Reflections on Art, Angin, Sickness and the Soul of Malaysia

by Jo Kukathas

In Sickness and In Health: Art in the Time of the Coronavirus

The news that Germany rolled out a 50 billion bail-out for the arts during the Coronavirus pandemic made headlines worldwide the week it was announced. The aid package was for individuals as well as for small businesses that boosts artists and galleries. The announcement was made within weeks of their lockdown.

“Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historical situation, which was unimaginable until recently,” said Culture Minister Monika Grütters. “The creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis. We should seize every opportunity to create good things for the future. That is why the following applies: artists are not only indispensable but also vital, especially now.”

This week our Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC), Nancy Shukri, was interviewed on national TV where for seven minutes she offered confused and often contradictory thoughts about the impact of the pandemic on the arts in Malaysia.

She had no aid package to offer nor a plan for any kind of stimulus. There was no need. Arts she said are “the quickest to recover”. After saying that for artists COVID-19 was actually a blessing in disguise she went on to demonstrate a shocking lack of awareness of the workings of the arts sector. She talked about helping hotels and tour operators and bands that could at some future time perform at hotels for government functions. She said that her government would be holding a singing competition. She didn’t appear to have prepared for the interview or to have researched her portfolio. She didn’t seem able to imagine a role for the arts except to support tourism. After fumbling some questions and ignoring others she concluded by sounding a bit sorry for those in the arts and expressed the hope that “someone else” would help.

Unlike Monika Grütters, she did not feel it imperative to “seize every opportunity to create good things for the future.” Instead she said that artists could “submerge” by themselves.

It was a sadly apt malapropism. Certainly many of us listening to her cheerful prognostications had a sinking feeling.

There may be lessons for us in these twin reports but not the ones we think.

The level of aid Germany rolled out won’t happen here in the new or even distant future of course, and neither would we ever expect it. But maybe this global crisis and the responses of other governments  –  responses so vastly different and much faster than ours – will spark a public discussion and a deeper understanding of what the arts actually are and what they might mean to a society. Spoiler alert: they are not a complement to tourism.

More importantly I hope this crisis and Ms. Shukri’s misplaced off the cuff remarks will spark a public conversation about the meaning of the arts and a discussion about the place art and creativity has in our society. I hope it also sparks a discussion of what the government’s role should be. There is after all a Ministry with our name stuck on it and presumably a budget. Where does the budget for the A in MOTAC go?

But more than the difference in moolah, I was struck by the difference in the way both women talked of the arts. Ms. Shukri talked about bands and singing competitions; Ms. Grütters spoke of artists and creative courage. I was struck by the latter’s articulation of this idea, that artists are “vital” and “indispensable” and that therefore “every opportunity must be seized” to support their work.

Is this how art and artists are perceived in Malaysia?

From the reactions on Twitter, it is clear that many can’t and won’t see the difference between art and what one Twitter user called “showbizz”.

Interviews with an underprepared Nancy Shukri isn’t going to shift that public perception of the arts or artists either. So we need to do that.

Going back to Germany and Malaysia, the differences in planning for the future is also worth examining. We’re a long way off from Germany but then again we knew that. No one was sitting around waiting for the government to come up with a plan.

In fact, very early on in the MCO (Malaysia’s movement control order), individual artists, arts workers, companies and organisations were already initiating discussions themselves and gathering online to ask questions, discussing what this will mean and asking what’s next. KLPac started their #SaveYourSeat initiative. Enfiniti put their show The Secret Life of Nora online as a pay-per-view. Barry Westerhout initiated Unrestricted Stage, an online performing platform which encourages viewers to donate.  My company is exploring performing a beloved classic online and have started a rehearsal process. There was no sense that we would turn to any government body for leadership or help. #Kitajagakita* is as true of the arts worker in Malaysia as any other citizen. (#kitajagakita meaning we will help each other.)

Some artists took instinctively to online platforms to make art. They did this for as many reasons as there are grains of sand on the Beach of Passionate Love: to build community, to heal the nation, to make you laugh, to make themselves feel better, to feel less alone and many other grains of love.

