Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bayu Utomo Radjikin

Bayu Utomo is one of my favourite Malaysian painter. I simply loves his work. I had the opportunity to interview him and the story was published in the sun newspaper on Nov 18. Here is the full story

Headline : Basic Instinct

MALAYSIAN figurative artist Bayu Utomo Radjikin has had his work exhibited in the United States, Britain, Austria, India and elsewhere. The award winning artist tells theSun there is an urgent need to take our art outside Malaysia.

* Your father was a teacher. Did your parents ever object to you being an artist?

No. Where I come from (Tawau, Sabah), as long as you have made it to university, you have made your parents proud. They will feel they have fulfilled their duty as parents. What course you take at university is never an issue. I took a degree in Fine Arts from University Technology Mara in 1991. They just want to see you succeed.

What has been the best compliment and the worst criticism you have received in your 25 years as an artist?

My name was surprisingly mentioned in school text books. It is a compliment when the young know of you and your work. As for criticism, I have yet to receive any.

Are the media playing their role in promoting Malaysian art?

The media wants to cover something that’s interesting. If art no longer interests people, you cannot blame the media for not covering it. Perhaps we should be putting on more exciting exhibitions to grab media attention. I do feel that whenever the media cover an exhibition, they are more interested in reporting who came to see it. Maybe artists need to explain an exhibition, so the media understand the concept behind it. In that way, they will be more tempted to write about it.
I would also like to see more in-depth writing on the arts. Everyone knows about the late Ibrahim Hussein and his work that is worth millions. Yet, there are no real discussions in the media on why it is worth millions or why it makes his a popular name around the world. Everyone knows that the late Syed Ahmad Jamal was awarded the Seniman Negara, but there are no real discussions about his art work in the media so that people will understand why. I may be asking too much of the media, but it would be good if we could have that.


Tell us more about your gallery, House of Matahati (HOM)?

It was created by Matahati, an art group consisting of five members, and was established in 2007 as an independent art space. Besides exhibitions, we have a programme to help nurture artists, especially young ones. We have a six-month resident programme for local graduate artists. We give chosen artists an allowance, basic art materials and a studio to work in. At the end of the programme, the work they produce will be exhibited in this gallery. So far, 11 artists have been on the programme. We also have international residencies where foreign artists stay at HOM for a month and interact and connect with local artists and the art scene. The most recent is the SAGE (Southeast Asia Art Group Exchange), where we are inviting artists from Indonesia and the Philippines to stay here in Kuala Lumpur and visit artist studios, galleries and collectors with the locals.
HOM also has the MEAA (Malaysian Emerging Artist Award) that is given to young and talented artists to pursue a direction in art practice, and lastly the Matahati Art Fund where some of the money we collect is channelled to artists who want to run art activity locally. We also give to relief funds such as after the Yogyakarta earthquake and the Mount Merapi eruption.

Some artists believe the government gives the arts less priority than other areas.

The answer can be yes and no. Culture and the arts are still on the government’s agenda, but of course culture gets more emphasis. Maybe the physical form of culture is more attractive. It is easier to sell as a brand outside Malaysia, to pull in the foreign tourists. There seems to be less dedication to showing our art outside Malaysia, I guess.
But recently, there have been increasing efforts to showcase our work elsewhere. However, some of us find the whole business of promoting our art outside Malaysia a little bit superficial. And when things are done superficially, they don’t last.

An example of superficial?

Contemporary art is very in now, so they make all our work fit into this segment. People in the art scene feel they don’t put the right work in the right perspective.
They have been promoting art outside Malaysia since late last year, and hopefully, there will be consistent efforts every year. We promote everything on an ad hoc basis. Consistency is important if we want to make an impact. All you need do is to consistently promote our work for five years, and you will see results.
We have put up many exhibitions, most showing local art to the locals. We feel good about ourselves. Other Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are showing off their art abroad. We don’t even showcase our work in this region. When people think of an art hub in Asia and finding new talents, they don’t look at Malaysia. Most of the time, they go to Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.
It is important to take the work of our artists elsewhere so that there will be a platform for new artists to emerge. If you look in a small pond, you will find the big fish eating the small fish. For the small fish to grow, effort must be made to take the big fish out of the pond and put them in the ocean.
The same principle applies in the art world. For young artists to grow in Malaysia, established artists must be given a different market to conquer. Of course we cannot place the whole responsibility of introducing our work to the world on the government’s shoulder.
In Indonesia, artists know the government cannot help much to promote their art, so they do it on their own. You find Indonesian art galleries, collectors and buyers so confident that Indonesian work will have international appeal, that they take the initiative to showcase artists and collections all over the world. That adds more value to the collections and the artists get exposure, too. Sometimes, I find Malaysian artists don’t feel the urgency of the need to take their work elsewhere.

Do we have work with international appeal?

Yes, but we don’t have to be super good to be noticed. People who look for art from other countries, are usually looking for something different – something they cannot find in their country, but something they can still relate to.

Some artists consider the National Art Gallery (NAG) a white elephant.

I have done a few projects with NAG and they are helpful and keen. But as a government agency, there is still red tape to adhere to. For me, if NAG is lacking in some way, the artists should come forward and make comments and suggestions, so that the gallery can run more efficiently. NAG is like one big umbrella and like it or not, Malaysian artists come under it. NAG and our artists have a father and son relationship. The father should do whatever’s best for his son, but if he is doing something wrong, the son should tell him and work with him to make things right. Yes, there is some limitation there, but don’t make that a fence that prevents things being done. NAG has the power to shape the art scene.

What change would you like to see at NAG?

NAG staff and curators should get more training. I am not asking for world standards; if they can be as good as the Singapore Art Museum (SAG), I would be happy. At SAG, the curators often present well-researched art exhibitions. Often you find relevance and the connection between one piece and another. Sometimes NAG has too many exhibitions, which leads to lack of research and depth. But I believe they realise that and want to improve.

Some say art in Malaysia caters to the elite.

I don’t agree. The public can access art in this country. NAG is open to the public. Perhaps art is owned by the elite – it doesn’t matter who owns it. Manchester United may be owned by one person. But MU has fans all over the world who admire the players and feel they are part of the team as fans. Same goes with art. Look at the Mona Lisa – maybe one museum owns it, but everyone in the world sees and appreciates it.


What change would you like to see in the art scene?

I’d like to see artists working together to achieve bigger goals for Malaysian art. For example, we know Malaysians prefer realism work such as landscapes, figures, portraits etc. Artists should come together to get Malaysians to appreciate different types of visual art that are less popular such as abstracts. I know some will blame the education system for not educating students on art. But I believe the era of blaming the system is over. We, as artists, should take the initiative to educate Malaysians.

Why is it that artists don’t work together towards this end?

In most other art fields, they have to interact with others to get their work done. They cannot work alone. For example, a film maker must work with his cast and crew to complete his film. A choreographer needs to work with his dancers to present his dance piece.
But a visual artist has the freedom to work alone. He can be in his studio alone and create his pieces. Artists are very individual and comfortable being alone. This is why I feel they should work together. They need a bigger voice to be heard; they need to be united to be seen.

You love creating work dealing with figures. Why?

I don’t have the answers to that. I think it’s better not knowing why you like something. I believe if you overanalyse, you might end up not liking it and stop doing it.
In art, an artist deals with something he does not understand. His search is what makes him keep doing it. The day he understands why he paints a certain theme, he stops doing it and moves to another. I believe the biggest difference between sciences and the arts is that science wants to be discovered, and art does not.

Islam forbids the painting of figures and portraits. How do you deal with this as a Musli

From what I understand, you should not produce work that will be worshipped like God. I have always been comfortable with what I have been doing. The day I feel uncomfortable doing figures, I will stop painting them. I have many young Muslims artists who come to me for advice on whether they should do figures and portraits, and I simply tell them: “Follow your heart. If your heart says don’t do it, then don’t. It is between you and God.”

Some say you are not versatile and adventurous with your themes.

An artist must do what is in his mind and heart. I have an artist friend who constantly changes his themes and techniques; he cannot do the same thing. He is simply following what is in his mind and heart. I want to change, but at this moment my body and my heart won’t allow me to. I still have so much more to discover in what I am doing now. I also don’t want to be forced to do something for the sake of showing my critics that I can be versatile.

Are there messages in your work?

These days, I am more interested in capturing emotions than having messages in my work. I am more interested in seeing the audience’s emotions when they see my work.

What is your advice to young artists?

