A New Dawn for Malaysian Artists?

The 14th General Election saw a historic change of government that ended its 60 years of rule. It is a cause for jubilation because Malaysians now have a shot to reboot an old, dogmatic governance system. Shortly after the elections, prominent Malaysian designer William Herald Wong asked on his social media:

”Hi friends of the arts, may I suggest to petition for Arts/Culture NOT be under the same Ministry with Tourism?”

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Screen grab from William Herald Wong’s wall post.

A flurry of comments rained in afterwards with suggestions for “art” to be under the jurisdiction of the ministry of creative industries or heritage. This question seemed to ask what is art in service for?  Should art be used for business (indicated by its association with the creative industry) or should be serve us as a signifier for identity (noted as heritage). How should art be deemed useful for society? William’s question reminded me of a time when I was asked the same thing.

2 years ago, I was interviewed by the boss of an upcoming arts agency for a job position. In the interview, I was asked to describe ways I would improve the Malaysian visual art scene. Without batting an eye, I replied, “Knowledge is key.”

Knowledge is what sets the amateurs and professionals apart and programs that galvanize knowledge creation is important to strengthen the art scene from within. This domino effect of educated and highly sought-after talent pool will lift the quality of the scene tremendously. I suggested for programs to be specifically targeted for people who are in the art scene, but aren’t artists themselves. Writers, art critics, curators, art historians, managers, tech specialists and scholars are the soft-power that form the backbone of the arts infrastructure.

Unfortunately, my answer wasn’t what she wanted to hear and she calmly said,

“I agree that education is important, but it will take a long time before we can get our returns. As for short term goals, I would like to focus on stimulating the demand for the arts by having more platforms for artists to showcase and sell their works. Like art markets and trade fairs.”

My interest for the job unexpectedly took a nosedive and it’s not because I can’t accept differing opinions, but it’s more of our conflicting principles. Her views reflect her value system that was at odds with mine and this would be a problem if I was given the duty through this employment, to execute them.


Art is an Ideology


It’s common to think of paintings, sculptures, drawings and ceramics, as art. This is where the systemic problem lies-its definition. The definition creates a limitation, so it’s important that I address this early on.

Paintings, sculptures, drawings and ceramics are not art. Instead they are objects of art. Art makes its appearance into the physical world through them. Art presents itself to the public in these forms.

Art is a manifestation of an idea. Kinda like a computer code, if you will.  Thus, they are objects that are a result of a certain type of thinking, but not art itself.

I’ll give an example by comparing two types of art; traditional art and modern art. In traditional art, the objects of art may come in the form of songket, batik, woodcarving and textile. The main idea behind traditional art is aesthetics that reflect spirituality (call them God, Gods, deities or even nature) where a strong belief in higher forces. The beauty in the cultural objects reflect this awareness of God by emphasising one’s spirituality. That’s why a lot of the wood carvers, songket weavers, batik-makers remain anonymous because art of that time, was not made to expose one’s talent. It was made to expose the beauty of God.


On the other hand, modern art presents the idea of aesthetics transcendence through human faculties and Man as the creator of his world. The human individual is now enlightened through rational and scientific thinking. Interpretation of the world through an human faculties, glorifies the individual. This gave birth to the many ‘ism’ movements of the early 20thcentury. Constructivism, Dadaism, Modernisms, which were all perspectives based on the human mind, It is here that you will notice how artists are named and are no more anonymous.


Art is a series or collection of small ideas that point to a certain a value system. Using the analogy of computer codes again, it’s a bunch of codes (or instructions) that work together to form an application or app. The app reflects our needs, so in a bigger picture, the app reflects the kind of environment we live it.


Art is also like a code, or a set of codes. It reflects the value systems the society it is in. It reveals what an artist or group of artists’ are thinking about, especially in terms of what is important or “valuable” to them.

Independent art initiatives like Padang Jawa Street Art Festival emphasised on social engagement and community building through art. Set-up by artist collective T.I.G.A, they started a community space with art programs especially for at-risk & urban poor children. Their art space operated like a safe half-way home for them.


