MALAYSIA’S “new economic asset”. The recognition by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak of the value of arts and culture at the recent launch of Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana), brought tears to Izan Satrina Mohd Sallehuddin’s eyes.
The arts fraternity has been trying for decades to get that seal of approval. For Izan, Cendana’s founding chief executive officer, it has been an exhausting five years of lobbying.
And it would not have happened if not for a chance meeting and a five-minute elevator pitch in August last year, she says.
“I was doing a lot of lobbying for change in the arts, mainly to bridge the three sectors – arts community, government and corporate – in my former capacity as the founder and director of MyPAA (private enterprise My Performing Arts Agency).
“So when I heard that the PM was a guest at an event I was at, I grabbed the chance to pitch to him.”
Many meetings later, including between the PM’s team and members of the arts community, translated into a RM20mil allocation for arts and culture in Budget 2017.
And on June 1, Cendana was born to boost the country’s “cultural economy”.
Izan says that she pointed out to the PM that while the Government has pushed for the development of the creative industries, it has not optimised the heart of creativity and innovation – arts and culture.
“Arts and culture is where your ideas come from, your edge, your rawness, your stories. It is the heartbeat of the ecosystems in the cultural economy.”
Although there has been support for arts and culture previously, she says that it has been varied with different objectives.
“And you can see that in how the sector has moved from one ministry to one ministry every four to eight years. Everytime you move to a new ministry, you have to reboot. You reboot, and reboot, you don’t have the opportunity to scale up.”
Cendana aims to change that by stimulating demand for arts and culture and empowering the arts community, not only by improving their lot through aid and funding but also by refining policies and making investing in the arts more attractive to corporations.
In the first two-year phase, Cendana will focus on performing arts, visual arts and independent music, in small, medium (500 person capacity) and public spaces, says Izan.
Some plans include connecting indie musicians with production houses. Another is to work with Matrade to sell Malaysian arts as well as attract festival directors, art curators and art collectors, to “import” Malaysian works.
Cendana will focus mainly on Kuala Lumpur first.
“The idea is that we can demonstrate the power of the arts in one space – you can feel, see, touch and if we get the model right, we can replicate it in other cities in Malaysia.”
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: How different is Cendana from other arts and culture agencies and programmes?
A: At the moment Cendana is parked at MyCreative Ventures (a government investment arm that aims to spur Malaysia’s creative industry through equity or debt investments).
But Cendana is different. You can say that it is the start-up, and once the artist is ready, they can go to MyCreative Ventures to get a loan. Cendana is also different from the Culture and Arts Department (JKKN), which generally works from top-down. We are a ground-up agency and hold two-way dialogues with the arts community.
JKKN aims to preserve and merakyatkan the arts. Our mandate is to scale up the quality of the works produced by our artists and increase the demand for arts.
> What is the most urgent issue in the local arts landscape that Cendana needs to address?
Our first task is to determine where we are as a sector, so we are conducting a Kuala Lumpur Cultural and Creative Research.
We have big corporate players who have invested in the arts but they say they cannot see the impact on the country. A baseline study of the sector can show what our value is to the economy.
And once we find out where we are as an industry, all the stakeholders – arts community, corporate and government – can move to the same objective.
Right now each sector is singing its own tune.
By November, we should be able to announce the results of the study – then we can strategise.
> What is the worth and potential of the cultural economy for Malaysia?
The cultural economy generates US$2.25 trillion (RM9.43 trillion) a year in revenues, which is around 3% of the world’s GDP and employs almost 30 million people worldwide. Malaysia’s creative industries contribute about 1.6% to its GDP and employ 45,000 people (2014). Singapore spent S$898mil (RM2.8bil) on its arts and culture and generated US$1.6bil (RM6.7bil) in revenue.
What we can see is that the developed countries are investing a lot in arts and culture, because there is a very direct relationship between the arts and culture and the mainstream creative industries, the economy and the vibrancy of the country. And the impact is clear: Australia invests RM13.90 in arts and culture per person, England: RM9.40 and Singapore: RM23.10.
They are all most liveable cities in the world with vibrant cultural economies.
Based on the previous RMP, Malaysia spends an average of RM3 per person for arts.
> How does Cendana select what art, and whose art, to support?
The National Culture Policy has already defined arts and culture, but for Cendana, we are looking at the platform, what the artists are expressing with their art, what they believe in, what they are artistically passionate about – that is what we will support.
If we start boxing artists up, we will never help them grow. It is also important that no matter how we contemporarise our art, it should have a Malaysian story at its core.
> Arts and culture have always been associated with nation building and creating a national identity, how will Cendana deal with that?
I’d like to think that while we are supported by the Government, we will not delve into that space. Our job is to improve the arts ecosystem and increase the opportunities for artists.
We have different narratives and different stories, and we don’t need to define what is Malaysian. Anyway, if we all sing the same song, we will not be colourful.
> How can we have a vibrant arts scene with the censorship regulations that we have?
The arts are not designed for a common, homogenous response, while censorship is so subjective. If art doesn’t provoke any reaction, then it’s not doing its work. Art should be defined as how the artist sees it. Cendana is not going to define what is art and what is not. Or what is acceptable and what is not. This will restrict the artists’ capabilities and talent. Our role is to push for artists’ opportunities and the quality of works. We will give you a blank canvas and the paintbrushes, but you will have to be accountable for your work.
We will defend your space to create, but we will not defend your work.
If your work is reflective of the society, that’s all right. But if your work incites violence, for example, we will not support it.
> Some artists would say that commodifying arts would kill its soul. How do we balance commercialism and creativity?
Cendana is not commercial, but we have corporate thinking. While we are working towards boosting the economic impact of the arts, we are not compromising on the quality of the artists’ work.
Big commercial shows like musicals and concerts have always existed, but we are not interested in the shows at plenary halls and Istana Budaya. No disrespect to them, but it is the smaller voices who need more help.
If you look at Melbourne, Singapore, or Japan, their arts and culture scene is so buzzing that it is a value to their economy.
While we work to advocate that, we need to ensure that the artists can do what they do best – which is to be artists. And you will hear a different song being sung in KL.