An Arts Agenda for Penang


As with excellence in sports, the arts develop best if a nurturing ecosystem is in place. Such conditions require passion from the people, funds from sponsors and support from the state. How these ingredients are best used is the big question.

The Beginnings

There have been many art societies in Penang throughout its history. It was as early as 1920, for example, that Penang Impressionists was formed. No doubt this society’s membership consisted mostly of English housewives (given the prevailing colonialist attitude at that time) but there were two locals who were granted admission: Abdullah Ariff, an art instructor, and the wife of Lim Cheng Kung, a member of the well-known Phuah Hin Leong family.1,2

Booklets of some of the performances organised by the Penang Arts Council.

Since then, art societies have flourished, albeit interrupted by World War II. Major associations included the Penang Chinese Art Club (formed in 1936), the Penang Art Teacher’s Group (formed after the war), the Penang Art Teachers' Council (formed in 1952) and the Penang Art Society (formed in 1953).3

Pamela Ong.

Also founded in 1953 was the Penang Arts Council. J.P. Souter, former Penang Settlement councillor, was its first president. Tay Hooi Keat, the first Malaysian to study art in Britain at the Camberwell School of Art, was its secretary.4

While it has been quiet in recent years, this non-profit body which aims to raise awareness of the arts and improve the quality of arts programmes has held regular art exhibitions for its members and sponsored one-man shows for locals and visiting artists from other states and abroad.5

Pamela Ong, who was president of the Penang Arts Council for two and a half decades, recalls organising concerts, musicals and Italian operas in the 1990s till around 2004. As her children were young, she thought the operas could be family fun and got her own – and other – children involved in the chorus and other activities. It was no easy feat though; organising the musicals was an intense affair and Ong confesses that “when everything came together, I lost one pound a day until opening night.”

Progress did not happen immediately: “We first started with one piano for the music, then two pianos, then more and more till we gradually had a full orchestra.” According to Ong, opera is the most expensive item in an arts repertoire and can easily cost RM1mil to produce. With support from businesses like the Texchem Group of Companies (its executive chairman, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Fumihiko Konishi, loves opera), sponsoring hotels and airlines, the Penang Arts Council was able to have more professional sets. “We did the props ourselves in the beginning. I used furniture from my home. By the time we finished the opera, I had no energy to organise the return of my furniture. My husband would say, ‘How come the furniture is missing? Where’s the settee?’”

Joe Sidek.

The operas usually lasted two nights and “we brought the productions to KL and Singapore.” Ong says she had about 10% foreign participation in her operas and involved locals and school choirs in the chorus, as well as the Penang Youth Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra. The operas were popular and well attended, and Ong notes that the Kuala Lumpur Symphony Orchestra made its debut in Penang during the production of Hansel and Gretel in August 1998.

Interestingly, George Town Festival (GTF) director Joe Sidek made his debut as Director of Costumes in the 2003 production of Turandot, continuing as Costume Designer in the 2004 production of Carmen.

Joe has always believed that the arts must be accessible to the public. “I believe in the collective good, the human-ness of the arts which can change people’s lives,” he says.

For him, a touching example of this took place five years ago when an eight-year-old orphan from an orphanage in Penang was part of a young audience watching Sufi musicians. When the performance ended, the boy dug into his pockets and drew out RM1.50 in coins which he deposited in the donation box. Joe asked why he did this when he did not have much money. The boy said, “I loved the show. And you all need the money.”

The state government has been increasing fund allocations progressively for GTF, from RM400,000 in 2010 to RM3.5mil in2015 and RM4mil in 2016. Audience attendance at GTF over the past four years has remained relatively consistent at 200,000.

However, funding for the arts is always a challenge. “It is never enough,” says Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, “but then we try to do whatever we can with our limited resources. I think we have actually put in much more than has ever been done before – not only in the arts but also in education.” Recently Guan Eng announced a new site for the RM30mil Penang Arts District (PAD) project which will house “the single largest collection of art galleries and cultural museums, creative boutiques, arts schools and workshops in Malaysia.”6

But the arts cannot only be spearheaded by the government. Partnerships must exist: “What we are always looking for are catalyst projects,” says Guan Eng. “Sometimes it’s only public-driven because the private sectors aren’t coming in, just like the PAD. We are planting seeds and trying to let them grow, but it is the private sector that can make it grow – and the artists themselves of course.”

That is not the only type of partnership that can exist. In 1973 Penang’s then-Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu formed a formal sister-city relationship with the City of Adelaide, South Australia. And on August 18, 2015, Guan Eng and South Australia’s Minister for Investment and Trade, Martin Hamilton-Smith, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to promote artistic, cultural and business collaborations between the Adelaide Festival Centre’s OzAsia Festival and GTF.7

An Arts Council 2.0?

