Critical Enquiry: ‘Grab Art, Not Grab Artists’

KUALA LUMPUR: On August 20, the School of Media, Languages, and Culture (SMLC) facilitated a forum, on “Keeping Artists Safe in Times of Political Crises,” at the Publika Mall.  As part of the KL Alternative Bookfest 2017, it mainly discussed the impact of oppressive authority on critical art. The event then ended notably with “Manifestos for a Better Malaysia.”

Gayathry Venkiteswaran, a former executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), moderated this panel conversation. The four panellists included:


Threats to Malaysian Artists

The current political climate has made artists in Malaysia face many challenges in using their creativity to convey politically critical messages. Gayathry began the event by quoting visual artist Katya Grokhovsky, who urges fellow artists across the world to persevere, criticise, and improve.

“Artists, please do not isolate, hide, retreat. Instead, speak through your work, however softly. Be brave.”

In fact, difficulties confronting Malaysian artists include physical safety, financial sustainability, mental struggles, and for traditional art forms, preservation. Therefore, protecting artists and art cannot always be from the top-down; rather, bottom-up perspectives may prove more meaningful.


Art at the Civil-Society Level

Vanitha, a drama-therapist, has effectively dealt with the psychological problems of her fellow artists during moments of creative stagnation, monetary limitation, and legal “restrictions”. She created the Creative Arts Therapies Malaysia on Facebook, to share information on work, jobs, and workshops among colleagues.

However, therapeutic services may be “expensive”, particularly for those who may not have a steady source of income. Here, Vanitha informed the audience that corporate sources have offered “funds” to artists and underprivileged communities. Still, undeniable is the current lack of governmental support for artists in this respect.

Pauline works with indigenous communities to renegotiate their sociocultural presence in modern life through Seni Pusaka. She argued that, contrary to popular belief, traditional cultures are still very much alive.

In the face of modernisation, the task of perpetuating traditional art certainly encounters generational issues. However, the Malaysian youth are not always to blame despite what conservatives may think. In fact, it is not the disinterest in the youth, but the lack of opportunities – educational and economic – that have led to the myth of a ‘generational gap.’

Pauline exemplified the truth with the prohibition of Wayang Kulit, Mak Yong, and Dikir Barat in Kelantan in 1990 by the PAS government. “We need to contextualise and look at the effects of those bans in Kelantan, and how they were enforced.”


 Wayang Kulit, like its many counterparts, face ideological challenges in Malaysia. Source:


“Clamping Down” on Artists

Vanitha and Pauline implied that struggles for artistic freedom in Malaysia largely stem from power structure. In pluralist democracies, elected governments must be held responsible when necessary initiatives do not reach voters and cultures of different origins.

Representing the Policy Division of the National Department for Culture and Arts, Salehhuddin elaborated on what the Government has devised to help develop and protect artists in the country.

Citing the Economic Transformation Programme and TN50, he explained that various departments have realised the economic benefits of the creative industry. With steady growths, it contributed up to 1.6 per cent of the national GDP in 2014. Hence, the Government has formulated initiatives such as injecting funds through certain foundations in order to further exploit the commercial value of art and artists.

However, Salehhuddin’s statements still raise the problem of the top-down State approach to artistic, cultural, and traditional expressions. Will the State work to “advance, develop, conserve, and sustain” cultural expressions that have no contributions to the national GDP? The question leads us back to the professions of Vanitha and Pauline, who recognise every artist and their hardships.

Professor Zaharom soon addressed the state repression of counter-hegemonic artworks. In addition to ignoring the non-economic role of the arts, the State blatantly “clamps down” on artists via oppressive measures such as imprisonment, assaults, constraints on mobility, and draconian fines.


“One needs to discuss the role of the state on the protection of artists, not just the curtailment of their freedom.”


The communications expert gave credits to Pauline for “highlighting an important concept”: “Why is there no political will on the part of the State to protect artists, and instead, they support banning?” To safeguard the welfare of artists, grassroots activists must “understand the wider aspect of political control”.

In Malaysia, the provision of funds and protection is subject to the influence of “political expediency”. Not only artists or performers, but any forms of expression external to the Government’s agenda have been constantly under physical and emotional “attacks”, according to the professor.

Moreover, ‘money’ is ever-increasingly influential in contemporary global politics. Artists who are overtly critical of the Malaysian State, and new to the capitalist system, may have to choose between income and free expression. Well-established but ideologically moderate painters like Masnoor Ramli Mahmud and Yusof Ghani, for instance, get paid well by politico-business forces, as analyst Syed Jaymal Zahid pointed out.

Malaysian artists suffer multi-layered struggles, which are often ignored in public discourse. Moderator Gayathry led an insightful forum on freedoms and human rights in the arts community, which shifted the general view on art and cultures: from national, to civilian level. Questions require immediate answers and actions; as Professor Zaharom put it:

“Artists and art cannot always depend on monetary foundations. Where is the support from the State? I think, for us to keep asking artists to constantly employ the ‘weapons of the weak’, it does not reflect a country that aspires to be developed in 2020.”

“Paradigm Shift” in Malaysia

As a seeming representative of the Government in this forum, Salehhuddin inevitably faced scrutiny from fellow panellists, the moderator, and the audience. Public curiosity revolved around the religious conservatism within parliament, because it has led to restrictions in democratic life. As the multitude acknowledge, legislation can define a country.

“Thinking,” Salehhuddin assured, is the fundamental problem, whereas “education” can be the final solution. A “paradigm shift” should be the national goal, he said, which left everyone laughing in collective acquiescence. Fortunately, with multiple repetitions, he was clearly not joking. He even called for law-makers to be “sent back to schools”.

Indeed, education is vital to shaping long term worldviews: “the positive relationship between political information and development of consistent political attitudes has been one of the most established findings in the studies of public opinion research,” argues political scientist Youngho Cho. However, the textbook, syllabuses, and activities in the school are part of the State-ruled mass media: ultimately, what goes into education returns to “the wider aspect of political control.”


Written by Teoh Sing Fei

"They say that great minds think alike, but also fools seldom differ"

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