Breathing new soul into the nation

Panggung Rakyat – a traditional-based series of live events and workshops for the masses – was one of Cendana’s initiatives.

RECENTLY, the hashtags #SolidaritiIndustriKreatif and #ArtIsEssential hashtags started trending in Twitterjaya. They both express the frustrations of the country’s creative industry players who have been hit very badly by the Covid-19 pandemic as their livelihoods depend on producing creative works and live shows.

The lack of urgency in addressing the state of Malaysia’s creative industry is disappointing to say the least. The industry seems to be perceived as a non-essential sector and lacks any long-term planning to get it moving again. I am truly saddened by this because I believe this sector is vital as a bastion of Malaysia’s rich cultural resources.

Even before the pandemic began, the Malaysian creative industry was isolated from the economic sphere. In its 2018 report entitled “Kuala Lumpur as a Cultural and Creative City”, the Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana) listed several challenges that the country’s creative industry was experiencing.

Chief among one – and one that requires a systemic restructuring at the national level to overcome – is the lack of a formalised strategic, structural, and regulatory system to support and propel the growth of the cultural and creative economy, especially in terms of business development and trade.

Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz has said that he is open to the idea that the arts and cultural industry could make significant contributions to the education, science and innovation spheres in Malaysia. He also said that creative industry players should not isolate themselves from the idea of integrating the arts with other disciplines.

But how can we can even begin to think about that if the government has never developed any long-term national strategies to champion the arts and humanities and nurture the soul of the nation?

Nowadays, more seem to be expected of creative industry players but less is actually given to them to realise the sector’s potential. It’s a neverending cycle of hopelessness and struggle. Clearly, it is unfair to say that it is the creative industry players who have isolated themselves from the economic sphere. It is no secret that the arts in Malaysia have been sidelined in favour of developing science and technology, which is perceived to be a high-growth sector in developing the economy. For far too long the arts and humanities have played second fiddle to this perception.

Not there hasn’t been any effort made at all – there have been some government initiatives, such as the establishment of MyCreative Ventures in 2012, a government investment body under Ministry of Finance Inc that reports to the Communications and Multimedia Ministry. Five years later, in 2017, Cendana was established as a link between the government, cultural sector (including the arts) players and Malaysian citizens.

Before the pandemic took over the world, Cendana was very active. I must applaud its efforts because in three short years it has built up an excellent portfolio, judging by its annual milestone reports (which I find a very interesting read indeed).Cendana has funded and supported homegrown artists by providing upskilling workshops, music tours, exciting festivals, engaging Malaysians with the creative arts communities and many more efforts. These initiatives are essential to create a sustainable ecosystem for creative arts industry players and educators and to continue engagement with the public to reclaim the arts.

Still, no matter how active and fierce Cendana’s efforts have been, it is not a major government institution that can create longterm, sustainable national policies to improve the creative ecosystem. Cendana is still seen as a new kid on the block and struggles to push for positive policy changes.

The problem is that the arts are placed (or misplaced) under too many different government agencies. I believe that a major systemic change is needed so that the creative industry is placed under a single strong entity that can champion it with a new set of values and attitudes to nurture longterm sustainability.

In fact, Cendana transformed into a major ministry instead of an investment body or an agency could work together with the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry and the Education Ministry to spur growth through innovative economic and educational ventures.

A strong Cendana could provided the much needed space in which creative industry players could finally root themselves and be sheltered and nurtured into developing.

After all, without the arts and humanities, Malaysia will be an industrious but soulless nation. Combining the arts and humanities with the sciences and technology and education will, I believe, not only improve the creative industry ecosystem but also improve science and technology innovation in Malaysia at warp speed.

The missing link between the economic, education, scientific innovation and social development spheres of the nation has always been our artistic and cultural heritage. Perhaps it is time for Malaysia to synergise the arts and sciences once and for all and embrace a new soul of the nation.

Fatimah Tajuddin has a degree in Psychology and a Masters in Communications. She is currently completing her PhD at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s KITA Institute on using local films to create empathy for racial acceptance in MPU (Mata Pelajaran Pengajian Umum or General Studies) subjects as an important pedagogic tool.

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