There is still the pertinent question of the role of an arts council in a state where the arts are burgeoning. Stuart MacDonald, head of Urban Studies at Penang Institute, thinks that the arts ecosystem can be strengthened. “While George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) is the executive agency for heritage, there is no executive agency for arts and culture. This has been a problem when organising collaborations with overseas municipal and state governments, and Penang Global Tourism has had to be called in in the past to perform this coordinating role.”

The Penang Paradigm,8 a comprehensive development agenda that aims to restore economic dynamism to Penang – among other things – recommends the establishment of an agency called ArtsPenang. This will be a coordinating body, permanently staffed with experienced personnel who have a background in culture and the arts to “promote the sustainable development of artistic and cultural sectors in Penang through arts education, training and capacity building.” Creating a strong infrastructure also means the provision of international standard venues of various forms and sizes.

Street performance during last year's George Town Festival.

The Penang Paradigm recommends that “Dewan Sri Pinang and Town Hall, in particular, should be dedicated once again to civic, artistic and cultural events and placed under professional management under the control of ArtsPenang.” The strategy paper also suggests “a seamless indoor-andoutdoor exhibition and performance space for artistic and cultural events.”

In the grant-making or commissioning process, who gets to do the selecting really matters and affects what gets to be seen and heard. As in the business world, sometimes the “too big to fail” and “too small to succeed” logic is adopted by arts councils. This ecology approach, i.e. funding big arts organisations and neglecting smaller players, even allowing them to die out, does not always work because it is sometimes the smaller, independent companies in dance, theatre and the arts that are more nimble and creative, displaying vibrant energy and artistic vibrancy.9 In the arts, big may not necessarily be beautiful.

An arts council must take care that it does not become merely a “platform o r g a n i s a t i o n ” c o m p r i s i n g gatekeepers who dispense largesse in the form of grants and scholarships to artists working in areas about which they have little knowledge, understanding or interest.10

Prof. Tan Sooi Beng.

An arts council should also have courage. If a return on investment is expected, the council must have a well-crafted roadmap that is fair in distribution, minimal in organisational ego and political manipulation, and inclusive in optimising diversity (e.g., in the way it creates its policies, procedures and practices). The ecosystem for a sustainable arts sector needs to be built up, strengthened and consolidated, and this can only happen with a team of involved, competent and informed council members.11

According to Tan Sooi Beng, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the School of the Arts at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang should have an arts council that is independent and made up of representatives from the private, corporate and government sectors, as well as non-government organisations (NGOs) and communities that “cut across race, class and gender to promote and develop all forms of arts – traditional and contemporary. It should incorporate young people as members who bring along new ideas, skills and energy. Everyone interested and involved in the arts should have a say in the planning and promotion of a sustainable cultural scene and industry in the state.”

Tan thinks the arts council can start an endowment fund (with money raised from the public and private sectors as well as government bodies) that can be shared among arts groups for training, performances and exhibitions. Funding for the training of young people in the arts, including skills in organising performances, exhibitions and festivals, is essential. Penang is in need of theatre and festival managers, producers, stage managers and technical directors. Tan acknowledges that “at this point in time, small grants are given by (State Tourism Development Committee chairman) Danny Law’s office for the arts and tourism, and the Chief Minister’s office for other forms of culture and heritage. Think City has also been giving small grants.”

Tan also expects the council to provide advice to artists on where and how to apply for arts grants, to run festivals, organiseperformances and get police permits for performances. More critically, the documentation and capture of intellectual and social capital12 in the form of a repository for all the different forms of traditional and contemporary arts is important. “This is to ensure that future and present generations can use the information for the creation of new works. A database on the different forms of arts and the cultural groups in Penang can be made publicly available,” says Tan.

Street theatre is for everyone and is free.

Datuk Faridah Merican, acknowledged as Malaysian theatre’s First Lady,13 adds that “Penang can do with an effective arts council that is the artistic arm of the state government, but not run by the politicians. The arts council will be able to advise the state government on how best to collect the funds and how best to use them. It will also keep a close watch on arts activities in the state and ensure that groups, especially recipients of state arts funds, are run well.”

The chief minister reaffirms that the state government does not restrict nor interfere in the arts: “Penang is unique in that we do not restrict, prohibit, censor or interfere just because we’re funding it,” says Guan Eng. “Restricting is one thing; just because you fund them, you will try and direct them on what they must do to serve your interests. The state government doesn’t do that. I think (the arts in Penang) is in good hands. I think the most essential element is freedom.”

