I should be ecstatic. We united! Different colours and creeds, genders and cities came together and defeated the bogeyman and the ancien regime. Three or four weeks on, our new government under our old old prime minister is on its way to realising more and more of its election promises, and Barison Nasional is a shambles, attracting derision with each indignant squawk or overdue expression of humility.
We achieved so many firsts in the recent elections: a peaceful transition of power and a new government, a female deputy prime minister and a (former) artist in parliament. So it’s time to be a good artist-citizen, roll up my sleeves, sing the “Happy Working Song” and make art in this, the best of times. I should be ecstatic.
Except I’m not.
We defeated our bogeyman, but we also lost him. We’ve lost the one who united us in a greater good, the ghoulish clown at the centre of the blame dart-board.
The tangible sense and political promises of greater freedom of speech is dizzying. Legend says that baby cobras, unaccustomed to regulating the venom in their bite, can be more dangerous than adult ones. So we Malaysians are like infant cobras learning to moderate our venom as we negotiate the struggle between rights and responsibilities, the boundary between incendiary hate speech and “this annoys me greatly”.
Some Malaysians are releasing the tension from years of racist treatment by lashing out at other races, rather than at the problem—and meanwhile giving not a toss about sexism in a country that ranks 75th in the world in terms of gender equality. Others (middle-class urban liberals) are proud to have a “colour-blind” social network, but speak dismissively, even derogatorily, about indigenous and rural folk, as well as blue-collar and migrant workers. They’re determined to end the sidelining and humiliation they’ve faced, but not ready to be honest about perpetrating or condoning the sidelining and humiliation of others.
Alarmed, yet others then murmur that perhaps the new government need not repeal all of Najib’s oppressive laws after all. “We’re alright, but those people…” is the sentiment. It’s hardly unique and perhaps well-intentioned, but we’ve all seen how badly such delusions can end.
All this annoys me greatly. And yet, I understand its genesis.
Najib gave us a point onto which we could channel all the bile. Now, bereft of “Sauron and Spouse”, we are turning on each other. Walt Kelly, in his 1953 comic strip Pogo, put it succinctly: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We are the new bogeyman.
What’s an honest artist to do? To be frank, it’s almost business as usual for many of us. If there’s one thing that unites the Malaysian arts scene’s diverse and fragmented communities, it’s the worry about bread and butter, and this will continue to be the case. Before, few had resources to work with and the prevalent question was—Where will we get the funds to pull this off? After the elections, new questions emerged—Was mine from a cronyistic source? Will it be yanked? Will we get more funding, and fairly distributed? Many of these concerns will remain; hopefully, some will become less prevalent.
And what about the issues? Don’t we care about the state of things? The arts are supposed to be the soul of society, after all. The answer is, yes we do. We always have, and we have responded to it in different ways, whether through works that lift the spirits, soothe fraught nerves, poke and provoke to open the eyes, or share understanding about our different human struggles for survival.
So what has changed? By and large, there’s an empowering optimism in the air. It’s an exciting time; over the last few years the Malaysian arts scene has seen a fertile proliferation of practitioners, companies, indie/grassroots organisations and communities. They are different in genre, language, size, mode of operation and media, but many or most survive hand to mouth, project to project. Historically, such proliferations have been followed by waning and shrinkage, leaving behind only the stalwart. But this time, there is a sense that more of us could break away from this cycle and survive long enough to work together and make a difference, to change how society thinks and feels.
For us to get onto a more sustainable footing, there are a few things the new government needs to put into place. Firstly, it needs to ensure freedom of speech by doing away with the need for permits and the sort of knee-jerk responses to “complaints” based on inhibitive and subjective guidelines. Next, the arts should be valued for its own sake (not just for tourism dollars), that is funds and tax/fee configurations, a credible place in the education system (not just for “students who can’t do science”), and government infrastructure that actually understands the sector’s diverse facets. And lastly, there needs to be transparency in granting opportunities; witnessing some government-funded and crony-backed initiatives from the last few years, one truly feels that never had so much been given to so few for so little value in return—most active practitioners right now are making things work on less than 1 per cent of these cronies’ budgets.
This is what artists want. A month in, we’re cautiously optimistic, but our essential needs are pretty simple. Many of the veterans have been surviving and making art year in and year out outside of the system anyway (sometimes illegally, in states where certain traditional arts are outlawed).
And what about society’s problems with its soul then? Our idiosyncratic hypocrisies and blind spots; our emotional baggage around ethnic/gendered/religious/class issues; our long pent-up hunger for justice and our lack of empathy for those unlike us?
We’re rolling up our sleeves and tackling that, as we always have. We can make art and beat the bogeyman this time. Help us. Or at least, don’t get in our way.
Marina Tan is a writer, actor and director