Who gets to represent Malaysia’s visual arts scene?

June was a glorious month for our arts scene.

Like David, the victory over defeated Goliath of the Barisan Nasional alliance made the rakyat feel invincible. People everywhere believed anything was possible including those in the arts. As Malaysians eagerly awaited the announcement of the arts ministry during last month in June, the arts community filled their time with productive discussions that lit up the entire local scene.


Not surprisingly, the more popular discourses were about representation, in particular, government representation of the arts community. For a long time, the arts felt like the step child when Tourism stepped in the room especially when it comes to budget allocation. Johan Jaaffar wrote about limiting the of arts & culture potentials of economic and nation-building when packaged under tourism.  A group in the arts community also published an online document to urge the new government “to reinstate a dedicated Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage”.


Also in June, I had a great pleasure of being a guest speaker on the Bernama channel’s talk show. Together with Tan Sei Hon, Sharon Chin, we spoke about the tremors we felt on the ground as people from the local visual art scene. Our discussions primarily gravitated to reoccurring problems like the call for greater transparency in decision-making, issues in censorship and institutional reform.

(L-R) Sharon Chin, Tan Sei Hon, Tehmina Kaoosji & Suzy Sulaiman having a wild time on-air at Bernama.

One of the hot topics we talked about was this idea of establishing an arts council and for the purpose of keeping my rants to a minimum (haha), I’ll just focus on the arts council and problems of representation.



I think the question we should really ask ourselves is:


 ”Do we need more representation?”


An arts council, with all its well intentions and probably good individuals behind it, is still a form of power because it involves decision-making. These individuals have the power to decide on allocation of resources like financial support, funding, scholarship, access to venues and so forth.  Therefore, it’s not surprising for individuals to fight for a place at the decision-making table. I can say that the first battle is the one about who gets to say they represent who.


As the art scene continued to buzz with excitement, a photo shared by Jo Kukathas made its rounds on social media. It was a group photo herself and other representatives from the creative industry after a meeting with the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP).

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 11.33.49 PM.png
Screen shot taken from Jo Kukatha’s facebook page.

My first reaction was to take it as a good sign that CEP would give a hoot about the creative industry and I welcomed this meeting. But what didn’t sit well with me that the press seemed to only focus on Siti Nurhaliza’s presence.


“ I am representing the industry as a singer…”


One of her comment, in particular, made me uneasy because she implied that her individuality and the music industry are interchangeable that she has nominated herself to represent the music industry. To me, this statement is problematic, if not completely self-serving.

And this problem of, ”Why nobody from the visual art scene?” gnawed on my brain so much when I saw Jo Kukathas’s group picture.  Are we left out intentionally or is the visual arts is simply an after thought? Again, the feeling of being an unwanted child no one wants to acknowledge overwhelms me. One can’t help but feel uneasy by this apparent absence of representation, especially when one of its main agendas was to draft out guidelines for an arts council.

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.44.47 PM.png
Two arts representative groups– two years apart.



It is only fair to ask that before any person can claim she represents a large demographic or community, a transparent selection process must be made available to the public. Everybody has their reasons for doing something and when it concerns public resources, it’s imperative that these reasons be known so a more informed and democratic decision can be made.


The last thing we want are more “little tin gods” or gatekeepers. These gatekeepers in form of agencies, individual collectors and elite patrons, despite their sincere intentions to see good things in the art scene, inevitably create a power play that, if left unchecked, could weakens the arts ecosystem.

Heaven’s gate: You gotta know the secret handshake to get in!


“Gatekeepers may be sincere and committed to building the arts ecosystem, but without transparency in the appointment of leaders and accountability in the creation, running and governance of initiatives, programs and organisations, some may have been inclined to think that these gatekeepers had gained their influence and power purely through political patronage.”

Kathy Rowland, 2 July 2018,




Instead of creating more intermediaries and more gate keepers, we should focus our energies on institutional reforms. Balai Seni Visual Negara (BSVN), Jabatan Kementerian & Kebudayaan Negara (JKKN), Istana Budaya and Aswara are some of the many cultural institutions that are tasked as our arts and cultural custodians. BSVN has provided artists with a Tabung Bantuan Seni (TBS) or Artists’ Arts Fund, where artist can apply for funds for art production or exhibition. I was lucky to receive TBS in 2011 for the Digital Art + Culture Festival. Unfortunately, in the last 2 years BSVN has seemed to stop distributing TBS to artists.  It could be uncanny coincidence that the stoppage of the TBS happened about the same time when BSVN announced a new program called Young Art Entrepreneurs (YAE) a program that aims at turning young artists (ages 18-35) into entrepreneurs.