If ten people graduate as doctors, you can bet almost all will become doctors. If ten people graduate as visual artists, you will find only two or three earning a living as visual artists.
Life as an artist can be tough; it cannot promise you an easy, comfortable life. Sometimes people buy your work and sometimes they don’t. But an artist must continue to paint in whatever circumstances.
Like everyone else, an artist’s life has its ups and downs. As an artist, you can really count the number of days when you are up. There are more down days than up, but those experiences shape and make you. To sustain yourself, you must be stubborn and follow your heart; you must really have a passion for art, which is a difficult thing to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Isa Kamari

This is an interesting interview where it has generated various kind of reaction. Some like it and some don't. I find the award winning novelist Isa Kamari has spoken from his heart. Isa Kamari is the second novelist I have interviewed in Singapore. The first one being Alfian Saat. Isa Kamari interview was published in theSun on Oct 7

Headline : Humanistic Islam

Singaporean novelist Isa Kamari has been conferred the S.E.A. Write Award, the Cultural Medallion -- Singapore’s highest award for art -- and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang. He tells BISSME S. that religion comes before his art.

Have you faced challenges writing in Malay in Singapore?

There are no major challenges faced by writers in Singapore who write in Malay. We enjoy freedom and the support of the government in our literary pursuits in terms of publishing, translation and project grants. There are also literary awards such as the Golden Point Award and Singapore Literature Prize offered for outstanding literary work in the four official languages – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

Why don’t you write in English, which will give you a bigger audience around the world?

I think in Malay. It is only natural and more impactful if I write in Malay. English is my working language. Every language has its own cultural codes and historical references. Of course, I would want a bigger audience. As a stepping stone, some of my novels and poetry have been translated into English. Three translated novels were recently published; two more novels are in the pipeline. I am also trying to get my work translated into other languages and published in other countries besides Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Why do you prominently feature Islam in your work?

Islam is an essential part of me; so it is only natural that I write about it. However, I prefer to approach Islam from humanistic perspectives. I write about experiencing Islam as human beings with limitations, dreams and aspirations, confronted with the realities of the modern world.

Do you consider yourself a Muslim artist, focusing only on the subject of Islam

I am a Muslim first, an artist second. Being creative is my way of worshipping God. Islam is a way of life. So indirectly, I am writing about life. I have no qualms about not being an artist, as long as I am at peace with God and myself.

Your novel Tawassul portrays the cloning of Prophet Muhammad and has been considered controversial. Some have accused you of blasphemy.

I guess such reactions can be expected since my writing challenges established norms. I have chosen to push the out-of-bounds markers to provoke readers into thinking deeper about challenges we all face today which affect our beliefs and value systems.
With regard to Tawassul, there are two camps. Some readers accuse me of desecrating the Prophet. A particular reader goes to the extent of accusing me of creating a false Prophet. The other camp of readers is of the opinion that I have written an avant garde piece of Islamic literature that addresses pertinent issues faced by modern Islamic societies.
Another novel which has been perceived to be controversial is Kiswah which some conservative readers feel is pornography. Others think I have written a piece of literature that is fresh and touching. Kiswah attempts to bridge the duality of sexuality and spirituality.
My latest novel Duka Tuan Bertakhta, published this year, might be perceived as controversial because I did not mince my words in describing the stupidity and follies of the Malay Sultanate in bygone years.

Tell us more about Duka Tuan Bertakhta. What motivated you to write it?

I have always wanted to write “the Singapore story”. What better way than to write about its founding in 1819. In Duka Tuan Bertakhta, I offer an alternative history of the founding of the island by Stamford Raffles. He has always been portrayed as a hero in the official version of Singapore’s history, but I discovered that he was really a scoundrel who had blood on his hands.
The novel also relates how the British took advantage of the conflict between the families of the Sultan of Johor and the Yamtuan Muda of Riau, and duped the greedy and weak Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman into “selling” Singapore to the British East India Company, which took full control of the island in 1823.
I was disappointed when a similar situation arose in 1874 when the British took advantage of the fight between three parties for the throne in Perak and Raja Abdullah sought the help of the British to establish him as the Sultan. The Treaty of Pangkor was signed and became the model for the British to subsequently “rule” the Malay lands by proxy of the Sultans.
This novel is pertinent because recently the issue of whether Malaysia was ever colonised by the British was brought up. I smiled when I read about it. You have to read Duka Tuan Bertakhta to appreciate how Singapore became the keystone and launching ground for the colonial ambitions of the British in the Malay lands.

Have you ever gotten into trouble for writing on these issues?

So far, I have not been sanctioned by anyone. I hope that I would not have to face such troubles in the future. I am just interested in telling the truth.

Have you alienated anyone with your writings, especially on religious issues?

You can’t please everyone. People inadvertently do get hurt or disagree strongly with some of my views, but I never seek to break any bond of friendship. I welcome healthy conflict as long as it remains civil and is based on respect and tolerance.

What is the greatest misconception people have about Islam and Muslims around the world?

Islam is more feared than respected by many. The fear comes from not understanding that it is a peaceful, tolerant and inclusive religion. The fear is compounded by terrorism by fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. However some of the comments and criticisms directed at Muslims deserve to be considered squarely and earnestly by Muslims, in particular the resistance of Muslim communities to change. A lot of work has to be done within Islam to facilitate the willingness of Muslims to be adaptable and embrace changes which do not go against the teachings of Islam.

What can be done to change this unflattering image of Islam so it would not be feared and seen as intolerant?

The best way is to lead by example. Muslims have to come out and portray Islam as a religion of peace, love and understanding. Efforts must be made by them to bridge the understanding between different faiths. Muslims must lead dignified, just and compassionate lives so that the beauty and glory of Islam are manifested in everyday living for others to appreciate and emulate.

Why do you say Muslim communities are resistant to change?

I think it has to do with the way in which history is interpreted by most Muslims. It is true that we can learn from the past. But it is equally important that we have a firm grounding of the present and a vision for the future. We should not copy everything from the past but be able to differentiate between principles and forms in religion. To remain relevant to the present and contribute to advancement in civilisation of the future, we must be willing and brave to rethink and reformulate some of the forms while remaining faithful and true to the principles in religion.

What is your opinion of the Lina Joy case (where a Muslim converted to Christianity)?

I did not follow the case closely, but from the little that I know, I have this to say. As much as I would wish that she remains a Muslim, I would respect her choice to embrace any faith she desires. It is meaningless to enforce a legal ruling to keep her within the Islamic faith if she is determined to denounce Islam either secretly or openly. My position is based on surah Al Kafirun (The Disbelievers) in the Quran.

Please explain surah Al Kafirun?

Let me quote the verses:
I do not worship what you worship,
nor do you worship what I worship.
I shall never worship what you worship,
neither will you worship what I worship.
You have your own religion and I have mine.”

Should Muslims be allowed to convert to any religion they want?

Choice of one’s own religion is a fundamental right of every human being. There is no compulsion in religion. In as much as I would welcome the conversion of others to Islam, what right do I have to prevent a Muslim from converting to another faith? Of course as a matter of concern, I would offer counsel to the person who wants to leave Islam, but the final decision entirely rests with that person. Every human being has to answer to God of his or her own accord. I would have done my part if I’d tried to convince that person to remain within the fold of Islam.

What is your stand on freedom of expression – about books that mock religion and God?

Everyone has the right to express his thoughts and feelings freely, as long as it does not infringe on the rights and freedom of others. Books that mock religion and God would inevitably infringe on the rights and freedom of the adherents of the religion and should be removed from circulation for the public good.

There is always talk that Singapore Malays face some form of discrimination.

Discrimination happens everywhere. I prefer to regard is as a challenge which has to be overcome. Some of my work addresses these challenges squarely.

In what way?

In my novels, I try to break stereotypes and prejudices that result in discrimination through the creation of characters which are caught in challenging and conflicting situations. For example in Satu Bumi, my character Tan Swee Mei was adopted by a Malay family during the Japanese Occupation and fell in love with a Malay politician. She who had changed her name to Aminah was later killed by a group of Chinese during the racial riots in 1963 when they found out that she had become “Malay”.
In Atas Nama Cinta (Nadra), a Dutch girl Maria Hertogh was adopted and brought up as a Muslim by Aminah, a Malay businesswoman in Tjimahi and Kemaman. Maria’s biological parents wanted her back and a legal battle ensued in the colonial courts of Singapore. The tensions that arose resulted in racial riots in December 1950. These two novels in particular dealt openly with the issues of prejudice and discrimination. The purpose is to invite cross-cultural dialogue between readers.

What is the philosophy and message in your work?

