Keep culture apart from tourism

THE new Government has yet to appoint a minister for the Tourism and Culture Ministry. We are not sure whether the Prime Minister will retain the ministry’s present structure.

It is time to do the right thing – separate tourism from culture and the arts. It is an insult to have culture attached to tourism in a ministry that seemed unable to excel in either.

I fully understand and support the Government’s plan to reduce the number of ministries. The previous administration had the most ministries and ministers per capita than any nation in the world.

But I strongly believe there must be a ministry for culture and the arts, which are an integral part of nation-building. We need to provide a conducive atmosphere and ecosystem for the development of culture and the arts. I am talking also about high culture and high art, not merely entertainment per se.

Despite its influence in society, entertainment is sadly misunderstood. For many of us, entertainment is defined by programmes people watch on TV.

However, we should be talking about a whole domain involving the creative industry and creative content. We should be looking at culture from the perspective of a nation that needs to move ahead both economically and spiritually. Culture defines us. It defines a nation.

Culture is the lifeline of a vibrant society, for our cultural and artistic expressions help define who we are. Over the last several decades, we have been pursuing physical development and in many ways, ignoring the intrinsic element of nation-building.

There is nothing wrong in our ferocious intent to progress economically, to be a prosperous nation or to make our mark as a trading and manufacturing nation. But along the way, we have lost our souls and allowed greed to engulf us. Greed, to some of us, is part of the Malaysian Dream.

Our idea for balancing against that is to infuse religion and faith in all aspects of life. We believe that faith alone will make a better society. It should, but that is not happening.

In the case of the Muslims, there is simply too much proselytising in the air. Everything is defined from a religious point of view. Many of the preachers are providing good service for the faithful but there are also those who are confusing the ummah with their half-baked decrees.

The Indonesians perhaps have not done as well economically since their independence. But nation­-building comes first for them.

We have every reason to be envious of their patriotism and cultural identity. Its government even placed kebudayaan (culture) together with pendidikan (education) under one ministry – Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan.

Education gels well with culture, according to the Indonesians. And it begins from school.

The great empires of Islam during the Abbasid and Ummayad caliphates allowed the flowering of culture and the arts. While the intellectual and scholarly traditions flourished, literature and the arts were blooming as well.

The artistic tradition of Enlighten­ed Europe opened up whole new creative dimensions in all disciplines of the arts and literature. Music excelled as did theatrical expressions and paintings.

In our case, the existing ministry is a classic study in anachronism. It is harping on making Malaysia as the tourist destination for “world-class culture”. It aspires to make tourism and culture as the catalyst for socio-economic growth.

I wonder about the kind of culture offered when the budget for culture is minuscule compared to the promotion for tourism. We are not even close to the cultural strategic planning of Singapore today.

And the department in charge of culture is somewhere down the organisational chart.

Labelled Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara (National Department for Culture and Arts), it is lumped together with the departments for national heritage and museums.

The budget is regrettably small. Cultural activists have issues with the department not because of bureaucratic inefficiency but because it does not have a reasonable budget. The department head, the very able Tan Sri Norliza Rofli, is somewhere at the bottom of the chain, many layers down.

So, who is really in charge of culture? A big chunk of the ministry’s budget, about a billion ringgit a year, goes to “tourism promotions”. Tourism Malaysia is well-funded, perhaps too well-funded. Of late, there have been accusations of lack of transparency in its dealings, which the government of the day should take note of.

We need to rethink our cultural strategy for the new Malaysia. In today’s world, culture is not just a way of life; it should be an integral part of the “cultured” us.

We need a ministry to reflect that.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and, for some years, chairman of a media company. He is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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