A Symposium on Sustainability, Mobility and Nationalism in Malaysian Performing Arts and Culture

Photo credit: PORT Ipoh; Photographer: Hazrein Hazimie

Location: Penang Institute

Date: 30 June to 2 July 2022

Organiser: Penang House of Music

Co-Organisers: Penang Institute, George Town Festival

Overview of Speakers and Participants

This symposium was the first of its kind organised by the Penang House of Music in collaboration with Penang Institute and George Town Festival. The aim of the event was to bring together a select mix of government and non-government performing arts organisations, practitioners and academics of Malaysian performing arts and culture. It featured keynote speeches by Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Director of Penang Institute; Prof. Ulung Datuk Dr. Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Founding Director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM); and Prof. Dr Tan Sooi Beng, School of Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). Talks on performing arts sustainability, mobility and policy featured Eddin Khoo, Founding Director of PUSAKA; Pn. Zubaidah Mukhtar, JKKN; Datuk Dr Anis Yusal Yusoff, Principal Fellow of KITA; Prof. Hanafi Hussin, Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts, University Malaya; Ashwin Gobinath, Nadir Studios; and Grey Yeoh, Australia Council for the Arts. The organisers are also happy to note ethusiastic attendance from representatives of PORT Ipoh, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and PIQL. 

Panels featured the latest research on Malaysian performing arts and culture conducted by faculty and postgraduate students from Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Sunway University and UCSI University. These research panels were chaired by Symposium Organising Committee members Dr. Patricia Ann Hardwick (UPSI), Dr. Shazlin Amir Hamzah (KITA-UKM) and Dr. Adil Johan (KITA-UKM); all of whom are leading Fundamental Research Grant projects on performing arts and music funded by the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education. 

The event also featured music educator and keyboardist Dr. James Boyle, of ASWARA, who performed songs composed by his father, the late Jimmy Boyle. The performance was accompanied by a presentation of Dr. Boyle’s own research on his father’s music, alongside a special screening of a research documentary on Jimmy Boyle, produced by the Penang House of Music. Owner of Gerak Budaya Bookstore Penang, Gareth Richards, provided commentary and summaries of the talks throughout the programme as the symposium’s Master of Ceremony. Overall, the symposium ran smoothly and successfully, thanks to the dedicated and attentive technical team from the Penang House of Music, led by its Founding Director, Paul Augustin and his management assistants, Kevin Theseira and Jocelyn Ng.

Issues Discussed

Throughout the symposium, a host of academic terms were used to describe the new research that was being shared (e.g. cohesion, transnationalism, interculturalism, diversity, multiculturalism, hybridity, cosmopolitanism). Such terms form the necessary “analytical tools” required for understanding the cultural past, present and future of Malaysia’s performing arts. However, there was also a call for a critical interrogation of terms such as “sustainability” and “nationalism”. Sustainability is a term that is imposed through the international language of heritage bodies such as UNESCO and overlooks cultural practices and practitioners that are continuously adapting their art over time and across changing spaces and locales. There is also a tendency to assume a monoethnic and idealistic notion of nationalism, without interrogating the exclusionary pitfalls of patriotism. Therefore, the following questions were frequently asked thoughout the symposium. Whose culture is being protected? Who decides what counts as national vs. foreign culture? For whom are cultural policies made to protect? Which practitioners and what art forms are considered worth protecting? 

It was evident toward the end of the symposium that cultural policies such as the NCP (National Culture Policy) of 1971 up until the most recent DAKEN (Dasar Kebudayaan Negara) of 2021 were implemented to control the national narrative for what and who counts as representative of national culture, in alignment with the political interests of the ruling government of the day (be they on the federal or state level). After the 1969 racial riots, the NCP served to integrate a diverse Malaysian population into a Malay and Islamic centred version of national culture. The DAKEN, building on the current Prime Minister’s Malaysian Family (Keluarga Malaysia) slogan attempts to make space for a wider acceptance of non-Malay and non-Muslim cultural practices. 

However, there is still a prevalence of top-down, authority-defined control outlined in the policy document, with very rigid references to core values and strategic action plans. The question remains as to whether the spirit of inclusivity projected in DAKEN will be implemented by government departments. It was highlighted in the symposium that through no fault of their own, many government officers are not actually experts in the portfolios of their assigned ministry. Therefore, many top government bureaucrats and politicians in charge of performing arts agencies are not necessarily well-versed in the performing arts industries and cultural sectors. When ministers are shuffled, government-agency staff also have the challenging task of re-educating their new ministers. Such are the systemic problems of governing performing arts and culture that were revealed in the symposium. 

Potential Solutions

It was evident from the case studies of research presented, as well as the real-world situations described by the practitioners present that the performing arts and culture are more genuinely and ethically sustained by ground-up, community-centred efforts. Collaboration between arts researchers, practitioners and communities have long-lasting impact on the flourishing of cultural practices and art among small communities and performing artists. For example, historical research has identified the cosmopolitan/intercultural roots/routes of collaboration that form the cornerstone of (Malayan and) Malaysian music that appealed to a diverse local and global market. Thus, there remains a need to find ways to commercialise, in ethical ways, the continuous production of performing arts culture, so that practitioners and communities are empowered to sustain their livelihoods independently. Researchers at the symposium presented case studies on how working with small indigenous communities and traditional performing arts practitioners resulted in educational programmes and products such as books and digital applications. 

Moving forward, the symposium organisers are optimistic that the problems, ideas and potential solutions discussed over three days have provided inspiration for the many parties involved to consider the rich networks of potential collaboration between organisations, practitioners and academics to champion a community-grounded approach in flourishing Malaysia’s diverse cultures of performing arts. Penang House of Music looks forward to acting as a facilitator for such constructive collaboration, and offers its expertise to bring people together, cultivate creativity, document, and archive the richness of Malaysia’s culture of performing arts for posterity. The symposium is an initiative to draw attention to the lessons that can be learnt from the echoes (sounds), shadows (sights) and footprints (stories) of our cultural past and present, to step toward a more inclusive, creative, and vibrant future.

Report written by Adil Johan.

One thought on “Symposium report: Echoes, Shadows & Footprints

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