My philosophy and messages evolve through my writing career. You have to read my work to trace the evolution. However, I have always believed that life is essentially spiritual and writers must be sincere and uphold truth regardless of the consequences.

How do you continue to sharpen your writing skills?

I don’t drive. I take public transport to ponder on issues and observe people. I also love to read and travel. To me, writing is not just about having the skill to put words together, but the conviction and courage to delve deeper into life through the exploration of thoughts, and coming to terms with emotions that might evolve, and sharing these with others in a beautiful and convincing way.

I understand you sing.

That happened by accident. A friend wrote some songs based on my poetry. We approached another friend and formed a band called Sirrfillsirr (Secrets within Secrets) in 2004. We have produced two albums so far: Cinta Arafah and Kurnia. The songs are mainly spiritual in nature. We have a niche following in Malaysia and Singapore. Our concerts and gigs are generally well received.

Famous writers from the East such as Haruki Murakami (Japan), Rabindranath Tagore (India) and Zhou Weihui (China) had their work translated into English and gained international acclaim. Why is the same not the case with writers who write in Malay?

Honestly, I think we have not reached such a calibre. We have good writers such as A. Samad Said, Anwar Ridhwan, Masuri S. N., Suratman Markasan, just to name a few. But we have not yet produced great writers. And the quality of English translation of some of the work of these writers leaves much to be desired too.

Some believe the themes Malay novelists adopt are very Malay culture-orientated, which an international audience cannot relate to.

Yes, that is partly true. It is not so much in the subject of the writing but the lack of depth and breadth of the work that causes the lack of interest. I believe there are many readers around the world who would want to know us better. It is just that we have not produced work appealing enough to capture their hearts and imagination.

What can we do to enable Malay writing to gain international appeal?

We simply need to produce great works. No amount of promotion or advertisement will work if in the first place we do not have great works to share with the world.

What is the biggest change you would like to see in Singapore?

The change is already taking place slowly. People are more open and willing to voice their opinions and express themselves.

Three of your novels have been translated into English. How do you overcome the challenges in translation especially in maintaining the essence of the work?

The translator of my novels into English is my wife, Dr Sukmawati Sirat, who knows me better than anyone else. We would discuss the translation, but I would let her have the final say before sending it to the publisher. (Isa’s novels which are available in English are Satu Bumi (One Earth), Tawassul (Intercession) and Atas Nama Cinta (Nadra).

Describe your childhood years? When did you begin writing? Which writers inspired you?

It was very tactile in nature. I lived in a kampung and have wonderful memories of catching spiders, playing in drains, stealing chickens and climbing fruit trees. I have related those memories in my novel Memeluk Gerhana. I started writing when I was in school, and published my first poem in Berita Minggu in 1979 when I was 19. I have not stopped writing since. In my younger days, I read the work of W.S. Rendra, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Anwar Ridhwan, Latiff Mohidin, Rabindranath Tagore, Rumi and more. There wasn’t one particular writer who inspired me. I guess all of them influenced me in their own special ways.

You are an architecture manager with the Land Transport Authority Singapore. How do you balance your job and writing? Will you write full-time?

Architecture is my profession. Writing is my passion. I spend most of the day at work. I write mostly at night when everyone is asleep. Once, my chief architect at the Housing Development Board, my first place of work, told me that the secret to good art is being focused during its production. I have taken his advice and tried to be productive and distinctive in my art by focusing on it whenever I could, although I am tied up with a demanding day job. I wish I could retire from my day job and devote my time fully to writing, but at the moment I have responsibilities and commitments.

What is your opinion of the development of Bahasa Melayu?

A language is alive when the community uses it. A language is also dynamic as it goes through transformation in accordance with the demands of the day. It also has different facets. As a cultural language, Bahasa Melayu is slowly losing its significance. There are fewer Malays who can articulate and speak their thoughts and feelings eloquently in proper Bahasa Melayu.
As a working language, it is also losing its importance because Malay is not the language of knowledge, science and technology in this region or anywhere else. As a common language, it is still alive, although it has been adulterated by the mixing with other languages especially English.

What about Malay literature? Do you think there are fewer people reading serious Malay literature compared to Malay pop fiction?

I don’t believe in the division between serious literature and pop fiction. It is an artificial segregation created by academics. In my opinion there is only good and bad writing. The current situation in which the so-called pop fiction dominates the scene is symptomatic of the banal consumerism prevalent in our age. People tend not to think deeply and appreciate the finer aspects of life any more. It is a sad and sorry state which needs to be reversed if we want to lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

What changes would you like to see in Malay literature?

To see a Malay Nobel Prize winner in Literature in the next 20 years. I think it is possible.

Some people believe writers should change the world by having moral messages in their work.

We live in a globalised world. Writers play an important role in conveying messages of love and peace, just like everyone else who cares about mankind and our Earth.

What advice would you give young writers?

Be brave and honest in your writing. In the early phases of your career, it is only natural that you emulate other successful writers. But as you mature, you should listen more to your own inner voice and not be afraid to explore unchartered territory.

Friday, September 2, 2011

National Art Gallery

This article appeared in theSun newspaper on Aug 24 where it focus Malaysian visual art scene.

Suggested Headline; Guardian of the Arts

On Aug 27, Balai Seni Lukis Negara, the National Art Gallery, will turn 53. Bissme S talks to its director-general, Ambassador Datuk Mohd Yusof Ahmad, about the future of this venerable national institution.

Is it true that Balai Seni Lukis Negara will have a different name soon?

Yes. The National Art Gallery (NAG)’s new act, the National Visual Arts Development Board Bill 2010 will replace the previous National Art Gallery Act (1957) under which we have been operating for more than 50 years. This new act will be effective on Aug 27, marking the 53rd anniversary of the gallery. From that date we will be known as Balai Seni Visual Negara or the National Visual Arts Gallery.
This is in keeping with the enormous changes the country and the art scene had undergone over the years. The word “visual” has a broader definition encompassing all the modern and contemporary artistic practices. The new act gives us more control over our finances as we can now set up businesses and offer commercial services.
 At my suggestion, we are still maintaining the iconic logo of the gallery which was designed by Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Malaysia’s only Art laureate, who died recently. Besides his many contributions in various capacities as educator, writer, designer, sculptor and painter, he was also an astute administrator who served as the director-general of this institution from 1983 to 1990. This is our gesture of appreciation and in honour of his memory.

Tell us more about yourself? Why do you think you were hired as the director?
I served the government for 35 years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs till my retirement. Out of the 35 years, 22 were spent overseas as a diplomat in seven countries. My first posting was in Vietnam followed by Italy, Poland, Australia, Peru, Switzerland and a stint at the UN office in New York.
 I became the director-general of the gallery in June last year. The ministry was looking for someone different who would give a different twist to the gallery and my name somehow came up. I believe my reputation as an art collector and someone who is passionate about the arts preceded me. I am honoured and pleased to be given another opportunity to contribute to the country and to society.

Tell us some of the challenges you faced in the 14 months you headed the gallery?
When I worked in an embassy, I had fewer staff, specific responsibilities and we were able to work independently. But it is different at the gallery. My knowledge and my exposure to the Malaysian art scene in the beginning, were limited because I was overseas most of the time. I was literally groping in the dark. Furthermore, the scope of my responsibilities is vast. I do not only oversee the gallery. I also have to attend to many ministry activities.
 I had to adopt a different working style and learn to compromise with my staff. Sometimes I will have to go down to their level and vice versa. With time I have learned to adjust and things are now on track as much as I can hope for.

Tell us some of the changes you had brought to the gallery?
One of the things that surprised me was that the gallery had fewer than 5,000 artworks in its 53 years of existence. It is a small number considering the time span. I felt that we should have had more in our collection. Due to budget constraint, we were not able to have as much as we like.
 We rely on donations. Small as our collection may seem though, I later realised that we have some of the most important works in our hands. The collection encompasses our histories and the socio-cultural and politics.
 They are an excellent source of visual references to emerging as well as established artists and academicians. But these artworks are kept in the storage most of the time. Unlike other national art galleries and museums which proudly display their permanent collection on their walls, we have not worked that way. Here, our collections are being shown on rotation in just one gallery ( NAG has six galleries).
 I felt we should make our art collection more accessible and known to the public. So I told my curators that we should be giving more priority in showcasing our collection and to a certain degree we have been doing that throughout this year.

