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Want to know how it’s like to have a career in the arts in Malaysia?
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Want to know how it’s like to have a career in the arts in Malaysia?

by Deric EctOctober 28, 2016

ART is a hobby not a career.

We know you’ve heard this one before; young Malaysians are often discouraged from pursuing a career in the creative sector. Popular reasons include financial instability, poor societal perception and lack of security.

But our theatres still host new works and our comedians are winning awards overseas, while many young Malaysians whose work we admire — Ashraf Zain, Mahen Bala, Nadirah Zakariya — continue freelancing as creatives. All this is happening now more so than ever, suggesting that the arts despite its alleged uncertainties has growing appeal to the internet generation. 

Those interested to delve further into the issue and even consider a career in the creative sector can drop by Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre next Saturday afternoon for a chat with the British Council.

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Begone all fears surrounding your could-be careers: award-winning DJ, producer and presenter Goldierocks, animator Ceiren Bell, Norwich University of the Arts International Officer Amanda Monfrooe, and Malaysian installation artist Jun Ong are coming down to set the record straight.

Thinking of shunning the parent-approved path of lawyerhood? Feel like a career in accounting isn’t really ‘you’? Are you worried that a degree in the arts will lead you to a life of poverty? Question no more, and get your answers from a panel of people who have made it in the creative industry.

Making a Successful Career in Creative Arts, British Council

As part of this month’s Education UK programme and exhibition, the one-hour session will be helping attendees navigate the creative sector. Interested? Pre-register for the event here and stand a chance to win hotel and retail vouchers.

But to provide a bit more perspective on being a Malaysian creative, five respected individuals share brief insight into their careers. Born years apart from one another, each also reveal how the creative landscape have evolved across three decades.


bc15Born 1968

“It’s being able to travel and meet like-minded thinkers, writers and practitioners,” explains Penang-born author Bernice Chauly.

Currently in its sixth year, George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) will open in four weeks. Renowned thinkers A. C. Grayling, Faisal Tehrani and Stefan Hertmans are participating in this year’s edition, thanks to an incredible amount of effort on Bernice’s part. She made the calls, sent out the emails and put the festival’s three-day programme together, aided only by close friends and a tiny team.

As one of Malaysia’s top literary figures, Bernice is a busy woman. She is festival director of GTLF, she teaches at the University of Nottingham, and she also runs the KL Writers Workshop. Her debut novel is currently in its fifth draft. But if she ever finds herself in a pinch despite her literary strength, there’s always voice-over work to fall back on.

“Writing, teaching, directing the festival… For many years I was working as a cultural practitioner, doing photography, acting, anything and everything that came by,” Bernice explains. “I’ve been teaching for fifteen years.”

“I have a desire to work with communities on the fringe and right now, it’s women who’ve suffered domestic abuse and trafficking. Through the KL Writers Workshop and a grant from In Den Vreemde, I’ve been able to teach creative writing to women at the Women’s Aid Organisation.”

Citing “resilience” and “a very thick skin” as her prized attributes in the creative sector, Bernice considers time, money and solitude to be some of a writer’s main challenges.

But don’t let that discourage you from getting into literature. Bernice has published five works to date which include Onkalo and Growing Up With Ghosts — the former has received praise from a Nobel Laureate; the latter is adored by Malaysia’s literary circle.

“You’ve just got to work hard and have a healthy sense of self,” she concludes. “And parents, allow your children to dream.”


Born 1974

National Arts Awards recipient Christopher Ling chose theatre for its immediacy. The arts for him is vital as a creative outlet — a place for him to express on his own terms. But he also believes it demands unwavering commitment.

Do it, stop thinking about it,” Chris addresses doubts about entering the creative sector. “Don’t think, just do. If you’re thinking about it, don’t do it! Pick another lifestyle choice.”

Known for his attractive, out-of-the-box stagings, this director has indeed been doing in the past three years. His work with Theatrethreesixty on Caryl Churchill‘s Love and Information, Ariff Kamil‘s How I Learnt To Accept Reality By Sleeping Through It (Anak/Benih), and an anthology of Samuel Beckett‘s short plays are some of The Daily Seni‘s highlights in theatre.

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Though cheeky and vibrant in person, it’s not been the smoothest ride for Chris. His first attempt at establishing a theatre company, soon after graduating in Drama and Theatre Arts at London’s Middlesex University, was put on hold after two years. Chris then went on to serve the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre where he founded and developed vital youth theatre program T4YP.

Twelve years would pass before he had another go at running his own theatre collective; in 2014, Chris co-founded and became artistic director of  Theatrethreesixty. Turning four in March, the company has a reputation as one of few dedicated spaces to contemporary and experimental stagings in Malaysia. Aside from advances in technology and social networking which has helped ease operations, this time round Chris also has a strong network of collaborators.