But the hard fact is there is high unemployment in the arts sector following the MCO. In a Cendana initiated survey, 93% of the respondents said they had been negatively impacted financially. That is high by any standard. This in a country with no welfare system, no safety net of any kind and no discernible interest from any of the ministries we have variously been parked under.

“Have the arts been forgotten?” asked the interviewers of Nancy Shukri. The short answer is yes. The long answer is that since 1969 we have had a long and troubled history, unwanted anak yatim peddled from ministry to ministry for their Citrawarnas and parades and for proof when proof was needed that we had culture.

So the deafening silence post-first MCO was not unexpected.

Not to say there has been nothing.

Sime Darby Foundation has initiated a lockdown grant. Kakiseni has been collating and listing efforts. Cendana has been doing research in the community and wanting to do something, anything, it has rolled out a food aid programme as well as a small grant scheme for individuals and companies in return for lockdown-inspired art. It isn’t money that is going to pay the rent or put food on the table but it’s a kind of acknowledgment that the arts exist and that people’s lives have been and are going to be impacted. It’s a salve to say we know times are hard and are going to be harder for all of you, we don’t have much but here’s something. But we have to connect it to a product, so here it is, strings and all. And there aren’t many grants. We can’t say how many exactly but not many. Sorry.

Other arts agencies have been less proactive and it makes you wonder what it is they do. If 93% of people in the arts are indeed facing unemployment, you wonder what is it that these agencies have actually been doing. It makes you wonder what their mandate is.

My Performing Arts Agency (MYPAA) woke up six weeks after MCO began, long enough to send emails or Facebook messages to performing arts groups asking for their telephone numbers “in case the public wanted to get in touch.” Whatever would the public want to get in touch for, I wanted to ask but refrained. And couldn’t they do that just by going to our websites? I wanted to face palm but touching your face is not advised under COVID-19 protocols.

(A note on this figure of 93%. This was from a survey done by Cendana. The number reflects those ‘financially impacted’. Many in the arts are not just not making money but are actively losing money on overheads, etc. Anecdotally almost everyone I know has had no income since MCO started and with performing arts venues closed and social distancing in place till at least the end of the year, many are facing unemployment for the rest of the year, if not longer. Two years does not seem improbable. Savings will run out if they haven’t already. Already some are acknowledging that they will have to seek employment elsewhere, such as signing up to be Grab drivers or do food delivery. Some are learning to garden so they can at least grow some food.)

In the first few weeks, government departments such as JKKN (Malaysia’s National Department for Culture and Arts) and organisations such as ReformARTsi and media platforms scrambled to ask what many thought were the important and difficult questions. Except no one is really very clear in this Trying-To-Be-Brave New World what the difficult and important questions are, let alone the answers.

“I don’t want this to be the new normal,” said a friend. “It can’t be. Can we organise a forum to talk about this?”

Some agencies and government departments are sympathetic, even anxious, but in limbo. Others are drawing salaries and doing some pencil-pushing but offering no vision for the future or any leadership. These are people in the business of art but if there is no art, they see no return on their investment and do not appear to want to invest their time or effort into shoring up its defences. There are rats and there are sinking ships. For others, there is a desire to return to business as usual but there is also massive uncertainty as to how that is going to be possible. Computer says no.

To my mind the fact that this crisis can bring the entire arts sector to a complete standstill with no plan for the future points to a deep-seated systemic problem. The problem is not one of finance, one suspects, but rather a failure of the imagination. Or rather that the failure of the imagination is what has led to the failure to finance, I mean truly finance, the arts.

The independent theatres like KLPac and DPAC are haemorrhaging money. But we live in unimaginable times, the apologists will say. No one could have predicted this; we can’t expect the government to know what to do. But if so many other countries from Germany to Singapore to Brazil to New Zealand to Korea to Taiwan are coming up with policies and putting money where their art is, why not Malaysia? Why are we so consistently behind everyone?

I don’t want to go into the issue of our newly acquired backdoor government, but I’m just putting it here as a factor on why responses have been so slow and so out of touch.

But it is more than that. I don’t know if the previous MOTAC Minister Ketapi would have any better ideas. He notoriously cared little for the A in MOTAC, and his deputy Bakhtiar did his best despite having his hands tied for his 18-month tenure.