Some people have said not many people visit Balai and the Balai is a white elephant. What is your comment?
I disagree. If you were here two hours earlier, you would have seen more than 50 students from a multimedia university visiting this gallery and having intense discussions about art with their lecturer. There are days when the gallery is packed for hours, and empty the next. Speaking from my 22 years experience abroad, it is a similar situation in any art gallery and museum around the world.
 Of course, you cannot compare the NAG to museums and galleries in New York, London, Paris and others where visitors are willing to queue up for hours and wait days just to get tickets and to get in. Not many galleries and museums in the world can reach such standards. But I believe that the number of visitors to NAG has risen in recent months. We are open to the public free as this institution is supported by taxpayers.
 On the charge that NAG is “a white elephant”, I have this to say: we are an established brand. We are an important institution. We are an icon. We are a national treasure. From emerging to established artists, from private corporations to public figures, all look forward to work with us and to exhibit at our galleries. It is every artist’s dream to have his or her work exhibited at the National Art Gallery. It is the ultimate testament of their artistic credential in their resume.

Some people say the location of Balai is not public transport friendly, therefore people stay away from visiting it.
I will admit that transport is a problem and we are finding ways to overcome it. The Hop-On buses (that usually carry tourists) now make their rounds here and as a result you will find a trickle of tourists visiting us. Still, if there’s a will there is always a way. People who want to visit us will find their way.

Do you have any suggestions to attract more people?
Many famous art galleries and museums are known for the masterpieces in their collection. For example, the Louvre in Paris is famous for the Mona Lisa, among others. Our national gallery is lacking this element. We need to change this. We need to popularise or iconise some of the works from our national collection so that the public will be attracted to see these works.

What is the greatest misconception that people have about Balai?
We have been accused of being elitist and we want to shed this image. We have been holding art exhibitions with popular themes and as a result more people have visited us. For example in conjunction with the Mother’s Day celebration, we put up the exhibition Kasihnya Ibu which depicts the bond of love between mothers and children. The exhibition lasted for two months and attracted more than 12,000 visitors. We are planning to take this exhibition to Sabah and Pahang.
 Another great misconception is that nothing is happening in Balai. I can assure you that my staff work endlessly to cater to the needs of the art community and ministry. We are constantly thinking of initiatives and ideas while fulfilling our obligations. Personally, I have never worked so hard as I have in the 14 months here!

Islam forbids Muslim artists to paint portraits and figures. What is your stand on this issue?
I would like to be open-minded about this matter. I support all kinds of arts as long as they do not offend anyone. Anything that is beautiful should be appreciated. I had my portrait done on my 34th birthday in Italy. I had another portrait done in Wimbledon in 1982. Islam forbids the painting of portraits and figures in art for the purpose of worship. As far as I am concerned, this is a non-issue. In Malaysia, portraits and figures are painted and solely appreciated for its historical content and artistic value. Otherwise, the government would have banned this art form.

The late Syed Ahmad Jamal had said in the past the government and Balai took Malaysian artwork overseas regularly but not anymore. Any comment?
To regularly take Malaysian artworks for exhibitions abroad is costly. Our funds are limited. We have to be selective. Each year, a few Malaysian artists are shortlisted and chosen to take part in international events organised by the Malaysian government or foreign governments to promote ties.
But many of our artists today are more independent and Net savvy. They create their own networking and manage to secure their own exhibitions abroad without the mediation of the government. They could still receive our assistance through the NAG’s Tabung Bantuan Seni. We will try to support them in terms of airfare, allowance, art materials, transport of artworks, etc.
 I know one Malaysian artist just had his exhibition in New York and another Malaysian artist will be having his exhibition in Italy, soon. In May, five artists showcased their work in Vienna. Early this year the tourism minister took a Malaysian contemporary artist to Berlin and showcased his works there.
We will be having The Malaysia Fest in London in October and one of the events will promote Malaysian arts. I am collaborating with the Malaysian embassy in Abu Dhabi to showcase Malaysian artworks there in December. So we are still playing an important role in taking Malaysian artworks to the world.

There is an impression that our government gives less emphasis to the arts compared to other sectors. Do you agree?
You can’t really ask me that question! I am still with the government, you know (laughs). I admit the funds given to us is very small. But my ministry is aware of this and they are making steps to correct it. They are beginning to realise art can be something very big … art can be lucrative … art can be a trade commodity. Now, there is a requirement to put artworks in every new government building. That gives room for artists to sell their artworks. The government has also created the Dana Kreatif Industri where artists can take loans to fund their projects. So the government does give emphasis to the arts. But one must understand that government is in charge of many things and you can’t force government to put all their focus into one area.

Some people felt a wellknown painter or artist would have been more suitable to head the gallery.
This job is not just about painting. It is about administrating, educating, promoting, being creative and developing networks to benefit this institution. I believe my administrative and diplomatic background which required a lot of networking skills and my international exposure and experience give me a certain edge over others.

What sparked your interest in art?
Art, specifically paintings, came late in my life. In the beginning I loved gardening, music, films, fashion and deco. I was fascinated with anything that was beautiful. My interest in art began when I was posted in Italy in 1981. I rented a huge apartment from a lawyer. He inherited it from his uncle who was an artist and the apartment was filled with paintings. The lawyer told me that I could use the paintings as I liked. The paintings literally opened my eyes and my heart to the world of art.
 I started collecting paintings only at the age of 30. I do not collect artworks for investment. Art is my passion. My art collections are like my babies. I know their history and where and how I got each of them. I have a few hundred paintings and I kept telling myself to stop buying more. But I never do.

Do you paint?

I do paint but hardly these days, being so busy in my work. I started painting while I was posted in Peru. I was 50 when I learned to paint (He is 61 now). I, mostly, give away my paintings to friends and colleagues all over the world as presents. I get the satisfaction of knowing that somewhere in the world, from Washington to Abu Dhabi, a humble painting of mine is hanging on a wall.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Prof Ungku Aziz

I interviewed the Royal Professor Ungku Aziz who talks about poetry, art, education and political system. The article appeared today in the sun newspaper today. (Aug 8, 2011)

Suggested Headline : Waxing Poetry '

Royal Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid’s love for poetry led him to learn how to use a computer in order to write a book on it. The 89-year- old former Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor talks to Bissme S about the uniqueness of Malay poetry and the shortcomings of our education system.

*Your book Pantun and Kebijaksanaan Akal Budi Melayu – what led you to write it?

For the past 10 years I have been working on the idea of putting together something on pantun (poetry). I have collected newspaper and magazine cuttings and books on it. I hope to awaken Malaysians, especially Malays, to the fact that pantun is unique. I want them to rediscover its history and the evolution of the Malay language. I had to learn how to use the computer just to write this book! In the past, I always had secretaries to type out whatever I needed. (laughs). Now I have 16,000 pantun in my database. In this book, I chose to highlight mostly those that dealt with the Malay traders.

* Why?

I wanted to show that Malay traders existed long before Western imperialists came here and wiped out their trading centres, and created their own trading ports. The Malay traders went into the jungle and collected stuff they could barter with traders from China, India and other countries. They sailed around these waters and even had a compass they called pedoman. So the East was already civilised andwe had Malay entrepreneurs long beforeWesterners came into the picture.

* Is pantun still popular with Malaysians?

It is not in the school syllabus. The younger generation come to know of pantun only during wedding ceremonies, and in these ceremonies, people always repeat the same clich├ęd pantun. I have arrogantly pointed out in my book that pantun and the Malay language had existed long before Old English (the Age of Chaucer). Pantun existed at least 400 years before Shakespeare was born. You can say it is a kind of nationalism on my part to point out these facts.  
* What is your view of the progress of the Malay language? 

 We have a lot of people challenging the whole idea of Malay as the national language. I have to admit that if Malaysia wants to progress, we need to be hooked up with the modern language, which is English. But the future of Malaysia depends on national unity and national unity means you need to have one common language that unites us, and that language has to be Malay.

* Do you find it strange that after more than 50 years of independence, some of us can’t speak the national language properly. Have we gone wrong somewhere?

We compromise a lot. We get into something and then half way through, we don’t complete it because it offends certain people. If you look at the education policy, we are not firm. Our education system has no focus. A good example is the Interlok issue. A certain group wanted to meet the deputy prime minister and they have said that if he refuses to meet with them, they would not vote for Barisan Nasional in the next election. In the end, it became a political issue. Interlok has gone through many changes and I have read all the versions. If you do not want to use the book, don’t use it. But don’t vandalise the text.

*Will you be coming out with another book on pantun?

Yes. My next book will be called Hikmah Dalam Pantun Melayu (wisdom in Malay poetry). If you read pantun, you will find beautiful advice on many issues such as love, marriage, peace and happiness. The values are universal and they can apply to any race. The book will be published next year.