“Now, I’ve the fantastic benefit of having people guiding me through finances; they’re forcing me to know how it works on the other side,” he adds jovially. “But at my age and where I am now, my mum is still telling me to get a full-time job.”

ShearMad_CharactersOnlyBorn 1982

Qahar Aqilah is serious about his craft. He is passionate about his roles on stage and screen, but he is also one of Malaysia’s favourite acting coaches.

“Before I found the arts, I wanted to be a football coach,” he reminisces. “My history teacher was shocked when I listed down my cita-cita. I wrote jurulatih bola sepak as number one, followed by pelakon. I was fifteen then.”

Laidback, enigmatic and properly charming, Qahar confesses to maintaining his simple lifestyle through acting and teaching. But having spent over 15 years in the craft, his performances often generate acclaim from viewers — memorable roles include Tomy in Shear Madness, Roy Cohn in Angels In America, and a turn in Joe Calarco‘s R&J.

Qahar notes that hopefuls step into acting, eager and ready, only to disappear once they observe its realities. Picking up the slack are those left unshaken by the hard work and training required. But if it’s all so much hard work, why be an actor?

Qahar thinks for a moment. “It’s self-expression. I get to be myself; to find a home.” But how does he get to be himself when he plays characters on the stage?

“Then you know very little about acting,” he laughs conspiratorially.

As for those skeptical about their children’s creative leanings?

“Stay open and let them give it a shot because they’ll probably do it behind your back anyway. It’s like sex education; you can only wish they’re doing it safely.”

10981952_10153295093552173_2604221273460588950_nBorn 1989

Like many born in the late 80’s, Sarawakian techie and designer Timothy Su belongs to the last generation of Malaysians to have experienced life before the internet. His creativity flourished alongside a strong appreciation for technology, amalgamating into a knack for design in the digital realm.

Given Tim’s affinity for digital mediums, he’s a bit of an unconventional creative.

Tim generates income through advertising art direction, creative technologies and user experience design. These are often obtained from international clients which means international rates — needless to say, he lives comfortably. But any tips on how you catch ’em, Tim?

“What makes sense to you does not make sense to other people, so you need to be able to see things from a variety of other perspectives,” he states thoughtfully, pausing to gather thought. “Which is pretty difficult, because it’s something acquired through time and experience.”

“But to me, a huge aspect of creativity is empathy. We’re very fortunate now in technology as there’s a huge demand for people who can empathise.”

This type of thinking has given Tim a rare edge. His teenage years saw him designing a user interface for a life-changing application, while his early twenties brought him recognition in global advertising festivals of creativity.

However, Tim has other issues with the industry. He does not condone commodisation of creativity — he scorns at template-based graphics and websites — and insists that the world needs more original thought in order to progress.

“The last thing you want is more canned creativity. If you feel like you have something original to say, please find a way to express it,” he pleads. “Don’t lose your identity, because the last thing you want to be is a factory worker in the creative industry. But when you start out, you probably have to for a while lah.”

Born 1994

“Wherever you go there’s no guarantee of security, even with a certificate. So why not take that small chance to do what you want?”

Sabahan singer-songwriter Christian Palencia has been working various jobs since he was only fourteen. From assisting the creative director of Survivor to dropping flyers in mailboxes, there was nothing Christian couldn’t or wouldn’t do. At one point, he juggled seven jobs to keep himself afloat as well as pursue his interest in music. But fatigue soon set in.

After cutting down to a single occupation in order to recuperate, he started struggling with rent. Thankfully, a film role arrived just in time, and with it came his current gig in advertising.

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Though Christian had accumulated much knowledge from his work history, it was in advertising he synergised and made full use of his abilities. His knack for graphic design, planning, analysis and technology, once employed separately, were now the cornerstones of his success in the industry.

“As projects progressed, people noticed I’m capable of handling creative things,” the 22-year old beamed. “Now I’m a creative director for a restaurant and I also have a team of friends who do freelance projects with me.”

With a solid income flowing in from his role at Team Vanguard, Christian manages his time carefully. His burgeoning music career as The Last One Awake aside, he allots time for his personal relationships and also conducts vocal lessons for a trusted few.

But through it all, Christian has unearthed some important life lessons. There’s one in particular he’d like to share.

“If anybody reads this article I beg them not to make this mistake; people generally have a need to sell themselves,” he warily points out. “When you go to a job interview and say, I can do this, and that, I won this award, I won that award, you’re overselling. It’s a human thing, but whatever you do, try and be completely transparent.”


Check out Making a Successful Career in Creative Arts on Facebook for event details, but make sure to register if you want to guarantee yourself a spot. The session will be held in Hall 2, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (Seminar Room 1) from 2:30pm to 3:30pm. We repeat: admission is free! Cover image featuring Dinesh Kumar and Andrew Wood from KLPAC’s 16-Bit Coriolanus.

About The Author
Profile photo of Deric Ect
Deric Ect
Deric is contributor and former managing editor of The Daily Seni.

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