Cover Photo: Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

Dato' Dr Faridah Merican, Jo Kukathas and more performing arts practitioners get frank about the challenges facing Malaysia's arts industry right now

Like never before, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures in Malaysia have forced us to consider the definition of 'essential' services and the industries that do or do not fall into that category.

Malaysia's arts community has been among the worst hit in 2020 as gatherings were prohibited and shows with live audiences were postponed indefinitely to prevent the spread of infections. A year later, Malaysia's artists, theatre performers, choreographers, directors, composers and many more find themselves once again in an indefinite period of lockdown. This time, they are refusing to keep silent about the unseen struggles to continue their craft despite the odds.

Related: Can A Crisis Spark Creativity In The Arts?

On July 8, co-founders of the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) Dato' Dr Faridah Merican and her husband Joe Hasham released an open letter highlighting the dire struggles of the performing arts sector and calling for the authorities to consider reopening up the arts industry with safeguards and SOPs in place.

Related: 13 Experts Across Asia On The Future Of Arts And Culture After The Pandemic

"The longer and louder our voice is, the more it will be heard and, hopefully, noticed," says Faridah, who is also executive producer at klpac. "The performing arts and its associated affiliates number in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. The creative industry workforce is one million-strong. The sooner these people can get back to doing what they do best, the better it will be, not only for the economy, but for the well-being of the creative forces that have for many years contributed to the 'rasa' of the country. The arts are an integral part of the heart and soul of the nation."    

Shared on social media with calls to #SaveTheArts, the open letter revealed detailed suggestions for reopening and running shows safely. It also emphasised the distinction between live events and social activities. 

Amidst the challenges threatening the arts in Malaysia and the show of resilience that arts practitioners have displayed all throughout, five members of the arts community share their perspectives with Tatler.

Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham

Klpac co-founder and artistic director Joe Hasham describes the rollercoaster of emotions felt by the arts community these past few months: "So many performing artists are in the predicament of not being able to earn any money, let alone a regular salary to provide for their families. It's heartbreaking to see members of our industry being stripped of their dignity and made to feel worthless and unneeded.

Still, Faridah and I are blessed to have an amazing team of people who have stuck with us throughout this horrific period of uncertainty. They have survived major salary cuts without a hint of protest and they continue to give 100 per cent effort in everything they do. As to the arts in general, as hard and crippling as the situation is, they are not giving up," says Joe.

We have come to the startling realisation that keeping quiet does not help us in any way. I truly believe that good governance has a responsibility to assist the rakyat in times of need and despair. I should add that they do have a lot on their plate but the arts must not be forgotten. It would definitely help the situation if the various ministries stopped referring to the Performing Arts as a social activity when in fact the performing arts is an essential industry and should be treated as such

— Faridah Merican

 

Zhafir Muzani, dancer and choreographer in-residence, klpac

After two postponements, our Balinese contemporary dance performance 'pragina: EMOSI' which was supposed to be staged in May 2021 was put on pause when lockdowns were implemented yet again. Our intention to help our dancers earn an income during these difficult times was also thwarted. If only filming and recording would be allowed, so we could at least earn from filming content and releasing it through online shows.

Jit Yang Tung, director in-residence and creative head, The Actors Studio Academy @klpac

I find it difficult to create theatre in these times. I think of my neighbours who suffer from mental health crises, grief, stress and loss. I ask myself what theatre do my neighbours want or need? Can I still continue the work that may not feed me? Should I continue the work that may not feed others? To many, the arts and the theatre sound like unnecessary privileges. But we're all just trying to survive.

Jo Kukathas, artistic director, The Instant Café Theatre Company

Having experienced the lockdown in 2020, we are better prepared for the possibilities but not necessarily the impact. The prolonged isolation and lack of physical human interaction have taken a more serious toll compared to last year.

Our community is not just made up of artists and venue crews but includes our audience too. This is the time for Malaysians to get to know artists and the arts in Malaysia. The pandemic has made it clear that your location is no longer an obstacle to consuming art. In supporting artists and their work, you support an entire ecosystem.

Related: Datuk Ramli Ibrahim On How Malaysian Artists Are Weathering The Pandemic's Challenges

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