* Do we tend to look down on our pantun?

We have not learned to look up. We are always looking down. We have this attitude that pantun is old fashioned. I remember once a bright lady asked me “why don’t we have modern pantun?”. I told her the values in (old) pantun are universal. Maybe some day, people will write pantun in the modern language that have more universal values. But for the time being, it will be great if we could just recover what we have before it is lost.

* Tell us about your childhood and teenage years ?

My mother died when I was four. My dad was sick for most of his life and died when I was only 17. I had been a lone ranger most of my life. I was about to get a scholarship when everything stopped because the Japanese came in. Even though I come from a royal family, I wasn’t going to ask anyone for help. So I worked. My first job was to carry rocks. I had to walk to work – those days if you had a bicycle, the Japanese soldiers would take it away. You had no choice but walk to work. Then, one Japanese soldier asked me if I could write, and when I said yes, they asked me to keep records. So I became a mandur (foreman). I had carried rocks for a week when they made me a mandur, so it wasn’t so bad. I saved enough money to buy a book on the Japanese language and started to learn it. There were times when I became an interpreter for them. When the war ended, some people accused me of being a Japanese collaborator. But I was not.

* Did you get into trouble with the British authorities because of that? 

' No. The British would have thought twice about arresting me because I had connections with the (Johor) royalty. 

*You come from a royal family. Why didn’t you ask for help?

I was not on good terms with one of my uncles. He said I talked too much, and I had too much of pride to ask for help. But towards the end of the war, I became close to another uncle (the late Umno founder Datuk Onn Jaffar). I remember at the time there was a huge clash between Malays and Chinese. It all began with the Chinese communists who wanted to collect taxes from Malays, but the Malays refused to pay. As a result the communists went to the nearest mosque and got hold of an imam who was praying. They hung him upside down and slaughtered him. They even slaughtered pigs in the mosque. That angered the Malays, who went to the nearest Chinese village and killed everyone there. The communists thought they could control the Malays with that incident. Instead the Malays went amok and a racial war began. So you would find the Chinese going to the Malay villages and wiping them out and vice versa. The Japanese didn’t want any fighting between the Malay and Chinese – they had enough on their plate battling the British. They wanted my uncle (Onn) to solve the problem and I was his interpreter then. That brought us close to each other. I began to stay in his house and we talked lot. He would go to the Malays and say to them that he could persuade the Chinese not to attack them, provided they didn’t attack the Chinese. Then, he would give them rice. The following day he would ride his motorcycle into the Chinese village and tell them that he had secured a promise from the Malays not to harm the Chinese, provided they did not provoke the Malays. He would give them rice too. Somehow his plan worked out brilliantly and the racial clashes stopped. He was a brave man to have put his life in danger in meeting both parties. Anything could have gone wrong.

* Speaking of unity, are we more united now?

We have tolerance but not unity. Malaysians are tolerant, till something goes wrong and then we go mad. The word is amok. It is the only Malay word in the English language. Every time we have an election, we bring outogres of disunity. For example, the same people who say they are Malaysian demand a Chinese education. They could have said we wanted a better Malaysian education system. If you want a Chinese education, please have it. Chinese is a beautiful language, it has lasted four thousand years, it united the people of China. I will give you absolute freedom to have your Chinese education. But don’t pretend to be other than what you are. I don’t think in the next 50 years to a 100, we will have a generation of Malaysians who are like the Caribbean people. Most of them are from Africa, but they do not say they are Africans. They would say we are Caribbean. I do not think we are necessarily violent people. Now we have got a political culture of having demos here and there.

* So you are not for demos. Why?

I think demos will be more interesting if they were more ideologically oriented.

*You have a fascination for visual art.

Yes. Pablo Picasso is my favourite artist. I have more than 40 books on him and his work. I spend a lot of money to attend any of his exhibitions around the world. I could spend hours just looking at his work. He survived a very important period in the change in western culture. His paintings were unique – almost every day of his life, he painted. Just like M.F. Husain (Indian artist who died in June). I bought two of his works when he was a nobody. He was just a poor artist in Calcutta then, so poor that he would draw on cardboard. When I met him again years later, he was a famous artist. He was putting up an exhibition on his mural paintings that were worth a million dollars each. He wanted to buy back his early paintings from me – he said he would in return give me any of his new mural painting that were worth one million each. But I didn’t want his mural paintings, I am not interested in money. Art is for my enjoyment, I have never collected art for money.

* Do you paint?

No. I don’t write pantun, I don’t play music, which is one of my biggest regrets. Somebody wanted to teach me the violin, but my father discouraged me. He said you cannot earn money being a violinist. I was 13 then.

* You once said our universities have become factories that produce graduates. Why?

We are not even producing good products in our Malaysian factories. When we started Universiti Malaya, we thought we would start two or three good universities. But now almost every state has a university. Some even have two or three. In Japan, they have an education policy where national universities have a high standard. It is very difficult to get in. Once you graduate, you are sure to get a good job because you are highly-trained. For the masses, they have state universities. They call these lunchbox universities. Today in Malaysia, we have open universities. Who supervises the students? When I lectured, I knew every student by name. Today, we have lecturers who don’t know the names of their students. We have students making notes and passing them to their course mates. We need to have some universities that pursue quality. Now we even have people who say “we have voted for you, now give us a university”! Of course the government has to comply. So they start opening up universities all over the place like mushrooms. Quantity destroys quality.

* Have you to come to a stage where people are afraid to criticize you and your suggestions?

Yes. I have heard one person say “If I am a lecturer and I criticise Ungku Aziz, my promotion will be lost and my contract will not renewed”. I have heard many times people saying only Ungku Aziz can say that and get away with it. I think that is ridiculous. What am I? The last man standing? I feel there are many who don’t like me and criticise me. You can say anything you like, why the hell should I care? Let the dogs bark. I am not hopeful of getting any promotion, any bonus or anything from anybody. I am not saying this out of arrogance; it is just a fact of my life. My life is very simple. I have had these trousers for probably 10 years. I am not into the latest fashion.

* You have been outspoken. Have you got into trouble for voicing your views?

Yes. Once, the police interviewed me for seven hours. But I won’t give you any of the details ......

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nicholas Snow - an HIV/AIDS awareness advocate.

This interview is an inspiring one where one man tries to make a difference after he learned that he has HIV. This interview appears in the sun on Friday July 15.

Suggested Headline : Serving people with HIV

American Nicholas Snow, 49, was diagnosed with HIV four years ago. He talks to BISSME S about his goal of becoming one of the world’s biggest cheerleaders for HIV testing and safer sex, and giving people living with HIV hope.

What do you do?

I have been a foreign correspondent based in Bangkok for more than five years. I publish my own commercial travel and entertainment websites and freelance for other media; I act and appear in commercials; I sing and write songs; and I am an HIV/AIDS
awareness advocate.

You have started a campaign to raise greater awareness of HIV. What is the campaign about and what motivated you to start it?

On Jan 3, 2008, I tested HIV positive. It was a shock as I had become HIV positive decades into the AIDS epidemic, completely armed with the knowledge to protect myself. In a moment of passion in August 2007, I made a poor decision to have unsafe
sex. Determined to prevent as many people as possible from making the same mistakes, I went public with my story and ultimately created the The Power To Be Strong HIV Testing/ Safer Sex Awareness Campaign.
The cornerstone of the campaign is a music video subtitled in more than 20 languages. I recently officially launched the campaign in Malaysia with Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin subtitles. The video is available for viewing at ThePowerToBeStrong. Indirectly, the campaign here will also spotlight the lifesaving work of the Kuala Lumpur based Pink Triangle Foundation ( The object of the whole campaign is to inspire
people to take an HIV test and to practise safer sex. Tragically, most people who are HIV positive learn they are because they become ill and seek medical attention way past the point at which medical interventions could have helped prevent illness to begin with. The key is for people who have HIV to know it, stop spreading it,

Will a song make a difference to a person struggling with HIV?

Yes. How many people turn to music in their time of sorrow? How many listen to love songs when they have a broken heart? How many people are inspired by songs such as The Wind Beneath My Wings? Now a song exists to address the fears and concerns of someone who may have HIV. Before I came to Malaysia, I received a message from a Facebook user explaining that only two people in the world know he is HIV positive,
and he went on to say: “I listen to your song every morning and it gives
me the strength to face my day.”
I wrote and recorded the song in 2009. Bruno Brugnano, a leading music producer in Thailand, produced it with beautiful background vocals by Ayano Kimura, and renowned movie and music video director O Nathapon directed the video. The song reaches into the hearts and souls of people and gives them hope. The video is aimed at empowering people worldwide, and I would be honoured if recording artistes want to record the song in their own countries and in their own
language for their own fans, so the message can reach as many people as possible. It is important for people to know they are not alone in this battle.
Many people dealing with HIV feel isolated, lonely, hopeless and sometimes suicidal. My goal is to be one of the world’s biggest cheerleaders, inspiring people to get tested, live longer and be strong.