So what is the problem?

I believe it is because as a country we have no clear idea of the role or purpose of the arts. The success of Parasite took many Malaysians to websites where we read accounts of the tremendous job the government did to enrich (literally and figuratively) the Korean arts scene. Working with visionary thinkers and doers, they put Korea on the map.

We have failed in that public battle to capture the hearts and minds of the general public. Sidelined for years with Prime Ministers who dismissed the arts as frivolous, is it any wonder? Still the unwanted anak yatim. Which is why the new Minister in charge of the arts thinks she can, in her first public address, roll out her two-pronged plan and think it sufficient: help hotels and tour operators and hold a singing competition. It was a new low even for us. Face Palm. No, I can’t even do that. Damn you Covid19. 

Face Palm. No, I can’t even do that. Damn you Covid19.

It is clear that there is a pressing need to discuss the meaning and value of the arts – its scope, its purpose, its necessity, its vitality. Perhaps once that is understood, we can discuss its future. Until then, we are going to be stuck in shallow waters with shallow ideas and there will be no clear policies and protocols for the arts beyond sticking plasters and silly ideas. I mean, singing competitions? No.

Perhaps on the bright side, with the knowledge and spectre of 93% impacted now out there, it has become apparent to the public something we have always known: that arts workers are very much mostly blue-collar workers. If they don’t have a job to clock into, they don’t get paid, don’t get to eat and have difficulty finding the rent. They are largely unsalaried employees.

However, unlike most blue-collar workers, they are largely unrecognised as such because of the razzle dazzle people associate with the arts and the hateful cliché of “Oh but you love what you do.” They are so “keen” as Nancy Shukri put it. Yes, the arts is associated with glamour and razzle dazzle but all that shines is not gold. The fact is we can take diamanté and make it shine like a diamond. We can do a lot for very little. In the theatre we can put up a two-week show for far less than a mid-size company will spend on the annual dinner. We have taste and flair, but that doesn’t mean we have money. As we all know by peeking into Bung Mokhtar or Zahid Hamidi’s mansions, good taste and money don’t go hand in hand. Don’t even get me started on Rosmah Mansor’s fashion sense.

The point is: you can’t buy groceries with glamour.

Maybe now it will also become clear that the people working in the arts sector are a large and varied group. With the MCO, the newly unemployed from the arts sector range from tech operators to production crew to writers to security guards to designers to managers to dancers to gallery sitters to camera crew to stage hands to educators to administrative staff to actors to set builders to filmmakers to cleaners to producers to audio-visual suppliers to critics to box office staff to painters to printers to publicists to seamstresses to hangers to… the list is endless. It’s a broad and diverse field. The artist is the tip of the iceberg the public sees.

So doing things like going online to perform doesn’t help all those people you see working below the surface of the water. And without that huge underwater presence, the iceberg you see will melt and become just so much water. The system will fail and with it, the artist will be adrift. Cut away the ecosystem which supports the artists and the artist is unmoored.

It is not to say all artists will stop making work. No, some will continue. They will write and paint and dance. They will have some limited opportunities. But what of the rest of the iceberg? For just as importantly, without the artist, the ecosystem that depends on them is without meaning, purpose or employment. A singing competition ignores how complex and co-dependent the arts ecosystem is. To create a competition at a time like this is antithetical to everything the arts stands for.

Worst of all, we are not seen as creative or vital, but merely hungry. Scraps will be thrown. And may the best man win. It’s The Hunger Games but as a cheap musical.

In the face of such obvious disingenuousness we artists and arts workers have important questions to ask of ourselves. Do we have a government which sees art and artists as “indispensable and vital”? Do we live in a society that sees art as “indispensable and vital”?

No.

