by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 20 March 2015

What should government do for culture?

A libertarian might argue that government should primarily protect individuals’ freedom of expression.  Beyond that, the imagining, conceptualisation, writing, publishing, recording, performance or production of art, music, dance, theatre, cartoons, literature, television and film – or museums dedicated to the same – should be solely funded by the private sector, from the people involved to the equipment used and the venues needed.

Authoritarians might argue that the state should define and support culture according to the “national interest”, and promote certain art forms.  Enthusiastic statists might support the censorship or eradication of cultural products deemed offensive or detrimental to national security – whether on ideological or religious grounds – like the Nazis’ banning of jazz or ISIL’s recent destruction of ancient Assyrian statues.

In Malaysia today we’re probably in the middle of these two scenarios.   Yes, certain images and music are explicitly regulated by legislation, while headlines are made when certain art and literature is banned, censored or made subject to onerous litigation – especially when there are political ramifications.

At the same time, many government-funded institutions are encouraging cultural output.  Schools formally introduce children to the arts (I will never forget my experience of guest teaching music in a rural school in Perak), and I’ve seen the impressive performances of the PERMATA Choir (issues of funding a separate matter).  On numerous occasions I have seen how wind orchestras across government schools have inspired young citizens to appreciate other values apart from developing their interest in music.  In addition, there are now three Sekolah Seni – secondary schools providing an arts-centred curriculum – while in higher education, there’s ASWARA, plus some mainstream public universities have much to offer too: the compositions which I heard from UiTM’s Faculty of Music at KLPAC were avant-garde and topical.

At the professional level, the most touted state-funded cultural entity is the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, housed in the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS – though its contribution to Malaysian cultural life is oft-debated, centring on the number of Malaysian musicians in the orchestra and the balance between western and local musical art forms performed.

The most memorable event there last year was sponsored by government investment arm Khazanah Nasional Berhad: Malam Terang Bulan, an emotional exposition of our anthem that struck at our patriotic cores.  I wrote about this as well as Opera Puteri Saadong (supported by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture), but recently at Istana Budaya (owned by said ministry), I attended two more events that targeted questions of identity.  These were Putera Cahaya Bulan, a traditional theatre production using Mek Mulung that was performed entirely in the Kedah dialect; and Muzika Nusantara last Friday.  The latter had a diplomatic angle and consisted of three segments: a series of dance showcases defined by the region’s ethnic groups (each got one act except the Minangs whose prodigious cultural output enabled two (Randai and Tarian Piring)); poetry readings that emphasised the shared cultural roots of Malaysia and Indonesia; and Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza with Krisdayanti.

Many of these performances rely on substantial private sponsorship as well, effectively making them public-private partnerships.  Of course many other fields comprise cultural elements – fashion, journalism, architecture, civil engineering, martial arts, religious devotion – which involve various levels of private sector and government involvement.

I do wonder to what extent past pronouncements of policy are in mind when the relevant decision-makers decide whether or not certain cultural initiatives should be funded or supported.  The Rukun Negara sought “a liberal approach towards [Malaysia’s] rich and varied cultural traditions”, while the 1971 National Cultural Policy explicitly attempted to define the “national culture”.  This was superseded by notions of “Bangsa Malaysia” enveloped in Vision 2020, and since then there have been no equivalent grand policy pronouncements on national culture.

For now, the government approach towards supporting culture seems to depend on the attitudes of individual officers who determine where the money goes.   Because there are many such decision-makers residing in many different institutions, this has resulted in a variety of worthy initiatives being supported.   But this diversity seems to have arisen by accident, rather than a function of policy.  Of course, specific political directives (“ban mak yong”) will always take priority.

There is a sensible classical liberal approach to culture in Malaysia.  Government does not need to specifically define a “national culture”: our conception of citizenship acknowledges certain cultural heritages, but it is up to us to determine which are important and how they evolve.  So before the government can support seminal cultural works, it first needs to protect academic freedom, democratic space and civil society, so that graffitists, dalangs, rappers and pianists or voluntary associations they form can compete to produce our national culture.

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS

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