How many people are involved in the campaign? How is it funded?

I have volunteered basically full time on the campaign for two years, donating my earnings from journalism, acting and web publishing to support the cause, and a small group of key supporters have donated money and time to keep the campaign going. The campaign has reached millions of people worldwide and is
dependent on ongoing donations. Anybody who makes a PayPal donation to Orbit@NotesFrom will be acknowledged on a Facebook page called The Action Heroes, and anyone who wants to make a major donation may send me a
direct message on my page at

What did you do on first learning you were HIV positive?

I had unsafe sex which resulted in a severe flu-like illness a few weeks
later. I went to one of Bangkok’s major private hospitals and the doctors ruled out the flu. Then I found myself sitting face to face with an infectious disease
specialist who explained that my symptoms could be the result of a recent acute HIV infection. I played dumb. I did not share that I had recently had unprotected sex. I left with a scheduled follow-up appointment, but never showed up for it. I was in denial.

How did you come to terms with your situation then?

Five months later on Jan 3, 2008, I was confirmed HIV positive at an anonymous testing site. One of my new year’s resolutions was to get tested. I still could not believe this had happened to me. I asked myself “why did I have unprotected sex?” The answers: I was depressed at the time and not focused on taking care of
myself. I was with a sexual partner who said and believed he was HIV
negative. I had a false sense of security about remaining HIV negative so far
into the epidemic. None of these are good reasons, but they are human
reasons. After months of soul searching, I decided it was my moral responsibility to tell my story to hopefully prevent others from making the same mistake. I
become a name and face of HIV in a part of the world (Asia) where there are very few HIV positive people who self-identify at the level of press, radio and
television. While I am not Asian, I have become the most visible openly-HIV positive person in Asia in a way that empowers and inspires not only Asians, but
countless people everywhere

What are the greatest misconceptions about HIV?

There are at least three major misconceptions about people living with HIV. First, these people for some reason deserve to have it because of some sort of moral shortcoming. Second, HIV only impacts others and “it won’t happen to me”. Third, one must be promiscuous to get HIV. In fact, it takes only one unsafe sexual
encounter (penetrative sex without a condom) to transmit HIV, and often, people are exposed to HIV by their trusted partner who is unaware they have the virus.
Most Malaysians believe that only intravenous drug users are at risk of HIV when sharing needles, but studies show that 48% of new HIV cases in Malaysia are through
unprotected sexual contact.

Your first advice to someone who finds he or she has HIV?

I would say “you have made the best decision in your life to get tested. Knowing will save your life and allow you to protect your future partners”. HIV is a death
sentence only for people who don’t know they have it, and don’t seek treatment, and
ultimately get AIDS as a result.
Antiretroviral medication is proven to prevent the onset of AIDS for decades, allowing people living with HIV to stay healthy, provided they have access to medication and take it as directed. It is also proven that these medications dramatically reduce by as much as 98% an HIV positive person’s ability to
transmit the virus to someone else, so treatment is prevention.

Tell us about discrimination a person with HIV faces.

There is a tremendous amount of stigma and misunderstanding when it comes to HIV. It causes people to be rejected by their friends, family and loved ones. In many places in the world you can be fired from your job. If you are a foreign worker in Singapore and in many other countries, you will be expelled if they learn you
are HIV positive. Also, many countries do not allow foreigners known to have HIV to enter the country as tourists or for work.

What can governments do?

They can provide access to adequate healthcare and medication for people with HIV. They can work to eliminate forces that foster stigma and discrimination against HIV infected and affected communities, ensuring everyone the fullest opportunity to live open, free and healthy lives.

What is your view of the role the government here has played?

I am totally impressed that in Malaysia the government provides anti-retroviral medication to its citizens living with HIV. In many parts of world, this is not the case, and treatment is not affordable and/or available to people who need it. I congratulate the government for providing the medication to those who need it. They can use the government-owned media to fight stigma against people with HIV/AIDS and promote testing and safer sex.

There are religious figures who have claimed only sinners get HIV and AIDS.

I clearly don’t agree, but regardless of what people think right or wrong expressions of sexuality may be, I think we can all agree that sex happens. It is important to note that many MSM (men who have sex with men) also have wives and girlfriends; so many women are being infected unknowingly by their partners.
HIV is transmitted by people’s behaviour, not their identities. My goal is to encourage anyone who is going to be sexually active to use condoms, and anyone who has had unprotected sex, to have an anonymous HIV screening at a safe place such as the Pink Triangle Foundation. If you look at the spectrum of people who are living with or are at risk of HIV, they come from all walks of life. The reality is we should show everyone living with HIV compassion,
regardless of religious and moral perspectives.

What was your first reaction to realising you were homosexual?

I prefer the term “gay man”. My coming out as a gay man was very similar to others – overcoming unjust shame and guilt because of what I had been taught about gay people; slowly learning to love and accept myself just as I am; and ultimately making a decision to live openly, honestly and powerfully, while hopefully inspiring others to do the same; and expressing gratitude for role models who came before me.

How has being HIV positive changed your life for the better?

In choosing to go public, every day I get to use my life force, my creativity to serve other people. I have no secrets, no fear of people finding out about my status, and no shame. I get to live fully and powerfully every day.

What is the biggest challenge NGOs face in raising awareness of HIV?

I don’t work for an NGO but I know enough about them to answer the question. There is a dramatic shortage of funding at all levels in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The major funding sources, both globally and within countries, do not provide “core funding” to NGOs on the front lines. So while these passionate, dedicated individuals are devoting their lives to helping others, they are constantly struggling to get by.

Monday, July 11, 2011


The interview with the latest national laureate Dr Ahmad Kamal Abdullah or better known as Kemala appeared in the Sun newspaper on July 1, 2011.

Title Enriching literature

DATUK DR AHMAD KAMAL ABDULLAH was recently announced the 11th Sasterawan Negara (national laureate). The 70-year-old poet and writer of short stories, known by the pen name Kemala, has had his work translated into eight languages. The author of Titir Zikir and Pelabuhan Putih tells BISSME S. about taking literature to
greater heights.

What was your first reaction on winning the Sasterawan Negara award?

When a friend of mine first sent me a text that I had been given the award, I thought he was pulling my leg. In the preceding months, the media had been highlighting that 10 men had won the title and that it was the right time to
give it to a woman. So I was surprised when I found out.

Some say female writers have not produced work to qualify for the award.

I disagree; two names immediately come to mind – Dr Fatimah Busu and Dr Zuriana
Hassan. The themes they talked about in their work are very mature and have international appeal. In fact, there are a few non-Malays writers who write in the language such as Lim Swee Tin, who can be considered for this

There is a belief that there is Malay male domination over the award.

I don’t think there is any kind of dominationor monopoly over the award. Let us not
politicise Sasterawan Negara by bringing in race and gender. Let us give the panel the freedom to select the right candidates for the title. Let us just look at the candidate for his contributions to literature. When the time is
right, a woman and a non-Malay will get the award.

What is your opinion of the development of Bahasa Melayu in the country?

Grammatically, the language is getting weaker. We like to mix Malay with other
languages. Same goes with English. The use of the English Language is also deteriorating in the same way.

Some see English as a colonial language.

People who hold this kind of thought do not value knowledge. The Quran has always
encouraged us to enhance our knowledge, and mastering different languages is one way of doing that. Some Indonesian intellectuals and politicians know more than eight languages. They don’t see mastering different languages as a bad thing. So why should we?

Is it true to say that today’s youngsters are not interested in serious literature?

Yes, they are more into pop culture. Electronic media pushes them in that
direction. If we want serious literature to be popular among youngsters, then our
education system must emphasise it. Serious literature should be
taught from kindergarten.I remember during my school days, we had weekly literature competitions and literary clubs. My friends and I recited poems at these competitions. All these efforts, indirectly, created a love of literature in
In the old days too, when a friend had a birthday, we would make up poems and
recite them as a birthday gift. But now all we do is walk into a
shop and get a greeting card.
In the 60s, a handful of poets and writers got together in Puan Azah Aziz ’s house – she is a culturist who promotes Malay tradition and culture – with an adviser from the Education Ministry.
We brainstormed ideas and even produced a poetry book targeted at children. But we no longer do that sort of thing. Schools could also arrange a meeting
between the Sasterawan Negara and their students.
There could be creative ideas exchanged. The students would likely treasure
moments like these and remember them. The media can also play a role in making serious literature popular among youngsters.