A few years ago, I have also received arts fund from JKKN through the Royal Gala Art’s Fund. My Performing Arts Agency organized 2 cycles of Royal Gala Arts Fund where  the funds came primarily from JKKN.


I’m quite sure if a comprehensive search were done into these cultural institutions, there are more pockets of funding for arts project that we’re not aware are available for us. Which begs me to ask, do we really need art agencies and their programs that are as Dr. Joseph Gonzales called it, ‘a time of unnecessary duplication and redundancy’?




I don’t entirely disagree with Marion D’ Cruz when she said an arts council is a bad idea, especially when it can be linked with problems of representation over finite resources. However, I’m still hopeful that there might be a time in the future when the formation of Arts Council can happen organically. But at the moment, I don’t think it’s not something we need immediately.


The arts scene is very much divided and its voices splintered. There is much distrust towards one another and especially towards anybody who is new to the scene. So it’s not surprising that artists form cliques mostly as a way of protection and survival. With such a toxicity in the air, it makes us easy targets for parachute opportunist to swoop in and take us apart. This is a fundamental challenge created by well-connected and politically-appointed agencies that are moving about in our arts scene.




What we need immediately is accessible artist representation and autonomy. The ability to self-organize means to ability to communicate directly to the government or corporate sectors without having to go through intermediaries and agencies. The main idea is to de-centralize the power nodes as much as possible and thus, reducing our dependency (and possible avenues for exploitation) on intermediaries and agencies. Essentially, we can say that representation is basically a power battle over resources.

We must call for a more transparent system where artists can access points of representation in their communities and not just simply hand-over our voice to agencies or intermediaries. The voice of the arts community is very precious and with so much at stake now, we can’t afford to let other people do the talking for us.

Related image

“Even today, the Malaysian government still doesn’t consider art as being as important as, say, sports. Although there are funds available, they’re usually not properly distributed due to a variety of factors. The criteria for selection should not be dominated by cronyism or politics. Unless Malaysia recognises the importance of art and culture for the nation, local artists will have to continue forming independent spaces and enterprises to achieve financial freedom and continue making art.”  -Azliza Ayob


I would like to personally thank Sylvia Lee Goh for bringing us (Tehmina, Sei Hon, Koon Tan and Sharon Chin) together in the first place.


  1. “Karyawan Proposes Setting Arts Council”

https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2018/05/374944/karyawan-proposes-setting-arts-council (Accessed 26.09.18)


     2.”Council of eminent persons forms committee on institutional reforms”

https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2018/05/369693/council-eminent-persons-forms-committee-institutional-reforms#cxrecs_s (Accessed 25.09.18) 


3.”Siti Nurhaliza meets with Council of Eminent Person”

https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2018/06/377494/update-siti-nurhaliza-meets-council-eminent-persons#cxrecs_s (Accessed 25.09.18) 


4.”Siti Nurhaliza supports proposed establishment of arts council”

https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/53188 (Accessed 26.09.18) 


   5. “Najib shares views on arts, culture with local artistes”

http://english.astroawani.com/malaysia-news/najib-shares-views-arts-culture-local-artistes-113726 (27.09.18)

https://www.najibrazak.com/bm/blog/kesenian-dan-kebudayaan/ (Accessed 3.10.18)


6. “PM declares ‘cultural economy’ as a new asset for Malaysia”

https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2017/09/276966/pm-declares-cultural-economy-new-asset-malaysia (Accessed 18.09.18)


   7. “Promoting and Developing the Arts for the Future of Malaysia”

https://en.prnasia.com/releases/apac/Promoting_and_Developing_the_Arts_for_the_Future_of_Malaysia-188007.shtml (Accessed 28.09.18)


   8. “Malaysia arts community paints hopeful picture of coming age of creativity, despite Mahathir’s role in regime change”

https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/arts-music/article/2151954/malaysia-arts-community-paints-hopeful-picture (Accessed 28.09.18)


9. “Malaysia’s Art World Striving to Overcome Funding Gap”

http://www.atimes.com/article/malaysias-art-world-striving-overcome-funding-gap/ (Accessed 28.09.18)


   10. “Keep culture apart from tourism”

https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/the-bowerbird-writes/2018/06/11/keep-culture-apart-from-tourism-culture-and-the-arts-deserve-a-larger-role-in-nationbuilding-and-oug/ (Accessed 3.10.18)


11.”What the Arts in Malaysia Needs More Transparency Less Intermediaries”

https://artsequator.com/what-the-arts-in-malaysia-needs-more-transparency-less-intermediaries/ (Accessed 28.09.18)



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