The Heartbeat of the Art Scene: Human Talent


Strengthening the cultural economy begins with strengthening the talent pool.  The process that goes into the art practice very similar to that of any research and development (R&D) department. Hordes of money is invested on R & D before a product reaches the consumer market. An R & D requires good and talented people to experiment on new ideas and build prototypes that in turn, would be tested repeatedly until the final product. The art scene works in the same way. Developing the art scene means developing and nurturing the minds of its people. Human talent should be addressed on 2 levels, one is on the individual level and the other is at the collective or small organisations.


On the individual level, there should be more support for the artist’s livelihood. Ninety-five percent of the artists I know have a day job or even another career entirely because most importantly, they need a roof over their head and food on the table. It’s also very common to hear how their jobs actually finance their art-making or art projects. While some might say, this creates a multi-talented artist, the backlash to this that there is no consistency in one’s production. Artists need consistent dedicated time to concentrate  and focus on refining their craft and this months of creative experimentation often equates to financial instability to the artist. Whereas, having a day job means artists can only work on their craft on weekends or any spare time they have. This predicament the biggest stumbling block for our art scene as I’ve have seen too many of our talented artists forced to sacrifice perusing a possible successful career in art in order to survive or provide for their families.


Artists’ community and Autonomy


Thinking about small organisations or artists’ communities, I’m reminded of a time in 2013 where I had the chance to work a project alongside Ade Dermawan, one of the directors for Jakarta-based artist collective, Ruangrupa. What struck me about Ade was his ability to lead several big exhibition projects at one time and still find time to practice his art. For years, Ruangrupa has spearheaded the Jakarta Biennale and I asked him, ”How do you do it? Manage your time? Work on our project and still manage to deliver the Jakarta biennale?”


“It’s not difficult. I just ask for my terms. I told them (Jakarta Biennale organizers) I would only agree to be director, if they let me bring my team in the steering committee. Then I leave it up to my steering committee to decide what they want to do with the Biennale. I know they can deliver.”-Ade Dermawan, Ruangrupa


His simple and straightforward answer threw me off because of the leadership wisdom it holds. Who would know best what artists want then the artists themselves? Autonomy is given to the artists. I would go as far as to say that Ade’s revelation propelled me to take a closer look into the mysteries of Malaysia’s independent spaces.


Autonomy, under the guise of human resource management, allows a degree or level of freedom and discretion allowed to an artist or practitioner over her practice. Businessdictionary.com defines autonomy as ”jobs with high degree of autonomy engender a sense of responsibility and greater job satisfaction”.


The rise in independent art spaces and practices is a clear mark for the artists’ desire for autonomy. They form independent groups and organize small events, talks and performances, that are forms of knowledge production. Through these small events, ideas are generated and social networks expanded and they attract like-minded people who in turn contribute to that idea pool.

Switch-On Mini Fest held at Findars’ (now RAW art space) an independent art space known as experimental sound and music space.

Independent spaces take on roles as social research labs towards developing new ideologies. In these spaces, you will find art managers, writers, archivist, curators, art historians and researchers, all of whom form the backbone of any art scene, working together to disseminate their ideologies.


With autonomy comes accountability. Nurturing a good ecosystem will create a natural check and balance, without the need of state interference. Anachronism in forms of censorship would then prove redundant and counterproductive.

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My understanding of how the art economy works

Problems in the System: Treating Art as an Object

Government bodies and agencies like National Visual Art Gallery, My Creative Ventures and Cendana are identified to provide infrastructural support the developing the visual art scene.

The general consensus I gather from these agencies and government bodies is that there tends to be an over emphasis on the peddling of the art product with intentions to capitalize through monetary returns. In other words, they are more interested in the art object with hopes to generate income.


For example, Cendana prides itself as being an artists’ start-up, a term familiar to those in the entrepreneurial side of things, “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.”