What kind of a role can the media play?

Maybe carry interviews with serious literary figures on ad hoc basis – perhaps once in three months, or better still monthly. This will create more awareness of serious literature.

What is your opinion of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP)?

The government should give serious attention to making DBP a powerful institution, not only for serious Malay literature, but also for serious literature in any
language produced in this country.
DBP should take on the task of translating serious Malaysian literature of different
languages into Bahasa Malaysia. I would like to read what Malaysian Chinese and Indian writers are writing about our country and about us, as Malaysians. The same principle should apply to all native languages in this country. If there
is a book written in Kadazan, then DBP should translate that too.
It could even create an award for Malaysian literature initially produced in different languages. That will encourage more to write in different languages.
DBP should organise solid writing programmes for youngsters in order to produce a new generation of writers who writes serious literature. I expressed this idea to DBP a long time ago and they were keen on it, but I have not seen them acting on making it a reality.
Our themes in serious literature should be broader. In the past, our literature
centred on the survival of the Malays because it was relevant to the times. But now
the survival of Malaysia should be our theme. We should also focus on the lives of the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak to give our literature a wider appeal. But of late, I have seen some positive changes slowly taking place in DBP.

Many Japanese, Indian and Chinese novels have been translated into English and sold worldwide. Do you think Malay literature has the substance to appeal globally

One novel that comes to mind is Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan. But to make a mark globally, having a great theme is not enough. We need to promote the book as well and our promotion is very weak. The terrible thing is that the Malaysian authorities do not give any support to promoting Malaysian literature outside of our country, and I am speaking from experience.
Last April, an Indonesian organiser was promoting two of my poetry books in Jakarta
and I was there for the launch. I had made a polite request to the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta to send at least one of their representatives to the launch to show some support – it would have been great to have someone official from the Malaysian government representing Malaysian literature launched overseas – but no one turned up. I must admit I was a little embarrassed and upset.
(Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan was made into a Cambodian film entitled Rice People in 1994. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was submitted for the 67th Academy Awards. It was the first time a Cambodian film had been submitted as a possible nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.)

What is the biggest change you would like to see in Malaysia?

I live in a multiracial neighbourhood. My neighbour on my left is an Indian and on my right, a Chinese. We get along very well. I want to see more truthful unity among
the races. At this moment, I must say our unity is very artificial. Our tolerance for each other is artificial too. We don’t sit down and sincerely discuss the problems affecting us as Malaysians. We suppress our emotions and real problems and that is not very healthy.

Did anyone inspire you to be a writer?

My mother and my wife. Both these women played an important role in my life. My mother loved reciting poems and telling me folk stories when I was young. She was the first person who exposed me to the world of literature. One of
my fondest memory of my mother was during the fasting month. She and I would go the
nearby forest to find pucuk paku to make nasi ulam.
My wife is my fierce and honest critic. She will tell me honestly when my work is good and when it is not. She gives me constructive criticism so I can better my work.

You have been married 47 years. What is the secret to a lasting marriage?

When she is angry, I will keep quiet, and when I am angry, she will keep quiet. When her anger gets too much for me, I will just leave the house (laughs)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shekhar Kapur

My colleague Meena and I managed to interview Shekhar Kapur the director who directed amazing films such as Elizabeth and The Bandit Queen when he was in town. The story has appeared in the sun today ( April 8, 2011) Here is the link :

Here is the full story

Headline : Shekhar Kapur: A rebel with a cause

THE renowned film director speaks to MEENA L. RAMADAS and BISSME S about his new film on Nelson Mandela, money politics in the Oscars, and more.


You were reported to be making a film on the life of Nelson Mandela. What is the latest happening with it?

That film is in a limbo because the producers and I can’t agree on the script. I want the script to be edgy. I didn’t want to make a biopic on his life. A film has to have a point of view. I felt that we shouldn’t make a film like Gandhi. There was no particular point of view in Gandhi.
Mandela’s life has to be able to be related to our lives. So what part of his life is related to ours? The King’s Speech is about a King who stammers and the stammer makes him human. So what makes Mandela human?
He was a reluctant god … he wanted to be a professional boxer … he was a terrorist before he went to prison. But he came out of prison as a man of peace and changed the world. So what happened?

What kind of script are you looking for?

The script was not angry enough. I kept saying let us have a script as if it was written by somebody who suffered an apartheid, then there would be anger in the script.

Do you think the studios want to portray Mandela just as a hero?

The politics of South Africa, at this moment, is probably not ready for this (an edgy script on Mandela). I don’t care about what the world wants.

Why not just agree to whatever the studio wants?

I do not know how to make films except from a certain point of view. Otherwise, they are just documentaries.


How do you handle criticism?

You have to stand by it. I got into a lot of serious trouble when I made The Four Feather (based loosely on 1902 novel by British writer A.E.W. Mason). It was a racist book. There were three racist films made about it. The Arabs were called fuzzy wuzies.
The book was about how brave the British soldiers were in Sudan. I made a film about how the British army was not supposed to be in Sudan. They (the British media) called me pro-Muslim because I turned a colonial book into an anti-colonialist story.
At that time 9/11 had not happened. So the Americans, who had experienced the Vietnam War, got it when I said the British should not be in a foreign war and they did not belong there. After 9/11, when you talk about jihad, it sounds different. It is an attack on the Western world. So I faced a big problem there, too. They thought ‘this Indian director is using our money to artistically talk against us’. That was a very strong point of view. But my view was the British should not have been there.
Same with Elizabeth. When Elizabeth came out, the whole press in Britain was in uproar and saying: ‘How can you show the virgin queen in bed with a man?’ But her virginity was a political statement and the statement at that time, is you cannot be feminine and powerful at the same time. A woman in power has to take on the garb of the virgin..

How do you reconcile that with the artistic liberties that you take in your films with historical accounts?

History has taken enough liberties by now. I had this big argument on Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Elizabeth gives a big speech at Tilburry to her troops, on a horse, near the seashore. So this question was asked: ‘This weren’t the words she said. Why did you change them?’ So I said, ‘Do me a favour, go to Tillbury, sit on a frisky horse when there is a big wind and try to talk to 2,000 people without a microphone and tell me how many people heard you’.
There is a famous saying all history is interpreted by the victor. If Germany had won the war, we would have had different history books.
Try and tell the Shiv Sena (a right wing political party in India) that Shivaji was not a great warrior but a guerilla fighter, they will kill you. But look at the history books. He was a guerilla fighter. He would come into the villages, raid, and run away. So, history is always an interpretation. So when you make a film you use some fundamental truths about a character.
Elizabeth was a powerful queen and that was a fundamental truth. So I can’t say she was not powerful. I can say she was perceived to be powerful but inside her and in her private life, she was completely depressive.

How did you come to that conclusion?

That is because of my perception of power. Power isolates you. Power causes schizophrenia and I would expect extreme power is pretty schizophrenic. In politics, you are surrounded by people who only tell you things you want to hear and you suspect that they are not telling you the truth. So you become lonely and afraid because you are removed from reality … you are no longer walking the ground … you are no longer in the street.

Do you think the critics were harsh with the film, because they already had an image of the queen and you did not deliver it?

Yeah. The New York Times said Elizabeth was the MTV genre of Elizabethan life. People said, ‘You didn’t talk about the wit of that time. They were very witty.’ But they had wooden teeth. Their mouths stank. You couldn’t stand next to them. They didn’t bathe for a year. They wore wigs with all kinds of perfumed leaves in them to stop the smell. Now tell me, how witty can you be if you are speaking with wooden teeth and you haven’t had a bath for a year.
In fact, in the coronation scene that I cut out (from the film) has them bringing their own piss pots. The courtly women used to get so drunk that the piss pots were put under the table and they used to lift their skirts and pee, right at the table, sitting there.The idea of the American critics is that they were beautiful women who used to get up and just dance. But they just peed over in their dress, man! That was the reality.
The food was cooked outside where the dogs were peeing. There were no bathrooms. They used to drink a lot and you know what happens when you drink a lot.The reality was that Elizabeth’s castles used to stink so much that every six months she had to move and somebody had to spring clean the whole thing.
So where was this wit and all these Elizabethan things that everybody talked about? In fact now at Cambridge, in the course on Elizabethan and Tudor history, guess which film they show? My film, made by an Indian.

