Transcending national boundaries,
the Japan Foundation Asia Center carries out
cultural exchange programs to build up heart-to-heart
relationships between people and enrich the future of Asia.


An Artist Collective that Acutely Intervenes in the Contemporary Sociopolitical Reality of Malaysia - Mark Teh & June Tan Interview

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

The Latest Tendency in Malaysian Performing Arts Scene

Sadayuki Higuchi (hereinafter Higuchi): Toward the Future - Reconsideration of the "Collective" and New Challenges-Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of Five Arts Centre. I heard about Five Arts Centre for the first time at "The Meeting of Asian Art Management 3 - Binding Local Voices" in Osaka in 2009, which was organized by Osaka City University Urban Research Plaza, and in the year you celebrated your 25th So it has already been five years since then.

Mark Teh (hereinafter Mark): Thank you. Time flies. Five years.

Higuchi: In the meeting, another collective member Lew Chee Seong told us about Five Arts Centre's unique management style as an "artist collective," its activities and especially "Emergency Festival!" that was organized by young artists, which was very impressive. So I visited Kuala Lumpur few months later and had an opportunity to meet Marion D'Cruz*1 , one of the founding members, and you.

*1 Presenter Interview, The Japan Foundation (July 6, 2005): Marion D'Cruz

Mark: Yes. And then in 2010 you invited me to Japan and offered the opportunity to deliver a talk at Asahi Art Square in the framework of the arts management course*2  organized by Arts NPO Link.

*2 Asahi Art Festival 2010, AAF lecture series on Arts Management (
The detail of the interview is available in Arts NPO Databank 2010 (PDF, in Japanese).

Higuchi: In the course we heard about the organizational management of Five Arts Centre and your own works of art. Also, last year, we had you deliver a lecture about the current art scene in Malaysia as a part of "The International Conference of Asian Arts Management in Malaysia 2014." We learned a bit about the struggles of artists who confront social issues, politics, poverty and urban development. By now I have visited Malaysia a few times, and what has impressed me is the way art and social movements are firmly connected.
Today I would like to hear from you two about the present and future vision of Five Arts Centre.Firstly, can you please tell us about the change in the environment around performing arts in Malaysia in recent years, from your respective points of view?

Mark: The biggest change in the recent five years is that large-scale art festivals such as "George Town Festival" in Penang, North Malaysia, and several others, have been established. The idea that the form called "festival" can get people together and draw attention to a region has recently been shared, and arts activities and funding have started to move around it.
However, while there is the craze for festivals, I feel that there hasn't really been critical discussion on what a festival is, how it can be meaningful, and what it means to have a larger audience. I think discussion on what art can do creates opportunities for reconsidering the way we understand the audience and what a festival can contribute to a city or place.
In short, in the current situation of performing arts in Malaysia, creations have increased and the consumption of art has become more active, but there hasn't been enough critical discussion about that.

June Tan (hereinafter June): In 2013, the amount of the government's subsidy for art was raised. The government put importance on the arts and culture more than ever, and some companies received a grant. The structure of the grants was designed very well: there were grants not only for performing arts creations but also for writers and mentorship for personnel training. However, it lasted only for a year...
That was one of the reasons why arguments for founding an "arts council" started, and a committee for considering the feasibility was established. Personally, I'm not sure if the system called "arts council" will contribute to the development of Malaysian arts and culture, because the support for the arts in Malaysia has mostly been provided by corporations and public subsidy has been very small, if ever existed. The sponsors haven't influenced the contents of our creations, which has been convenient for us.

Higuchi: Private support is more active than public support in Malaysia.

June: Yes. In relation to that, there is another influential movement. It is by a foundation managed by Sime Darby, one of the largest private listed enterprises in Malaysia, called YSD (Sime Darby Foundation). YSD supports five fields — education, environment, community and health, youth and sports, and the arts and culture — and has been appealing to other corporations to provide more support to art. It is especially important that YSD has been proposing that the corporations should directly support the organizational management of companies, which I expect will bring about a new development in the next few years. This would be of great benefit to us, the art practitioners. In that context, in November 2014, Mr. Taneo Kato, Executive Director of the Associate for Corporate Support for the Arts, and Ms. Yasuko Ogiwara, Secretary General, were invited from Japan to an international conference at Borak Art Series entitled "Building Knowledge Capacity in Funding and Mobility."
Also, independent agencies that assist governmental subsidy have emerged. Namely, KakiSENI and My Performing Arts Agency (MYPAA). They bridge the government and the performing arts sector by arranging subsidies and support, but it is not clear how long this can last because they are anyhow independent.

Mark: June talked about the management aspects, so I'd like to talk from the artist's point of view.
The ruling party (Barisan Nasional) in Malaysian government hasn't changed for almost 60 years since independence, but in the 2008 general elections, there was a new turning point where a cohesive opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat) was able for the first time, to deny the traditional two-thirds of seats in Parliament held by the ruling coalition. That continued in 2013, and the change in the political system has remained till the present: opposition parties have become the government in four of the 13 states in Malaysia. It can be said that many newer bottom-up initiatives have started in civil society, alternative media, and student activism.
In terms of the influence on culture, more artists, in response to this current, are establishing independent art spaces and starting community arts programs. There have been movements for decentralization. Regional movements are more active than ten years ago.

