The arts hold a mirror to our society

The arts help define a nation’s past and future — they are central to its story. By looking at national culture in this way, we are also able to better understand the world we live in.

The arts represent the collective output of those engaging in creative society. This ranges from the theatre we attend, music we listen to, books we read and buildings we inhabit. It encompasses film, design, architecture, fashion, the visual arts and much, much more.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, those that engage in this sector contribute “to the development of art and culture”. Article 27 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines that “everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community”. This raises the question of how these interpretations of culture are valued and contribute to cultural policy and future social and economic development.

A clearly articulated and coherent arts and cultural policy can provide the nation with more than just a lens through which to view its identity. While everyone in society creates culture, it is the government that is involved through the use of policy in advocating the intrinsic importance of this culture to society.

The arts are often overlooked in favour of issues like the economy and education. However, a stronger promotion of arts and cultural policy can strengthen these areas. And, while there are tools and measures to judge and analyse art, much of this relies on the subjectivity of the viewer. In turn, helping to foster high-order critical thinking — a skill set essential in a knowledge-based economy.

Studies show that an education in the arts benefits student achievement in many ways. The National Endowment for the Arts, using datasets from the United States Department of Education, found that not only does student involvement in the arts leads to better academic outcomes, but that those who are exposed to an arts education are more likely to graduate high school, aspire to college and earn a bachelor’s degree (especially those from low socio-economic or at-risk groups). The same study also showed that arts education correlated with avid reading and higher levels of volunteerism.

As Malaysia continues to strive for national unity, the study of arts in educational institutions must be emphasised. The argument is made that because the arts, as a discipline, does not easily fit into the quantifiable test models of Maths and English, that it is somehow of lesser value. However, the skill sets that an artistic training give are multiple, they can be used in the workplace and far beyond.

In Malaysia, arts and cultural policy fall under the purview of the Tourism and Culture Ministry’s National Department for Culture and Arts. This has evolved through various forms based on the vision and direction of the nation at the time.

In the National Cultural Policy (1971), there was a focus on the promotion of indigenous cultures. This was later expanded to be more inclusive in trying to foster a common identity. Today, with the prevalence of new technological possibilities, it is economically and culturally important to broaden and promote the creative industries in Malaysia.

The arts can also strengthen a nation’s soft diplomatic efforts through the promotion of cultural diplomacy (think Japan’s evolution from 20th Century imperial power to modern pop culture and technological hub). By demonstrating national values through the arts, Malaysia projects an understanding of its rich cultural diversity. It is also important in developing and expanding the RM65 billion tourism industry. The George Town Festival is a good example of this, though there are many others.

These are only some of the social and cultural benefits to be had by projecting the nation’s creativity through people-to-people engagement. By assuming the chairmanship of Asean next year, Malaysia is at an important juncture where it can capitalise on this and project a sophisticated representation of its modern culture across the region.

Next year will also see Malaysia embark on its 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP) — the blueprint for the next five years of development.

The 10MP was, in many ways, formulated in response to the global financial crisis, and provided for supply side reforms to promote economic growth.

Though light on detail, 10MP did talk of creating an artistic and cultural identity with a Malaysian focus and global relevancy.

Extra support was also promised through the use of grants for individuals and creative industries.

The title of this piece is in reference to a statement made by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. He was also the architect of the country’s first national arts policy — Creative Nation (1994). Keating was a great believer in the centrality of the arts to a nation’s development.

It is important to note that Malaysia’s Vision 2020 only mentioned the economy as one among nine challenges in meeting industrialised nation status by 2020.

As Malaysia enters its final five-year journey towards this goal, its public policy should reflect the cultural maturity that comes with this designation. One way to do this is surely through promotion of the arts.

Original article published in the New Straits Times.

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Published Date
  • August 23, 2014
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