Datuk Faridah Merican.

Best Practices

Perhaps Penang could take a leaf from established arts councils around the region. Two significant arts councils that are worth mentioning belong to Australia and Singapore.

The Australia Council for the Arts, the biggest funder of the arts in Australia, spends AU$200mil per year on Australian arts14 and has an Artistic Vibrancy framework15 to help build opportunities and capacity for more Australian artists and arts organisations to engage nationally and internationally.

More than half of the money goes to about 28 arts organisations including the orchestras, the national opera company, flagship theatres and the national indigenous dance company. The Artistic Vibrancy framework provides a structure and resources to help arts organisations reflect on, describe and measure their artistic performance and achievement across the different dimensions of their work. It promotes c o n v e r s a t i o n s and ownership of the measurement process, both qualitative and quantitative, by arts organisations, providing a common language for discourse. In turn, this builds positive relationships between the arts council and the arts sector.

The five core elements of artistic vibrancy are excellence of craft; development, preservation or curation of the art form; development of artists; audience engagement and stimulation; and relevance to the community.

Closer to home, Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) was formed on October 15, 1991 through the amalgamation of the Singapore Cultural Foundation, Cultural Division of Ministry of Community Development, Festival of Arts Secretariat and the National Theatre Trust. This, and the building of the Esplanade, followed the release of the Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts. The NAC launched the annual Singapore Arts Festival in 1999, following the merger of the biennial Singapore Festival of Arts (with a history dating back to the 1970s) and Festival of Asian Performing Arts (inaugurated in 1993).

Jamaludin bin Jalil.

The NAC’s mission is to “nurture the arts and make it an integral part of the lives of the people of Singapore”16 by championing the arts, engaging the public and supporting the arts industry. Hoping to nurture “culturally sensitive and globally attuned citizens,”17 the plan is to double the attendance of at least one arts and culture event from 40% in 2012, and increase the participation of Singaporeans in the arts from 20% to 50% in 2025.

From 2014 to 2018, the Singaporean government has committed an additional SG$20mil to promote Singaporean artists and their cultural offerings abroad, and develop its artists, audiences and cultural institutions through international exchanges.18 This fund complements the NAC’s existing grants framework which includes seed funding, capability development and production grants. (For FY 2016, SG$16.2mil has been set aside by the NAC for Major and Seed Grant Schemes.19)

Jamaludin bin Jalil, a senior lecturer at Singapore’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and an NAC advisory panel member, as well as an accomplished dancer who has performed i n ternat i o na l l y, believes that one of the council’s purposes is to change mind-sets toward the arts. Another role is to create partnerships and act as “a conduit for networking. Maybe the database of such partners is bigger and they can facilitate other areas of funding.”

Jamal, recipient of the NAC’s Young Artist Award (Dance) in 1992, warns that arts council funding comes with “strings attached” as they usually have “an agenda.”

At a staging of The Merchant of Venice at penangpac, the northern region's first arts centre and only the second one in Malaysia after klpac.

The outcome is that artists have to “justify the funding by producing, leading to a tendency to produce artistic performances without giving their art time to mature.”

As a recipient of the Shell/NAC Scholarship in 1994, Jamal had to return to Singapore to work for three years after he completed his Master of Fine Arts degree programme at the Tisch School of Arts, New York University. As an NAC assessor, he has to review candidates against several criteria including “political/sexual content, subversive content/content against the government.”

Starting Them Young

While funding is what keeps the arts alive, it is young talent that keeps them vibrant and novel.

For Faridah, nurturing the arts is critical to the promotion of culture among the people. “For the arts to be promoted, whether in Penang or nationwide, we must develop a cultured race of people. This means that our education system must include the arts as part of its school curriculum and this has to happen from kindergarten. We have lost too many decades when the arts were removed from schools and we now have to suffer the consequences. It is most unfortunate. Arts education is of prime importance and must be reintroduced immediately before further damage is done.”

However, other players will need to step up to make it work. Faridah’s wish is that “the way forward for the arts in Penang does not fall only on the shoulders of the chief minister.” She hopes that “it is a shared vision by the people who care, especially the business community. And let’s include the foreign missions too.”

For Joe, buildings and arts spaces are “the easy part. What we are weak in is arts education.” Schools teach students to “copy, cut, paste.” To encourage greater interest in the arts, Joe has arranged for Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts to conduct a series of 24 workshops for Penangites, starting in September 2016.

