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“Have the Arts been Forgotten?” YES.

“Have the Arts Been Forgotten?” “The short answer is yes.” — Jo Kukathas.

But wait, there is a long answer. According to Jo, since 1969 the arts sector has been tossed around like an orphan from ministry to ministry, for parades and stadium events as proof when proof is needed that Malaysia has culture. The root problem “is not one of finance”, but rather, the failure of imagination or vision to commit fully to funding the arts. “If countries like Germany, Singapore, Brazil, New Zealand, Korea, and Taiwan are coming up with policies to fund and support the arts, why not Malaysia?”

The million-dollar question —

“Why are we so consistently behind everyone?”

Tarinao highlights some key issues surrounding the collapse of the arts sector in the country. Voiced so eloquently by Jo Kukathas, the Artistic Director of The Instant Cafe Theatre Company in Kuala Lumpur and a theatre actor, writer and director. She is also a DDS Fellow of De La Salle University, Manila. The full essay can be found published on Jo’s Facebook and the Arts Equator.

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  • The surprisingly divided response on the support given to the arts sector between the cultural ministers of Malaysia and Germany.

Malaysia’s Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Dato Sri Nancy Shukri clearly did not see the need to have “aid package to offer nor a plan for any kind of stimulus”. “There was no need”, she said. According to her, arts, are “the quickest to recover”. The only visible and accountable budget for the arts sector under the ministry is the RM57,000 online arts competition. “She didn’t appear to have prepared for the interview [Consider This, Astro Awani] or to have researched her portfolio. She didn’t seem able to imagine the arts except as a form of 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”.

A major contrast was shown whereby Monika Grütters, Germany’s Culture Minister, said, “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.” Figuratively speaking, €50 billion aid package was rolled out for small businesses that boost artists and galleries.

  • Where does the budget for the A[rts] in MoTAC go?

Budget 2020 allocated a total of RM1.1 billion to MoTAC, including an allocation of RM960 million to drive awareness, promotions and programmes of the Visit Malaysia 2020 campaign. Where will the RM140 million go? 0.04% (RM57,000 out of the RM140 mil) were used on the online arts competition, what happened to the rest of the budget?

Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) reported 93% of respondents negatively impacted financially in a survey on COVID-19’s impact on the arts. 70% of respondents reported losing all or most income. Would any percentage of the budget be strategically used to distribute to the arts and culture sector?

  • The fact that this crisis [COVID-19 pandemic] can bring the entire arts sector to a complete standstill with no plan for the future points to a deep-seated systemic problem.

Jo suggested that the problem stemmed from having no clear idea of the role and purpose of the arts and the lack of imagination or vision to commit fully to funding the arts. As artists and arts organisations, “…we have failed to capture the hearts and minds of the general public”. You may think that’s because Malaysia lacks talent, but actually, are there any investments pumped into nurturing the raw talents; and infrastructures to keep the ripe talents from draining overseas or just drowned? Take a look at Korea Development Bank's (KDB) investment in the nation’s cultural contents—BTS or Parasite not only put Korea on the international cultural map but also made USD 61.3 million and USD 165 million respectively, more than 5-15 times return on investment (ROI). A great case study of what it means to have the imagination or vision to commit fully to funding the arts. Perhaps no other industry other than the arts could have achieved that kind of result, because the products of arts cannot be measured by price but by values it can bring.

  • There is a pressing need to discuss the meaning and value of the arts… Perhaps once that is understood we can discuss its future.

“But artists love what they do, and they are creative, they can do a lot with very little. After all, it’s about value not price!”

True… But the point is “you can’t buy groceries with glamour.” So aptly put by Jo.

Nor can you buy groceries with passion or creativity. With a ministry that ignores the complexity and codependent nature of the arts economy, what’s worse? Creating a competition at a time like this, which made artists seemed “merely hungry not creative or vital”. #KitaJagaKita indeed is what the artists and arts workers have to do. The arts industry is like a huge iceberg and the tip of the iceberg is the glamorous artists that the public sees. When the entire foundation of the iceberg (tech operators, production crews, writers, security guards, designers, managers, dancers, gallery sitters, stagehands, educators, administrative staff, actors, set builders, cleaners, producers, audio-visual suppliers, box office staff, painters, printers, publicists, seamstresses, hangers…) starts to melt, the arts would indeed “submerge” underwater, rather than emerge first in recovery as suggested by the minister in the interview. It is time “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” with total honesty and courage to address the poverty of the arts sector.

The values of the arts are that they may be incomprehensible but which when experienced can make you tremble; reawaken, disturb or provoke you; transform you inside out, and empower you. They can fill you with humility and empathy, unleashing the dormant creativity and ability to question critically. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t trust the artist. In order to make a living with their talent and skills, many artists play it safe by creating works to the expectations of funders or buyers who do not understand such values of the arts.

Photo by Wong Horngyih, courtesy of Pusaka

Ultimately, arts make us “question everything”. To look and see, that change is imminent, and the ability to question everything or critical thinking will bring about creative solutions to welcome and embrace change. And artists are the ones to lead the way in the face of rapid change during times of crisis like now.  

  • Arts are the soul scientists of a society, it cannot be described clearly, but clearly live and breathe within all levels of society.

Saying the arts are complementary to tourism is like saying science is complementary to technology. The fact is, without science, there is no technology. Similarly, without the arts, there is no tourism, no cultural visits, exchanges or curiosity. It is the curiosity that makes us continuously plan for our next vacation, to see the world, to travel around the world, to have meaning in all that we do, for our lives. The study of science has changed the way we see the earth as round not square. The study of “art will change you whether you like it or not”. It shakes and shapes your perceptions and beliefs.

“It makes you question everything… It doesn’t try to make you understand in your head but in your heart and gut… So feed the artist and 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. 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.”


Original essay published here:


  1. This blog article does not attempt to summarise the whole important contents of the essay, but to highlight selected key issues to encourage readers to think and ponder on the issues raised, as well as to access the original essay.

  2. Tarinao does not possess the copyright to the contents as quoted from the original essay from Jo Kukathas.

  3. Permission was verbally granted by the author prior.

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