The nation’s arts and culture scene is showing signs of change, especially in how we define art in the Malaysian context.
Being a multiracial nation is something beautiful that distinguishes Malaysia from its neighbours, says National Arts Culture and Heritage Academy (Aswara) rector Prof Dr Hatta Azad Khan.
“So when we talk about arts, culture and heritage, we have to bear in mind that what makes us different and unique are the multiracial and multicultural dimensions,” says Prof Hatta, who adds that the arts in Malaysia, however, are frequently appreciated along racial and ethnic lines.
“It is very seldom that we have something (in) common and that can be appreciated by everyone in the country,” he says.
He says it is important to create something unique that “we can truly call Malaysian”, and says that younger artists are eager to portray this in their work.
According to Prof Hatta, artists are starting to experiment with the different cultural elements in Malaysian society in order to produce works of art that can be accepted by all.
“Yes, (cultural performances) can exist along racial lines, as has been practised by the different racial groups in the country, but is that what we want for future generations?
“What kind of identity do you want and what kind of identity do you want to project to the other parts of the world?” he says.
The industry veteran says that one recent example of inclusiveness was the 2016 movie Ola Bola that referenced the Malaysian national football team’s successful qualification for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
“It’s about us living together and doing things together, in this case sports, and everybody was involved,” says Prof Hatta, who calls for more films to promote such themes.
Speaking on the changes in the arts field over the last 60 years, Prof Hatta says that technology gives artists today more freedom and resources at their fingertips.
He says that this should theoretically allow the younger generation of artists to create better art productions than in the past.
“But how come we are not (coming up with better productions)?” he says, arguing that production quality has not improved much from the era of 1950s-1960s movie and music icon Tan Sri P. Ramlee.
“Where did we go wrong?” says Prof Hatta, who thinks this is probably due to a lack of “seriousness” in the scene.
Although the industry is changing, he says it rarely produces high quality films, performances and music that are marketable at a global level.
“Are we serious about the arts or we are more interested in making money?” he says, while also urging aspiring artists to aim to be the very best in their field and set an example for others to follow.
“You cannot afford to be just a mediocre artist. You have to attract audiences, so you have to show the world that you are the best.
“I used to tell my students that you cannot be just ‘another brick in the wall’,” he says.
However, Prof Hatta also concedes that funding remains the industry’s biggest challenge.
Moving forward, he proposes the establishment of a National Arts Council to facilitate funding for arts activities meant for the public, and believes that this could end up becoming a key proponent of change for the local arts and culture industry.
Back to basics
Meanwhile, when it comes to Malaysian literature, it’s hard to talk about it without understanding its history, says comparative Malaysian literature expert Dr Mas Rynna Wati Ahmad.
She describes how Malaysian literature – in particular, Malay literature – was transformed by the Singapore Writers’ Movement ’50.
Better known as Asas 50, the literary association effectively encouraged more publications in Malay, as opposed to other languages, in post-war Malaya.
“Writers like (Prof Emeritus) Muhammad Haji Salleh and Datuk Syed Alwi Syed Hassan, whose backgrounds were in English literature, would come back (from overseas) and write in English.
“However, because of these heavy nationalistic policies, they started writing in Malay,” she says.
Presently, there is a strong divergence in modern Malay literature from seni untuk masyarakat (art for the masses) as the current generation of writers moves “towards something more daring” with their work.
Dr Mas Rynna says local writers are exploring new mature themes and often seek to publish their work independently if mainstream publishers reject them.
According to her, the current period of “revolt” in Malay literature is comparable to the 1970s when writers would discuss topics considered taboo, such as existentialism.
One notable difference, however, is that while writers in the 1970s worked within the parameters of Islam, the younger generation seems to be keen on portraying something fresh, she says.
“The culture now, regardless of whether it’s Malay literature or Malaysian literature, or whether it’s written in English or Malay, you can see the similarities.
“This generation is getting bolder and if they cannot publish with mainstream publishers, they will get independent publishers.
“Culture goes along with the evolution of society. You cannot be stagnant at one point with the hope that you can sustain it forever,” says Dr Mas Rynna.
She says Indian and Chinese writers also generally write in English as it is considered a widely accepted language, as opposed to Mandarin or Tamil, which have a limited audience.
“The beauty of the English language is that everybody becomes sama rata (equal). Regardless of a person’s race, the English language binds us (together) even though the local culture and settings are Malaysian,” says Dr Mas Rynna, whose background is in English literature.
She adds that this is different from writing in Malay, where the literary content is dominated by religion, and cultural roots and upbringing.
The lack of non-Malay writers writing in Malay, with some examples being Uthaya Sankar and Gina Yap Lai Yoong, is because of a reluctance by those writing in English to draw a link between roots, culture and religion, she argues.
Dr Mas Rynna also calls on mainstream publishers to publish Malay works of better quality to ensure Malaysian society will come to appreciate knowledge written in Malay.
“We need to change, we need to adapt, and we need to be flexible as well,” she adds.
Waiting in the wings
As a young artist, Puteh Maimun Zahrah Ismail is familiar with the hardships that performing artists face in Malaysia.
“As a dancer, I don’t find it very fair. A lot of people view us as props just to fill up the stage and make the singer look good. I feel like dancers do not have a proper platform in Malaysia,” says the star of upcoming movie Hijabsta Ballet, which is about how a young dancer challenges her community’s traditional views of dancing.
The 20-year-old, who has been dancing for the last 16 years, says this is due to the lack of appreciation for dancers in Malaysia from outside of the dance scene itself.
In countries like the United States, dancers are able to draw huge audiences and perform in sold-out stadiums.
She says that dance students themselves rarely get to perform in front of a full house during their final year.
“It’s hard for a dancer to only be a dancer. Most of my friends are also makeup artists. They are lecturers, and they are also students.
“They can’t be dancers alone because they have to feed themselves and dancing doesn’t fulfil that,” says Puteh Maimun, adding that she hopes this will change in the future.
On the bright side, she says a large social media presence has helped dancers gain popularity and large followings, while more avenues have also opened up nationwide for dancers to showcase their work to the public.