Why a roadmap for culture is needed

DATUK Seri Anwar Ibrahim was bombarded with questions when he met the Malaysian diaspora at a hotel in New York recently. Someone asked him if there was any plan to decouple arts from tourism, in reference to the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry.

Anwar reminded the audience about his book The Asian Renaissance published in 1996. Call it a political idealist’s manifesto as suggested by someone, but I certainly subscribe to his idea that within a framework of a modern, progressive and just society, there is a need for “a cultural resurgence dominated by a flowering of art and literature, architecture and music and advances in science and technology”.

In New York, the Prime Minister reiterated the position that a country needs to grow economically but at the same time, society and culture must be empowered, too. That is consistent with his idea of Madani, he insisted. No arguments there.

According to him, the issue is not about decoupling of culture from tourism but more about the empowerment of the arts.

In reality, the bulk of the ministry’s money is for the promotion of tourism, thus very little is left for culture. And the funding for culture and the arts is in at least three other ministries, not to mention various other agencies and funding apparatuses, thus creating overlaps and lots of confusion.

And remember, when he first announced the ministry, the word “culture” was not even there.

I wrote an open letter on Dec 9, 2022 titled Seni dan Budaya: Di Mana Kau (Arts and Culture: Where Art Thou?) on the subject.

Frankly, Anwar’s idealistic cultural pronouncement asides, we are witnessing perhaps the beginning of the saddest state of the nation’s culture and the arts.

Artistic expressions in the country have been so stifled over the last two decades.

Many wonder what would be left if we allow convoluted thinking about arts and culture to continue to permeate society.

Many art forms are in danger of being labelled “un-Islamic.” Many traditional performing arts will soon be relegated to a footnote of our cultural history.

Datuk Ramli Ibrahim even coined the term “religious thuggery” that has been responsible for subduing the role of arts in society.

At the rate things are going, many of the wayang (performing arts) will die with their dalang (proponents).

I totally support Anwar that high art and culture are needed to bring the nation to the next level.

Progress must not be just defined by economic growth or robust progression in infrastructure, but nation-building is also about the nurturing and flourishing of the arts.

Cultural diversity makes a nation. And in the case of a renaissance as envisioned by Anwar, jati diri (character building) is part of the construct.

Like everyone else, I am proud of the achievements of Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh.

We applaud her for winning the coveted Oscar for best actress at the 95th Academy Awards in March. She is the first Asian and more importantly, the first Malaysian, to be honoured with such an award. The film Everything Everywhere All At Once won seven of its 11 Academy Award nominations.

And yes, in her acceptance speech, she mentioned Malaysia and Ipoh. Just fancy that!

But would Yeoh be one of the top actresses in the world today had she stayed on in Malaysia and worked under the current ecosystem? I doubt it.

She made her name in Hong Kong cinema and later in Hollywood. She has acted in some of the most commercially and artistically successful films, all produced abroad.

And in the case of Everything Everywhere All At Once, it is unthinkable that such a movie can be produced in this country.

It is a complex film but weaved with lots of care and tenderness, making the obscure philosophical mosaics, as claimed by the filmmakers – existentialism, nihilism, surrealism and absurdism – palatable to the audience.

Yeoh’s Evelyn Quan Wang is ferocious and determined, yet witty and clever. The Oscar is deservedly hers for picking. She is brilliant.

But would Everything Everywhere All At Once find a home in Malaysia? Again, I doubt it.

After all, Everything Everywhere All At Once is hailed as a queer film, and the gay community boldly announced that the film is the pinnacle of LGBTQ storytelling.

Even the cautiously framed Mentega Terbang created such a furore that eventually it was banned, perhaps because of a line or two in the dialogue.

We can’t even accept the fact that Pulau is not just about actresses swimming in bikinis.

We must take advantage of Anwar’s understanding, interest and commitment to the arts to take it to the next level.

It should not be lip service anymore.

His administration must work with stakeholders to ensure the ecosystem for creative expressions be nurtured and protected.

And to mitigate the level of intolerance that is crippling the realm of the arts of late.

The creative industry is huge, representing at least 12% of global GDP (gross domestic product). We need a new footprint for the industry.

Just look at how the South Koreans have rebranded their creative content industry.

The Korean brand is unique from that of Hollywood or Bollywood.

It is Korean in look, feel and scent.

I was one of the members of a committee to help frame the final creative industry sector report for the future.

It was commissioned to Akademi Sains Malaysia and led by Tan Sri Mazlan Osman, the astrophysicist, as part of the Mega Science 3.0 Initiative.

It took many months of organising workshops, sessions with stakeholders and teh tarik series.

It is perhaps the most comprehensive report on creative industry sector ever penned to date. It has a roadmap for the future.

There are many suggestions –short, medium and long-term ones.

But most importantly, it contains strategies and recommendations to move forward.

Among the recommendations is to relook at the Dasar Industri Kreative Negara, the need to set up a high-powered truly functioning National Arts Council and establishing a promotional body of the creative industry.

The Madani government should take a second look at the report.Johan Jaaffar was a stage actor, director and playwright. He is passionate about all things arts. He has written a book, Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan ke Media Prima Berhad to chronicle his five-decade involvement in the world of arts and culture. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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