The Creative Industries as Cultural and Economic Catalyst


THE CREATIVE INDUSTRIES can be widely defined as activities that are focused on creativity, skill and talent; and that have the potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.1 Broadly speaking, creative industries encompass art, culture and technology; and if understood and enforced in this manner, can be a potent force in taking Penang’s economy to the next level. That being said, the term “creative industries” is still unfamiliar to many and often, it is used interchangeably by relevant parties abroad to define a similar concept – creative ecology, creative ecosystem and creative economy are some examples.

"... creativity is omnipresent. It is not only evident in the final products, but also in the developing of ideas and the problem-solving process itself.”

Malaysia was actually a forerunner where the embrace of the digital age is concerned. The establishment of the Multimedia Super Corridor in 1996 signified the beginning of Malaysia’s pledge to become a thriving knowledge-based economy; and to oversee these initiatives, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation, formerly known as the Multimedia Development Corporation, was established.2 The National Creative Industry Policy (DIKN) was introduced in 2009 to raise public awareness, improve quality, and widen the domestic and international markets for the country’s creative industries, which are classified as multimedia creative industries (film and TV, advertising, design, animation and digital content); cultural arts creative industries (crafts, visual arts, music, performing arts, creative writing, fashion and textiles); and cultural heritage creative industries (museum, archives, restoration, preservation).3

In practice, these categories often intersect and complement one another, overlapping to form new collaborations and invaluable sources of innovation. For instance, the production of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in movies require the usage of multimedia, but the crafting of plots that resonate with movie-goers draws inspiration from the world by art and culture. In other words, art, culture and technology are indistinct from each other, the way "design" is an indispensable element in all areas of the creative industries. Interestingly, fields like architecture and interior design are not found within the DIKN although they are very much creativity-motivated. The question to ponder upon, therefore, is how does one determine if a practice or industry is engaged in creativity?

Some of the unique products sold at RIUH (Kokedama Kuala Lumpur). Photo: Alexander Fernandez.

When it comes to the creative industries, its key component is undoubtedly the element of creativity. In the normal practice of evaluating education through measurables and eventual market worth, the need to encourage creativity in students is often neglected as it is considered to be a talent that is inert, and not one which can be developed. “But creativity is omnipresent,” says Leong Hoy Yoke, the managing director of The One Academy Penang. “It is not only evident in the final products, but also in the developing of ideas and the problem-solving process itself.”

A recent initiative by the federal government to replace the art and science streams with STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Arts and Music) education for Form 4 students at the start of this year is encouraging in that it apparently seeks to correct this offending oversight. Sadly, enrolment in creativity-related courses in Penang’s tertiary educational institutions has been dwindling in comparison to other fields of study. Leong chalks this down to the fact that parents are generally not supportive of their children pursuing a career in the arts.

On the whole, the extent of the federal government’s involvement in managing the creative industries for economic development remains a point for debate. Some may argue that categorical definitions and the channeling of resources solely into specified scopes limit the concept’s general representation. But assuredly, this issue is not unique to Malaysia alone. Governments with a long-standing history in developing their creative industries also face similar difficulties. Culture and creativity should be relooked if the concept is to be lifted from its enduring wedge, between cultural preservation and economic gain. With that in mind, should the creative industries sit only at the heart of the government’s cultural policy, or be part of its economic policy as well?4 That is a question all governments have to answer.

Creative Platforms

A research team from Universiti Malaya has found that the term “creative hubs” refers to many different types of creative groups, and to various practices. In most cases, a creative hub signifies a physical or virtual space, permanent or transient, where some form of creative production is carried out.

The final RIUH of 2019, “A Very Merry RIUH” was held in Sentul Depot, Malaysia's largest train depot that is currently inoperative. Photo: Alexander Fernandez.

The federal government investment arm, MyCreative Ventures, was launched in 2012 to spur Malaysia's creative industries via strategic and innovative funding. An allocation of RM200mil was set aside for this purpose.5 Supporting the overall initiative are two units: RIUH, a curated creative platform that aims to connect creative entrepreneurs, creators and artists; and CENDANA (Cultural Economy Development Agency), which works at energising the arts, empowering the communities and reorganising policies.