Which is why unlike in Germany or even in Singapore next door, artists and arts workers in Malaysia have been left and probably will continue to be left largely on our own. We will have on our side those that have always been there, our audiences and our more visionary partners in the arts, whether they are corporations or companies or benefactors or patrons. It’s a small gang but they are in it with us. It’s ok. That’s our social reality. We’ve been here before. This is nothing new. We can get through this. But it is small and it is besieged. Even pre-pandemic it was a struggle to keep afloat, a struggle to pay the bills. And that is why our arts sector is a century behind Taiwan and Japan, half a century behind Singapore and decades behind Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. We will invest in a wealthy budget airline and a flying car before we truly, madly, deeply invest in the arts. Because we do not truly, madly, deeply love and believe in the arts. It is not in our schools, it is not on our street corners (the way it is in Indonesia, for example), it is not proudly on our public transport (as it is in say, Singapore), it is not in our public buildings. It is invisible. This is why when a crisis of this magnitude hits our country, we do not have a Minister saying everything must be done to ensure artists do not starve as they are needed to tell the stories, create the narratives, make order and give meaning to the chaos to come, give hope, comfort, joy, humour and love to those in distress.

We don’t have a government or a society who can appreciate that this is what art can be. Yet this is what artists and art workers in Malaysia toiling in the trenches have known instinctively all their lives. We haven’t been able to make the best work that we could have, given the raw talent here (you need money and infrastructure, not just talent) but we know what the potential of the arts is. We also know that the arts is absolutely necessary and vital to our emotional and mental wellbeing. Let me not even get started with the problem with our education system ever since we eviscerated art from its soul.

Still the artist and art workers toil on – invisible, hopeful, besieged.

A writer friend once said to me that Malaysia is the world’s best-kept secret.

The talent pool is deep and vast but under-appreciated and underpaid. And the talent drain – to Singapore, to Europe, to Australia, to Indonesia, to Taiwan – is real. The number of artists who have quietly given up their art practice in order to eat is also real and growing. How much worse is it going to get? Maybe much worse. Will we become that weird little country that has no art, that consumes everything but produces nothing? And that country who, when a movie like Parasite comes along, wonders why?

So, let’s take a collective breath for a minute and ask ourselves: What do we do? How do we see the future?

The reply is clear.

We will need to work a lot of it out ourselves and we will need to start articulating what it is that we do. It is not enough to make art. We need to articulate its purpose and its future.

When art is not taught in school, is there any wonder there is so little understanding of its power and potential?

Perhaps because this pandemic will change everything, this is as good a time as ever to rearticulate and reframe the purpose and nature of our art sector because, and I hate to say this, it has failed us. This is as good a time as ever to be honest and to reframe everything. This is as good a time as ever to reexamine everything we have shied away from acknowledging. It is time to examine the literal poverty of our arts sector.

Let’s start talking seriously and honestly. Let’s not put on a brave face and patch up the flaws. We’ve been doing that for long enough. Let’s have honest conversations – at home alone or with other people or with the public.

It is vital that the conversation goes past just discussions of how we are going to manage financially, how we are going to make a living in the next six months and how we are going to put rice on the table, though that is vitally important too. But it is important we take the discussion past these pragmatic concerns because the reason we are in this position, the reason why we are now facing financial ruin and can be so easily dismissed or forgotten, is the bigger question to address.

I’m interested in whether this crisis generates public discussion and more importantly, reflection on the value we as Malaysians place on art. And by “we”, I mean ALL of us who live here and call Malaysia home and all of us who work in the arts in any capacity.

The problem is for too long in our capital-driven Malaysian imagination, we have placed a price on art rather than a value. Our system, such as it is, is built on what is essentially a cynical view of art. That yes, yes, people may want it, need it, yadda yadda yawn but how much ah? For how long? And why exactly again? Our view under modern capitalism has become disturbingly cynical. “Idealism” and “idealistic” have become pejorative descriptors. Cynicism without our knowing has become the default. We think it makes us great. We think it makes us edgy. It doesn’t. It makes us glib and too clever by half and pessimistic and yes, joyless. Cynicism is killing us. Cynics, in the words of Oscar Wilde, are people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

So where are we now and where do we want to go?

Do we want to continue down this joyless, cynical path? I don’t.

Is there anything out there that can redeem us?

Maybe. Paradoxically with the MCO, views on the value of art are suddenly being reevaluated. People are singing on balconies and connecting to neighbours they have shunned for years. A dancer takes the opportunity when he takes out his rubbish to perform for the people on his street. Everyone cheers. People are singing songs on Zoom and they are going viral. People are reconnecting through art.