From an artist’s perspective, I’m not sure about when should an artist consider herself “a start-up” or why should an artist make a loan to practice her art. This concept would make sense if it was within the context of business and is targeted to designers. Because design is regarded as a service industry, it makes sense to make business loan. Fashion designers, architects, graphic designers would fall under this category because there is clearer path for profit and return of investments. Thus, I feel this offer is more apt for the designers rather than artists.


In any case, the idea of making loan to finance an arts-related activity, aimed for the public, is rather exploitative to the artist. I think cost-sharing is a more realistic funding initiative for the artist.


My Creative Ventures are the main organizers behind RIUH, a monthly art bazaar at APW, Bangsar. It’s goal is to provide a sales and marketing platform for artists, musicians, bakers and other artisan craft makers. “He said apart from financing, the Malaysian art and cultural scene was also lacking the sales and marketing channel which required infrastructure enhancement. The government had allocated about RM10mil in Budget 2017 to provide a dedicated creative platform, called “RIUH”.”


The National Visual Art Gallery launched National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011 (Act 724) and updated their definition of visual art as, “any art that appeals to the visual senses that exist in permanent forms such as photography, multimedia and any other interesting technology”. This myopic notion over ‘permanent forms’ disturbed me as it implies an attention over physical objects. If this is the case, we won’t be seeing any art installation, performance art, sound art, bio art and experimental art because it’s not considered as visual art-which is what the entire art world is doing now.  It’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

Again, there is a lot of focus on the art object and it’s “quality”. Touts one art agency:

”To scale up the quality of the works produced by our artists and increase the demand for arts.”

The strategies deployed by the government bodies and its agencies assumes art as a product, an object. The rhetoric of providing “dedicated creative platforms” like RIUH or wanting to “stimulate demand for arts and culture” are appropriate methods after the completion of the art object. And what’s more alarming is that, government bodies and art agencies are starting to think that an artwork’s value is based on its physical attributes.

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Excerpt from “KL as a Cultural & Creative City” report (page 19) describes the pricing of artworks based on its size.

Note to our new Malaysian government: Developing the art scene means developing the human talent in it. Empowerment, autonomy-then get the hell out of there.

My reply to William’s question was:

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If there’s anything governments can do for our art scene, is to support knowledge creation and talent development. Teach them how to be self-sustaining and critical. Teach them how to self-organise and not dependent on government hand-outs. And this shouldn’t be limited to artists, but every individual involved in the art scene. People centred, not painting centred. And when these foundations are laid, then get the hell out of the kitchen. Let it grow and evolve into it’s own. I remember a few years ago, Lim Guan Eng, the then Chief Minister of Penang said, “The best policy for the arts–is no policy!” and George Town Festival is what you have as a result of this no policy and full autonomy.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a robust trading of art objects by encouraging sales and promotion. But if all the infrastructural support is focused on this segment, then development in terms of cultural economy and human talent, will be left far behind. Mammoth steps must be to ensure the livelihood of the artist and supporting and empowering the artists’ collectives and initiatives. Thus, if all of the developmental efforts focuses solely on the marketability of the artworks we will not have a sustainable art ecosystem.

Proposal by Sharon Chin for a collective decision-making model for the visual arts community in Malaysia, based on decentralisation, localism, self-sufficiency & interdependence.

I resonate with  Cendana’s CEO Izan Satrina’s when she said:

”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.”-Izan Satrina, CEO Cendana.



  1. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/09/17/singing-different-songs-but-in-tune/#HuS6w8XHIMWTs6ao.99
  2. https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/05/19/mycreative-targets-to-invest-up-to-rm60mil-this-year/
  3. http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/autonomy.html
  4. http://www.artgallery.gov.my/?page_id=3744
  5. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/09/17/a-new-hope-for-malaysian-artists/
  6. https://www.star2.com/culture/2018/02/09/cendana-kuala-lumpur-cultural-and-creative-city-report-think-city-british-council/
  7. https://www.cendana.com.my/articles/top-picks/cendana-launches-the-kuala-lumpur-cultural-and-creative-city-report-with-art-in-the-city
  8. Downloadable PDF for ‘KL as a Cultural and Creative City’ report here.


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