Tan too stands up for education: “Outreach programmes for school children can be organised so that young people are introduced to multicultural traditions from young.” She thinks “it is important for the younger generation to cross borders and learn about other cultural traditions as this can promote intercultural interaction.”

An open air Chinese opera performance.

Understandably, some may think that the traditional arts are boring or backward. “Programmes for the exchange of methods of transmission and how traditional forms can be redesigned or recreated to attract the younger generation are also pertinent. Through the council, arts programmes, e.g., heritage walks, viewing art exhibitions and craft making, can be developed for school children. Many schools already have Western symphonic bands or Chinese orchestras,” says Tan.

But access to the arts is equally important, as is community participation. And what better way to encourage this than to bring it to the most public of areas – the streets. According to Tan, “Street culture has been popular in Penang since the early 20th century. The opera and boria were performed in the streets; festivals such as Phor Tor, Thaipusam, or Tua Pek Kong are held in the streets. Omba k-Omba k ARTStudio has been trying to bring back street theatre; young people always perform their stories in community spaces and for the communities from whom they got their stories and sounds. This way, we democratise the arts. Street theatre is for everyone and is free. As a consequence, the streets also come alive with cultural activities.”

Ombak-Ombak ArtStudio is one of the collaborators for Moved by Padi, a multi-arts collaborative project led by Malaysia’s leading choreographer and dancer Aida Redza.

This is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than by GTF every year. Penang in the month of August is something wonderful to behold. A wonderful development in the future, however, would be the transformation of the arts in Penang into something sustained by passion and love; managed with an understanding of artistic excellence; and nurtured by an arts council that provides funding, practises advocacy, supports artists and actively educates the young to appreciate and participate in the arts.

Chew Teng Beng, “History of the development of art in Penang” in Penang Artists 1920-1990, (Penang: The Art Gallery 1996). http://www. by%20Chew%20Teng%20Beng.htm
2 “Mr Lim Cheng Kung Dies”, The Straits Times, June 19, 1947, 4, straitstimes19470619.2.35.aspx
3 Chew Teng Beng, “History of the development of art in Penang” in Penang Artists 1920-1990, (Penang: The Art Gallery 1996). http://www. by%20Chew%20Teng%20Beng.htm
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Opalyn Mok, “Penang arts district to be relocated to Macallum Street”, The Malay Mail Online, July 24, 2016, malaysia/article/penang-arts-district-relocated-tomacallum- street-sia-boey-to-be-transport
7 “South Australia and Malaysia collaborate on arts festivals”, Government of South Australia, Department of State Development, August 19, 2015, news-releases/all-news-updates/south-australiaand- malaysia-collaborate-on-arts-festivals
8 Woo Wing Thye, The Penang Paradigm, http://
9 Gardner, op. cit.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Social capital can be defined as “networks, together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.” (OECD Insights: Human capital – pdf)
13 Dinesh Kumar, “Faridah Merican on theatre, her childhood, and directing Usman Awang’s Uda Dan Dara”, The Star, April 3, 2015, http://www.thestar. talks-about-her-childhood-her-foray-intotheatre- and-directing-usman-awangs-uda-dan/
14 Vassilka Shishkova, “Evaluating the arts sector,” an Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM) report, 2015 – ietm-satellite2015_report-day2-4.pdf
15 “Artistic Vibrancy”, Australia Council for the Arts, artistic-vibrancy/
16 About Us, National Arts Council Singapore, html
17 “The report of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review,” January 31, 2012, p 11 (of 110 pages) – review.html
18 “Cultural City, Sporting Nation, Endearing Home”, Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth Singapore, March 11, 2014, https:// Factsheet_20mSupportForArtists.ashx
19 National Arts Council’s Major and Seed Grant Recipients FY2016, March 22, 2016, https:// Fy2016-Seed-and-Major-Grant

Elizabeth Su is a Mason Fellow from Harvard. She believes that one of the best ways to learn is to ask the right questions.
Julia "Bubba" Tan lives a sedentary life of reading and watching David Attenbourough documentaries. She does not usually refer to herself in the third person.

Related Articles

Nov 2014

A history of local elections in Penang Part I: Democracy Comes Early

Did you know that Penang had its rst show of political protest in 1800? For this month and the next, we delve into a two-part history of local elections in Penang.

May 2010

Halal – the next frontier

Penang’s halal industry is going global, and it has momentum on its side.

Sep 2010

Priced off Penang: Who can afford an island home?

There is a property boom on the island, and Penang’s middle class may have to move out.

Feb 2018

Speedy Growth for Cruise Tourism

Along with it is the increase in the need for integrated planning.