Led by Marissa Wambeck, RIUH provides a bimonthly sales platform for creative products such as clothing and crafts. Apart from pop-up stores, there are also food trucks, workshops, and live performances running simultaneously. Today, RIUH has cemented itself as a well-known brand – especially in KL – and has many businesses with storefronts or online stores displaying their products. It also acts as a good exposure platform for startups. To keep things interesting, RIUH rotates its vendors and venues to cater to a different crowd each time. During one which the writers visited, several of the participating vendors were social enterprises. One was Seven Tea One, a local brand for handcrafted infusion teas sourced from small-scale family-run urban farms and community gardens. It recruits employees who are differently-abled and from marginalised communities, enabling them to earn a dignified living in a non-discriminative work environment.6

In KL creative platforms like RIUH are on the rise. The once dilapidated Zhongshan building located at Kampung Attap is a well-documented example. As highlighted in the British Council's report “Mapping Creative Hubs in Malaysia” in 2017, the privately-owned building has been transformed into a lively art hub, with different units in the building being rented out to creative tenants including a record store, design archive, bookstore, bakery, and a cafe.7 The uniqueness of Zhongshan is that it functions not only as a space for creation, discussion and learning, but also as a base for creative consumption, exhibition, performance, and even collaboration.

Local Creative Initiatives

To be sure, creative bases have been emerging in recent years. For instance, the state-initiated Creative Animation Triggers, launched in 2014 in George Town, spearheads the Creative Multimedia Content industry by inviting local and international studios to set up bases in Penang.8 Space within the original colonial building along Lebuh Victoria where it is housed has been transformed to accommodate digital nomads, artists and cultural workers. The state administration similarly started the Penang Art District (PAD), a contemporary arts and culture hub to catalyse the visual arts scene in Penang.9

The Hin Pop-Up Market. Photo: Alexander Fernandez.

“There is no doubt that the creative industries are always within the scope of our promotion, and this includes the arts and crafts,” says Yeoh Soon Hin, the committee chairman for Tourism Development, Arts, Culture and Heritage. “Penang’s creative industries are still very much at the cultivation stage where we are raising awareness of the industries themselves, as well as understanding the market. Nevertheless, Penang has always prided itself in hosting a variety of successful cultural events like the annual George Town Festival, the award-winning George Town Literary Festival and the Butterworth Fringe Festival.”

Yeoh provides additional examples, including Open Studios Penang (now a two-weekend art festival sponsored by Penang artists and art lovers); Short + Sweet (a performing arts platform to showcase aspiring talents in a highly creative, collaborative, competitive and professional environment); and IndiePG (a musical event featuring independent acts from all over Malaysia, as well as music-related workshops). “The Penang state government will be setting up a Penang Arts Council to provide further support for these young artists.”

In the local creative circle, Hin Bus Depot has carved a big name for itself as an independent art base. After a period of abandonment when it fell into ruins, the former bus depot was given a fresh lease of life after Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic hosted his solo exhibition Art Is Rubbish/Rubbish Is Art there in 2014, featuring works of art created from preloved junk, discarded treasures, and overlooked street items. It soon became the “IT place” for creatives, residents and tourists alike.

Yeoh Soon Hin.

Still, running a popular art space is not without its struggles, says owner Tan Shih Thoe. Tan and his team work hard to explore and experiment with many different functions and possibilities for the space; and bit by bit, separate parts of the building were renovated and rented out as a cafe, restaurant, craft store, pottery and wood workshop. Another facet of Hin Bus Depot that is attractive to both locals and tourists is the creative pop-up Hin Market, a platform where entrepreneurs, small business owners, craftsmen, artisans, musicians, performers, and makers of all kinds come together to showcase their products, crafts and talents every Sunday. For the days where visitor numbers are low, Tan says venue rentals are banked on to keep the place up-and-running, adding that his team is currently looking into sustainable solutions to address the issue.

Besides Hin Bus Depot, Penang also boasts creative spaces like Mano Plus and Jetty 35 – each with its unique business model, strengths and target groups. “The way I see it, the relationship between these spaces are more of supportive partners, rather than of competitors. This way, the creative scene can be developed collectively, even more so when resources are scarce.” But there is much room for improvement, this is especially so where support for artists is concerned. What can be prioritised for now at least are the resources, e.g. practical learning tools, understanding of laws and regulations, and the methodology in obtaining resources, which can be significantly assisted by the relevant stakeholders involved.

Alexander Fernandez is a USM graduate. While most people eat to live, he lives to eat instead.
Lim Sok Swan is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.
Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.

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