There’s something very different in the air. Malaysia’s eternal summer has begun to feel like spring, and it’s infected everyone with optimism and light. After the 9th of May, the apathy you could feel come off the city streets have begun to be replaced by a sense of hope. It isn’t just the end the end of a 61-year ruling party that has tirelessly censored, imprisoned and stolen from us. It’s the start of a new arts industry.
There is real diversity in our parliament as Dr. Wan Azizah makes history as our first female DPM and from spending her whole life in the opposition no less. The openly feminist and pro-LGBT activist Maria Chin becomes a minister in a country that thought her “radical” notions were too much and Prabakaran has become the youngest candidate ever in parliament and become something of a role model for Indians who need more representation to look up to. This diversity is a dynamic forward push into a more liberal and truly secular Malaysia. So, what does this spell for the artists?
Freedom, And A Vision
Our commercial arts industry has always suffered from the government chokehold of what you are and are not allowed to say. This is largely why some of our best works belong to underground arts scenes, places that most people aren’t aware of. It makes it harder for us to value our artists or even recognise the potential our arts scene has. With the promise of a government that isn’t as iron fisted about their critics, people have begun speaking out about the experience of creating art while living under censorship and creating propaganda. Artists who don’t comply will not receive funding and thus, the potential for better productions or creations die out as well. If these experiences tell us anything, it tells us that creators now have a new hope that this administration will allow their stories to be told openly and retain their own vision.
This vision could be a number of amazing things: increased representation of hushed-up minorities and the struggles they’ve faced in a Malaysian context. This comes with the freedom to be able to talk about what their government has and hasn’t done for them.
We have the right to talk about non-secular laws that enforce discrimination against trans people have disenfranchised these marginalised communities or what hate speech within government bodies against minorities actually feels like to a real person. No longer will we learn of other people’s experiences through the occasional op-ed piece or short film by NGOs or youth activists.
Hope arrives when we are finally able to tailor our own stories, write personal and heartfelt music about experiences that would have once been considered seditious and have ourselves be taken seriously by a society that is finally ready to listen.
Appreciating Our Weirdness
There is now a newfound appreciation for being Malaysian. People feel less hopeless about their situation and a pride that comes from being a part of a movement that has built a revolution with the bits and pieces of our previous losses. This appreciation for being Malaysian will definitely see itself nurtured in our arts industry because besides having profound experiences and struggles we want to talk about, we have really good jokes as well. Malaysians are a rebellious people, but we’re also hilarious when we want to be. There have been a few good online hit short films that infused quintessential life experiences with our distinct Malaysian sense of humour.
Films like Pekak, which tells the story of a deaf drug dealer who changes his life after he meets a rebellious schoolgirl and Bebel, which is a series of intersectional relationship stories revolving around the diversity of food in Malaysia are the kind of stories we need to hear more of. They’re mature enough to be considered serious art and quirky enough for the masses to recognise themselves in them. Without this push by mainstream industries to fund the more diverse tales about Malaysian life and all its whimsicality.
One of the best places for this fusion of Malaysian culture with various genres and mediums will find itself in our literary pieces. While they are few and far between, there are many publishing outfits that work tirelessly to emphasise the importance of reading about and paying attention to Malaysian stories and authors. Outfits like Gerakbudaya Enterprise, Raksasa Publishing and Fixi Novo push for a focus on stories of Malaysia and Southeast Asia – tales of us, our folklore, our culture, weaved into popular global genres like horror science fiction or romance-mystery.
Reading may be a dying culture for many of us but with the increased investment in local news and happenings since the elections and a renewed confidence in the capabilities of our people, at least there will be more authors creating and more people exposed to our arts and culture. And who knows? This could be the push for a whole new generation of writers that finally believe in their nation as much as their ability to create.
Sincere and Honest Cinema
We have seen the rise of many mature movies in Malaysia’s film industry – Jagat, Shuttle Life, Ola Bola, The Journey. There is definitely a move to take our movies much more seriously and storytellers often find their way to the big screen, eager to tell fictionalised accounts of adversity in Malaysia, like the stigma of interracial relationships or the poverty-stricken life of minorities under institutional racism. We’ve always been a country of storytellers, with a strong core of folklore and historic tales. But with our recent victory over the media and freedom of speech, this opens up a much-needed new avenue of filmmaking: documentaries!
A good documentary goes a long way and with many of disinterested, disillusioned or even just unaware citizens, it’s time we launch our most important stories out there. These are ones concentrated on our culture, our minorities, our arts scenes and our science sectors but most importantly our environment. This is particularly for the long-neglected Orang Asli groups as well as the often-ignored stories from Sabah and Sarawak.
PH’s victory comes at a timely event for the arts scene with a new documentary, A Time To Swim, on an exiled indigenous activist from Sarawak who returns to his childhood village for the first time since 1992 and must now navigate the various foreign interests and local tensions that stand in the way of saving his village’s culture. It is a testament to the kind of fights that many Malaysian leaders have been fighting for decades now, but lack mainstream popularity because they have fought against policies that belonged to a government that controlled our textbooks, TV channels and newspapers.
This is just one example of what the arts industry now has the independence and capability of doing. We can now expend more energy into the goings-on of these states, from the often-disregarded spoken word scene in Kuching or the rich folklore and mythologies of Borneo that can inform so many of our films and documentaries.
The spotlight has been on the Peninsula for too long and we often forget what our brothers and sisters in Sabah and Sarawak go through. At least for now, there is a medium that can genuinely criticise movements or government figures that have been siphoning away resources or displacing people for too long. With the move to push for a better Malaysia, we should be taking care of everyone within it, even if they happen to be outside our periphery.
During an era where Dr. Mahathir suppressed and detained his opponents, controlled mass media and ensured that there would the masses would not be influenced by any kind of opposition, visual arts was a medium to escape and scream about injustice. Many have considered this industry as just a concern for the urban elite, and the masses are not influenced by it or have larger worries to think about. But art has always mirrored life and there is one thing it can finally imitate with a new freedom of speech: us. We, a stubborn, rebellious people who demand action and change after stagnating for so long. With the slow upwards momentum of our arts industry, now comes the time for us to tell the stories we’ve been longing to write for so long.
Featured image source: http://www.expatgo.com/my/2018/05/10/ge14-power-to-the-people/