A photo of Mr.Mark Teh and Ms.June Tan during interview
Photo: YAMAMOTO Naoaki


Higuchi: I visited Malaysia in 2013, at the very time of the national election. I think I was invited for a program related to KakiSENI, and talked there about the arts council and grass-roots civic movements in Japan. My friend took me to a political gathering of an opposition party, where I felt the intense atmosphere of the election. It was an important experience for me to realize the kindling of political awareness firsthand, and later I learned that the voting rate was about 85%. I remember that I sensed great difference from Japan in the political situation in Malaysia, which is inseparable from ethnicities and religions.
By the way, I was interested in your mention on the increase in regional activities. What kinds of activities are there, for instance?

Mark: For example, there is a group called "Arts ED"that focuses on arts and heritage education for young people in Penang. In Kuala Lumpur, there is an arts group called "Chow Kit Kita" that empowers the communities in the downtown area. What they have in common is the attention to local, inner-city environments with an emphasis on the relationships with local people and communities: for example, they organize projects that create dialogues where there are ethnic or religious divides or confrontations, or work on understanding, documenting and sustaining old knowledge, practices and traditions that have been locally handed down. Especially in the urban area and suburbs, gentrification has been growing along with the neoliberal political current, so there have been efforts and movements against this. There has been a growth of many art projects that directly resist against urban redevelopment in disregard of local contexts and residents, and many artists have also participated directly in the mass protests for electoral reforms.

June: In 2014, an unprecedentedly large number of art festivals were held not only in Penang but also Langkawi and other places. It is noteworthy that some of these festivals weren't supported by the government but independent funds and cooperation between private sectors. Perhaps people have been thinking that something can happen, as Mark said, since 2008. Apparently they have realized that there are plural ways to do things, and instead of waiting for the government's decision, they are willing to create their own movements more than ever. Another thing that I want to mention in terms of the change in the art scene in recent five years is personnel training for "creative producers." I think they have different roles from production managers or artistic directors, and it is important to develop their field of work. Creative producers have recently been researching very well on festivals in Asia — especially Korea, Japan and Singapore - and their possibilities.

Higuchi: In your remarks about Malaysian art scene, not necessarily focusing on performing arts, I think I found five very interesting keywords: "festival," "governmental subsidy," "activities of the corporate sector and independent agencies," "art as civic movement against neoliberalism and gentrification," and "personnel training for creative producers." I want to hear thoroughly about each of them, but...

June: Give us more cake, and I'll talk about anything (laughs).

A photo of Ms.June Tan during interview
Photo: Yamamoto Naoaki

Higuchi: Then I'd like to ask a question making comparison to what I heard in 2009*3 . When I interviewed Mark in 2009, he told me that public grants and governmental subsidy didn't really go to art. That was why, although there were voluntary questionings and surveillance by the police, works that directly dealt with political issues were tacitly admitted to some extent. However, June has just said that she is not sure what kind of development the governmental, public support system will bring to Malaysian art scene, reflecting on the fact that the scene had developed on private, unrestricted support.
Development of art requires investment, and taking the public nature of art into consideration, I think that public subsidy - in this context, I am specifically referring to the government by the word "public" - and public projects for the promotion of art in which tax money is invested are necessary, but I heard from your remarks slight anxiety about the government's interference in art in some occasions.

*3 Arts NPO Databank 2010 (in Japanese)

June: he subsidy that the government offered in 2013 was for infrastructure improvement. The targets of the investment were functional and clear: for new work, mentorship, personnel training, or travel and research expense for promoting co-productions. That didn't involve inspection about the content of a work at all. I'm not worried about what you mentioned as far as the subsidy system focuses on functionality.

Mark: In Malaysia, the same party has always been in power since 1957. In that situation, Georgetown Festival did something very new. An opposition party is in power in the state in which Georgetown is located (Penang), and the success of this festival exhibited new possibilities of culture in its capacity of introducing art, tradition and cultural heritage to local and international audiences.
This might sound contradictory, but I think political liberalism and conservatism coexists very presently and closely in Malaysia now, and this confrontation feels like it is actually accelerating – different aspects of our society are getting more liberal, and more conservative, at the same time. Neoliberalism has spread, and I think this stays the same no matter who comes to power. And the idea of offering abundant funds to art is based on the attitude that supports the "creative industry," so I think the recent attitude toward art is not so new in that it is based on a neoliberal understanding of art.
Speaking not on behalf of Five Arts Centre but as an individual artist, I see the current situation skeptically. Of course, there needs to be discussion on how to use tax money, but I think I stay skeptical about throwing money around for art, no matter which party comes to power in this politically unstable period.