Suddenly there are memes on social media. “If you think artists are useless, try to spend quarantine without music, books, poems, movies, paintings and games,” reads one. To all those saying the arts is not important, asks Tony Eusoff on Twitter, what have you been watching at home? The microwave?

In a strange way this pandemic has made many Malaysians aware of the value of art. At home under lockdown people are turning to music, books, film and art to help them cope with the complex anxieties they are feeling. Or boredom. Or perhaps it allows an escape for a short while. Whatever it is, our fevered minds are responding. When the everyday fails us and we can’t go out, maybe then it is time finally, to go in again. Will a hunger develop for thought? For personal and spiritual transformation? Will people re-evaluate, reassess and relook at their lives beyond the mad scramble they have been told is what constitutes life in a developing country? Will they become aware there is something missing?

This in a country which understands in her bones the need for ritual and spiritual healing and cleansing. Which understands mandi bunga and semangat and chi and prana. This is a country of Orang Asli music and art that connects directly to the energy of earth, the country of mak yong and main puteri which directly connects art to healing. This is the country with wayang kulit which knows the world is not as it seems and that our shadow selves must be brought out to play and that balance and harmony must be found. This is a country which understands the spiritual and subversive power of art, powerful because it taps into the invisible world. Look at us, says the wayang figures. Look at us, say Siva and Ravana and Lord Murugan dancing. Really look.

The artist David Hockney, prolific as always, has urged people in lockdown to put down the camera and pick up the pencil. We need to see the world. Really see it. Draw with open eyes, he says. Look at everything again. “Question everything.”

“I would suggest you really look hard at something and think about what you are really seeing.”

This is what art does. It says: “Question everything”.

Reframe. Relook. Rethink.

Let’s begin by questioning our very Malaysian view of art. I’m sorry to say it’s not universal, this jaded, buy one get one free approach.

Let’s question also the long-tortured relationship of the arts to government, to agencies and funding bodies. Let’s be honest with each other and be less sycophantic.

Let’s adopt a less cynical view of the arts. We need to abandon simple capitalist-driven, ROI modes of thinking. We need to see art in less purely utilitarian terms. In the fashion of Doughnut Economics, we need to think how we can all thrive rather than have a few “succeed”. We need to believe that a society needs the arts for it to flourish. We need to not be cynical in that belief.

The utilitarian model foisted on us has long forced artists to constantly justify their work at every step of their practice. It also makes it unnecessarily competitive. Sometimes the artist’s work becomes so closely scrutinised by those who pay for it, that the artist stops making the work they feel instinctively must be made and instead make the work they feel should be made because they are competing for a small pie and a small market. The work gets watered down. Predictable. Not innovative. Not brave. We end up with cookie-cutter artists rather than individuals who question everything. It’s hard to put into a funding proposal that what you want to do is disrupt and question and reimagine a different way of seeing the world. But this is what many artists are. They are disruptors and questioners and mavericks and seers and dreamers and above all, idealists. They destroy in order to create something better. They make society believe the impossible is possible.

And ultimately this is what the artist should do. That is our role. Unfortunately, we often don’t strike out on that thorny path. Instead we follow something more logical. Something that makes sense to a funder or buyer who does not understand the value of disruption. Who wants to buy disruption? So the artist plays it safe. They need to make, as a visual artist friend used to call it, “art by the yard.” How can you blame them? People need to make a living from the skill and talents they possess and our society doesn’t trust the maverick artist.

Society, government and funders want art but on terms they understand. They are not brave either. They are not risk takers. And what is a creative society but a society willing to take risks, willing to try new ways of seeing?

If neither the artist nor the art is understood, they simply don’t get the support they need to flourish. How can you make a funder see the dream or vision you see? You can’t always. In other countries where the arts flourish, you can see they trust the artist has a vision. In countries with bold and exciting arts scenes there are governments and funders and agencies who have the wisdom to know they must create the environment for the artist, leave them to get on with it and then patiently wait. If you create that ecosystem, the public will come.

