Penang Needs to Develop Public Appreciation of the Performing Arts

EVEN BEFORE the Covid-19 outbreak, the performing arts in Penang were already struggling. In fact, if one considers the huge amount of artistic talent that is available, the sector is definitely underdeveloped and markedly undervalued.

Conversations with local performers reveal commonalities in their artistic journeys. In order for practical solutions to be worked out, more light needs to be shed on why the performing arts are floundering in Penang.

In most cases, a child’s first introduction to a performing art is due to parental desire to give him or her a well-rounded upbringing. Some get introduced through public exposure and media influence, be it through an unexpected chance to perform music in a restaurant, or perhaps from having watched an inspiring and catchy television show.

Penangite Jaslyn Chia, who is currently studying drama at the University of Exeter, remembers how she at 10 began taking modern jazz classes after watching a performance on television, and how the compulsory drama classes at the Prince of Wales Island International School made her “fall in love” with theatre, a passion she maintains to this day.

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According to Angie Ng, a music teacher previously based in Penang, local parents are often more concerned with outcome than with artistic development. Many do little beyond chauffeuring their children to classes and providing monetary support; their interests do not extend beyond watching their children in a performance or two. At the other end of the spectrum are the “tiger” parents who handhold their children throughout their artistic careers, often zapping the fun and enjoyment out of the art form.

The arts have been instrumental in shaping morals and raising articulation of experiences across society.

Many young students, especially those in the government school system, give up on their arts classes due to parental pressure. Ballet teacher Annabel Koh distinguishes two types of parents at her dance school: those who put immense pressure on their children to get “good grades” in ballet examinations, making lessons tedious for their children in the process; and those who make certain that when their children’s “schooling is suffering, the first thing they will drop is arts”.

Their reasoning is that the kids are better off investing in academic tuition. Many local parents also see getting good grades and going to top universities as the best way to get ahead in life, relegating the arts to just another way of padding their children’s resume. The vast social, mental and emotional benefits of the arts are seldom considered.

Income instability is often par for the course. This prompts even artists who have amassed years of experience in lessons, performances and competitions to decide against pursuing their craft professionally. Student drummer Yuheng Cheh, for example, does not plan to do drumming full time because all the travelling necessary to find gigs leads to “unstable schedules” that are not “as glamorous as you [might] think”.

Even when Penangites do choose a career in the arts, as is the case with Jaslyn Chia, the lack of job opportunities and the low public appreciation of the arts drive most of them away from Penang to places where there is a thriving art scene. Like many of their peers in the art community, both Yuheng and Jaslyn want to be where hard work and talent can guarantee a respected and comfortable career.

Playwright and music teacher Chia Chia Lim recounts her experience working in local theatre companies, where on top of rehearsals, she also helped to raise funds and to promote and organise events. She soon had to start on a day job. Many are able to maintain a day job and work on their art in the evenings only when they are young, however, and over time, the low income and long hours become too much of a burden, especially once they have started a family.

Sustainable development of the performing arts lies in changing attitudes and cultivating interest among members of the public. Incorporating these into the curriculum can bring long-term positive effects.

The performing arts community in Penang deserves more recognition and support for their potential to drive positive change in the state. Photo: Cher Yee Xin.

As it is, the government school system prefers rigid and passive teaching methods. Dance, music and theatre have been demoted to extra-curricular activities in most schools, reinforcing the belief that performing arts are not to be taken seriously. Such sentiments betray a lack of understanding or perhaps a willful neglect of important life skills as well as soft skills that are learned through the performing arts, such as confidence, teamwork, attention to detail and discipline.

Current drama and ballet student Yi Xuan Lim credits her drama classes for increasing her “confidence in speaking and expressing [her]self ”, and her ballet classes for her physical awareness and coordination.

Even if most performing arts students do not end up as professional artists, a quality arts education allows them to appreciate such activities, leaving them more inclined to support art performances in the future. Such an attitude can in turn lead to demands for higher quality performing arts competitions and events in society and help bridge the gap between amateurs and professionals.

The local culture tends to value monetary success over less measurable goals such as happiness and personal fulfillment. The arts, whose impact is subtler and more intangible, are often dismissed as a luxury. But throughout history, the arts have been instrumental in shaping morals and raising articulation of experiences across society.

To this end, the performing arts community in Penang deserves more recognition and support for their potential to drive positive change in the state.

Born and raised in Penang, Cher Yee Xin is a high school junior currently attending The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, USA.

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