important as the art itself as a curation and selling point, should artists be allowed to get government funding carte blanche? What does it mean by, ‘for the good of the nation’? 

Of course, cultural workers and practitioners are citizens of the nation too, but surely there will be an expectation that the impact should reach beyond their communities (although they are very well interlinked within Malaysia) and also include the input and involvement of the non-cultural swathes of the population. Above all, it should arguably erode the distinction between artist and the masses, with the masses just as easily being able to see themselves becoming artists, writers, directors, dancers, actors, Council board members, etc., as well.

In the not-so-distant past, Mao Zedong addressed these same problems in his “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art”, where he theorises on what an art for the people should look like. I won’t go into it, but the entire text is worth reading in full, to understand the sacrifices that will be required from artists as well if they truly want to transform culture into something that can serve the broad masses. Personally, I don’t have issues with any artwork that’s created to pander to the sensibilities of a select few. But why should we use public money to fund that?

And a final question: when one’s national culture seems to have always been defined by protests against the government and political conventions, are we really as capable as we think of working with the government? I suspect that those who have always acted independently and deliberately chosen to fly under the radar will continue finding ways to maintain their independence.

Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s argument is relentless and clearly informed by years of involvement in the industry, enumerating clear demands for a better world for Malaysian arts. One of the major points where I’m in total agreement with him is that arts and culture should be de-linked from tourism. If the arts community had won more battles, I wonder if they would continue asking for the same things. For all my questionings, of course I hope Datuk Ramli’s proposals do gain traction nevertheless and become a serious topic of national debate.

Header image:

Designer: Revolutionary Committee of Tianjin Industrial Exhibition Hall (天津市工业展览馆革命委员会)
1971, February
Turn philosophy into a sharp weapon in the hands of the masses
Rang zhexue bian wei qunzhong shoulide jianrui wuqi (让哲学变为群众手里的尖锐武器)
Publisher: Tianjin renmin meishu chubanshe (天津人民美术出版社)
Part of the IISH / Stefan R. Landsberger / Private Collection,

☾ Some tale of marvel to beguile the night

Day 48 (???) of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO); Day 2 of its Conditional Movement Control Order

In times of crisis we instinctively turn to the past for instruction, if not for a solution then at least for how to manage suffering. During the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, one point of common reference has been Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, with its gathering of friends telling stories to pass the time while they quarantine themselves from the Black Death. Instead of picking up the Italian Decameron, I picked up the Arab-Persian-Indian smorgasbord, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, the 1972 version translated by N.J. Dawood and published by Penguin Classics. I picked it up in search of inspiration for a writing project, but really it was a way to procrastinate from that project, then the procrastination transformed into escapism.

The Nights are an unparalleled piece of escapism, a sublime world of vernacular story-telling that transports you into another time on the back of a djinn, in the twinkling of an eye: the medieval world but with shades of mysticism and supernaturalism, a world that existed but now does not, a world with different ethics and values, a simpler and straightforward yet also procedurally complex world, a world where all forms of the fantastic are possible, but strictly within the immutable hierarchy of kings.

Stories have elaborate twists that, as a writer trying to extract inspiration, make me jealous at the prospect of the disavowal — or perhaps transcendence — of logic required to even start imagining them. It seems ridiculous that a tale could turn simply on a chance meeting in a foreign land, or the fortuitous discovery that leads to safety after a shipwreck, or in the inexplicable magic and existence of djinns. Not to mention the endless racket of superlatives, the infinite riches of one story always being doubled by the next. Everyone must be ‘wealthier and more generous than any King or Sultan who ever lived before.’ Riches are described with a sort of fractal effect, starting with the construction of a magnificent palace, then an enumeration of all the richly-decorated halls within the palace and the extensive slave network to serve the palace, then zooming in on the fine detailing of the furnishings and the magnificence of each slave’s livery, and so on and so forth. An evocative example is the ‘unfinished window’ in “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp”, a single bejewelled window set in a magnificent dome in Aladdin’s new djinn-magicked palace that he leaves unfinished so that he may challenge the King to finish it in the same style as the other windows in the dome. The King empties his coffers of precious jewels, but they are not enough for even a fraction of the window. He seizes the jewels of his Vizier and courtiers, then orders for the seizure of all jewels owned by prominent men in his land, and yet after days of work the window isn’t even halfway finished. From a fraction of the window we can extrapolate the magnificence of the other windows, the dome, the surrounding room, and ultimately the palace. With all the jewels in the city used up, Aladdin bids the craftsmen undo their work and return them to the rightful owners, and has the djinn complete the window overnight. 

If you don’t believe the stories, an excuse can be given by reverting back to the Master story, that of King Shahriyar and Shahrazad (a story quite incredulous in itself), who, remember, is simply telling ‘a tale of marvel, so that the night may pass pleasantly’. All the Tales are framed as bedtime stories, like those of our youth, but unlike us modern adults who choose to wholesale import our capacity for imagination from Disney instead, the adults in the Nights continue to have an earnest indulgence for bedtime stories. And unlike Disney’s stories (which also include Marvel and Star Wars now), the Nights do not censor life’s passionate extremities. All forms of bodily punishment are inflicted and all sorts of sexual dalliances take place across its pages; the tales don’t dwell on these either, but rather simply describe the action as yet another bead clicking into place on Fate’s thread.

In the Nights, psychology doesn’t exist, not like in our modern fixation on the Individual. Barely any of the characters are more than words on the page, simple vehicles for their story and their destiny. Stock figures abound and within the stock figures are also stock dichotomies. There are the Caliphs and Kings, who are often just and munificent, but who can also be foolish and greedy; there are the Viziers, either loyal or traitorous; the “Moors”, often deceptive pagan (= bad) sorcerers or contradictorily God-worshiping (= good) sorcerers; the everyman, who could be a porter, cobbler, fisherman, or any other from the range of jobs lower than a merchant in the marketplace hierarchy, foolish and aggressive but just as often obedient and worthy; and then there are women, fair and naive, but also wise and cunning, but also calculating and deceitful. And then, of course, there is the omniscient but invisible force of Allah, the bearer of fortune and life, but also the Destroyer of all earthly pleasures, the Annihilator of men.

This lack of psychology and, to a lesser degree, reason and justice (often, fools can become wise overnight, and even the most dastardly of characters can be redeemed and rewarded if they can spin a good yarn), is one of the most compelling escapes that reading the Nights offers. For all our self-inflicted loss and misery, all the mental lashes and beard-rendings we deal ourselves as punishment for our own foolishness, the Nights does not dwell long on these nor on the question of whether they are deserved. Often, self-inflicted suffering is tossed off with a compression of time, as for example, ‘In this way he suffered for one year’ with no other elaboration, or through a total outright passing-over (“not interesting!”) by bluntly rounding off a character’s story with, ‘so much for him’ so that another, more interesting sub-plot can be followed.

All wickedness and suffering can be redeemed in the Nights if you can produce a good story from it. All claims of injustice and inaccuracies can be silenced by pointing to the nature of story-telling itself (it’s all made up; we already told you so from the start). In the end, all will perish and the only survivors will be our stories and Allah. Thus the Nights offers a perfect escape — unlike, for example, our more contemporary equivalent of “escaping” into Netflix entertainment, which isn’t very escapist considering they still rely on our common shared ethics and a background knowledge of real, current events. The Nights is pure, uncut story, hitting like a potent drug.