But what happens here in Malaysia? There is a mistrust of the artist, and the artist either capitulates to the demands of the market or abandons their practice and goes into exile either by living or working abroad or by being a recluse in the sanctity of their own homes.

Sometimes as in the case of the traditional artist, they may abandon centuries-old practice. This is particularly heart-breaking. How to explain the value? How to justify to religious authorities the importance of semangat and angin?  Easier to work in a keropok factory which pays you a daily wage. And who can blame you? Families need to eat.

So what of the maverick, the dreamer, the disruptor, the traditional artist whose art and imagination is a marvellous, unfettered thing? Who creates something you cannot yet understand but which when experienced makes you tremble? What of the work that reawakens you? What of the work that disturbs and provokes you? What of the work that turns you into a joyful, open, curious child? What of the work that makes you feel the force of something unknowable and greater than yourself? Such work fills you with humility and empathy. Such work unlocks your own creativity and your own ability to question.

Has this no value?

On the contrary, this is where the true value of art lies. It awakens you to your most playful, creative, subversive, non-slave self. It creates a nation of such individuals. In literature classes all over the world, the word used the most is “why”. In art and dance and music classes we ask “why not?”.

Artists with their strange imaginations, their democratic inclinations, their humanitarian instincts, their unusual way of seeing things and different ways of asking questions are the game-changers that society needs. Give them and those who support them the means to fly.

But does art really change anything, you may ask. I can’t see that it does. I don’t see the impact you are on about.

The fact is art doesn’t necessarily work in a utilitarian way. It’s hard to measure its impact. The impact may only be felt years later. What you feel may be so delicate you don’t notice it when you experience it. But it will have an impact. At the death of a parent, a song you sang as a child will come back to comfort you, at the birth of your child, a line in a poem will articulate your fear and wonder.

The writer Lawrence Durrell – who was described by his brother, Gerald, as being the kind of person who after putting ideas in other people’s brains “curls up unctuous as a cat” and waits for them to explode – understood that art doesn’t have an immediate impact. He was aware of the delicacy of art and ideas.

“An idea is like a rare bird,” he wrote, “which cannot be seen. What one sees is the trembling of the branch it has just left.”

Feed the bird, let it fly. The branch will tremble. I’m alive too, it will say. I can’t fly but I’m alive.

The sum of the experiences and interactions you have with art will have an effect on you that you will not necessarily be able to explain. But the effect will be there. These interactions and experiences will open you up to a deeper understanding of the complexities of human nature.

They will give you alternative visions of your life different from the one you think you are burdened with. They may, in the words of playwright Terence McNally, remind you about what truth and beauty and kindness really are.

Art may change you.

No, strike that. Art WILL change you whether you like it or not. Maybe that is why we resist it. It’s certainly the reason governments have an uneasy relationship to art. It doesn’t play by the rules. It makes you question everything. It makes you unruly and not believe what you are told. It shakes you up. It gives you new ways of seeing. It makes you see authoritarianism where you may have seen benevolence. It makes you see beauty where you may have seen ugliness. It makes you see humanity more than citizenry. It makes you question everything.

Above all art is not logical or reasonable. It doesn’t try to make you understand in your head but in your heart and gut.

There is a video that went viral where a doctor in London still in his protective gown and mask picked up his violin and, accompanied by a pianist, performed an arrangement of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria as his patient left the ward. It had been a four-week battle to save her life. He knew the healing and uplifting capacity of music. “Music, clapping and cheers all came together in an ovation full of celebration, relief and all-round gratitude,” read the accompanying text.  Angin. Semangat. Upacara.  

The world is changing. It’s terrifying how much. And we have to understand it, yes with our full intellectual capacity. But now more than ever we need to face this changing world with our heart, guts and spirit.

So feed the artist and the arts worker as you would any other. See them as vital and indispensable to the soul of the nation as scientists. Let them live and eat and work. Then let them make art happen. Because we are going to need art, empathy and artists in the world to come.


Jo Kukathas is the Artistic Director of The Instant Cafe Theatre Company in Kuala Lumpur and an actor, writer and director. She is also a DDS Fellow of De La Salle University, Manila.

This article with some amendments was first published on Arts Equator.