How important is the film critics’ point of view when it comes to your films?

Well, if they like my films, they like it. If they do not like my films then they are wrong.

You seem nonchalant about being criticised. Has any criticism affected you?

If a critic is being honest and bright and makes a good argument, then I will take it seriously. It is not about me being affected, it is about how seriously I take it. When I made Bandit Queen, there was a whole movement against the film, provoked by Arundhati Roy (author of The God of Small Things).
Her argument was that I had taken Phoolan Devi and raped her again in the film. I had to take it seriously because it affected the very fundamentals of the film.
A large part of prevalence of rape in our society all around the world is because the victim is almost shown as the perpetrator of the crime. It is the only crime where one says ‘Oh it is because she was wearing short skirts’ or ‘It was the way she was walking around’. How often have you heard that about rape? It has been going on for centuries.
Here was a woman who actually said ‘No, I am not a victim. This is a crime perpetuated against me.’ Whatever her actions were, whether it was right that she killed 24 people, she refused to accept herself as a victim. Ultimately its analysis demeaned a woman; the very thing I was fighting against.


You did not get nominated for Best Director for Elizabeth while your film was nominated for Best Film. Were you disappointed?

No. I was so surprised getting all the other nominations (Elizabeth was nominated for seven Oscars in 1999). I wasn’t expecting anything. It was my first English language film.

Do you think politics are involved in Oscars?

Some spend a lot of time and money lobbying for their films but why wouldn’t they? It’s a great marketing strategy. You spend US$15-20 million on Oscar campaigns. But if you won an Oscar, you would get US$200 million back at the box office. It increases your commercial value and you make more money to direct more movies.

The year Elizabeth was nominated, the academy reassessed itself. We all received a little booklet saying that if you are spending a lot of money (on lobbying), we will not consider your film.

Do awards like the Oscars matter to you?

For two weeks, you get invited to all the big parties. But after a while, I was remembered more for the clothes I wore (at the Oscars). Oscars is a fashion statement. It’s the biggest fashion statement in the world. All the designers are there and everyone is wearing designer clothes.

Are you anti-Oscars?

No, I’m not. For every English language film made, there must be 10 non-English films made. And they all get dumped into one category, Best Foreign Language Film. I have seen some amazing films from Africa, China, Korea, Thailand and Japan which I doubt will ever come into the sights of the Oscars. Eighty-five per cent of the world’s cinema never comes into their consideration.
The only films that come to the Oscars are those that are promoted a lot or have an American distribution. Some of the most amazing films are not made in Hollywood right now. Some of the world’s best stories are not told in Hollywood right now. The most expensive films with the highest amount of technology are produced in Hollywood.


Are you difficult to work with?

Yeah. Rebellion is inherent in being an artist. It is a form of creativity. Rebellion is one of the greatest provokers of creativity. An artist is always the conscience of society.

Tell us more about your epic film Paani?

I am writing the fifth draft. I took 15 years to pen it. I am going through the throes of a traditional Hindu father in getting his daughter married. Each time she steps out of the house, I call her back and say, ‘A little bit more make up here, maybe a little bit more dressing here.’ Everybody at the studio is fed up with me.

What is Paani all about?

It happens in the not so distant future where groundwater has disappeared, rains are seasonal, global warming has taken place and water has been privatised. So when water becomes privatised, it does not go to where it is most needed, it goes to where it gets the best price. And the best price comes from urban areas and so everyone comes to urban areas, hoping to get some water. It is a call against water privatisation.

You started your career doing Bollywood films. What do you think about Bollywood cinema now?

It is becoming a bit of a parody of itself. It has decided what it is and makes itself like that, rather than breaking out of it and trying something new. Some films (the smaller ones) are trying something new but fundamentally most are becoming prisoners of their own image.
Bollywood used to be more popular around the world but Hollywood has taken over. Local product has taken over. Bollywood in some parts of the world is the oddity or remnants.
I think the younger generation is moving away from it because of globalisation and television shows. Here (in Malaysia) I am surprised to find out that the new generation is adapting to it and liking it.
I think the technology and technical aspects are getting better but they are running out of stories. In a cinema world where songs sell, what kind of stories can you have? The fundamentals of Bollywood rely more on style, fashion and songs, and less on a great story. When the last big Bollywood film came out, I asked the producer to tell me what the film was all about and he told me that there was a great song number.
So what can you say about it? It is about style and dance. In that way, it keeps attracting audiences. But will it ever become a competitor to Hollywood? Not in this form.

What is the misconception about Shekhar Kapur?

Misconception? No there is nothing. I think that is the wonderful thing about having a blog.


When you look back on your films, do you think you should have done it differently?

With every film I would say I should have done this differently and I should have done that differently because you are a different person now. Same thing with a script. Till the last minute I will be saying this is not right and that is not right. It all about being creative.

You made a short film, New York I Love You. How different is doing a short compared to a feature film?

You can break the rules of cinema. These are rules defined by custom and culture. The culture of cinema focuses on plot. I was talking to A.R. Rahman (Oscar winner) and sometimes I am jealous of him. When he composes something (music scores for films), he would ask what is the story, and not what is the plot.
It is an emotion when you create a story in your mind. It is so wide that you create your own imagination. It completely provokes your imagination in a much more freer way than the restrictions of a plot.

What was the emotion you tried to convey in that short film?

I am not sure. It was not written by me. It has a strange story behind it. Anthony Manghella (the Oscar-winning director) was going to do that short. He wrote it and fell ill. He asked me if I would direct it and I said OK but I do not quite get the story.
He said: 'I am going in for an operation and when I come out, I will explain it to you.’ But he did not come out – he died. I tried very hard to think about what was in his mind when he wrote it. The only thing he said was that we do not live enough and we have regret. So one of the fundamental emotions in that film was regret … People who regretted they did not do things they should have done.
So (in this short film) there was this woman who was about to commit suicide. But somebody came into her life and committed suicide in front of her. You are never quite sure whether it was a past memory or a past life but she did not commit suicide. It was a film about doing what you want to do, otherwise you will have regrets.

What do you think of New York I Love You compared to Paris, Je’Taime (Both movies had similar theme)?

I think it is a fabulous idea. But New York was not as successful as Paris because the producers tried to string it together. When they did Paris I Love You, they did not try to string it together. In this one, the producers tried to link it to a fundamental theme and I do not think they should have done that. They should let each director say what they wanted to say rather than link it. But we knew they were going to do it and we all agreed to do it.


You are strongly against the caste system and have even been called anti-Hindu. What are your thoughts on that?

Every faith gets usurped into rules. I think probably it (the caste system) is one of the biggest evils in Indian society. It is probably one of the most exploitative systems ever designed and it is used to exploit.
There are number of laws that are against the caste system but it so rooted in our (Indian) culture, especially in rural areas. Fortunately in the urban areas it gets lost, because the caste system needs physical space to separate people. When you have a slum and there is no space, people are put together and they adjust.

Did it disturb you that you were branded as anti-Hindu?

Thankfully, in India, Hinduism has not taken up such a large fundamental system, although there are a lot of fundamental Hindu organisations, which I find strange. I find the idea of being a fundamental Hindu strange because how do you define a Hindu? I can define who is not a Hindu.

Your father did not encourage you to be a film-maker? How do you feel about it?

In retrospect, if you asked me today if I could relive my life, I would wish I had gone to film school rather than be a chartered accountant. But I do not know what provoked me when I was an accountant to being where I am now. It is difficult to go back in hindsight because you are a balanced sheet of your life today.

Did that create a ruffle in your relationship with your father?

My relationship with my father was fine. Of course, he was disappointed. But he never imposed himself. He always supported what I wanted to do. My parents were products of Nehru’s generation (Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India).
The Nehru generation grew up with an immense amount of optimism following the new India. The new India that was going to be an India of enterprise … an India of professionals… so everybody wanted to be a professional … because he (Jawaharlal) talked about being doctors, lawyers because that was what India needed.They all came out saying everybody must contribute to the growth of this great dream that Nehru gave everybody.
My father’s brother was one of India’s biggest educationist and my father was a very well known paediatrician. So my father’s question was, as a filmmaker, what do I contribute to society? Because at that time, as Bollywood films were, it was very difficult to find out what they contributed to. So that was his problem.


You were one of the last people to talk to Heath Ledger before he died. Is that true?

Yeah, I think so. We were supposed to meet that night but he said ‘I’m going to sleep now, I am tired and jet lagged’… So he said ‘call me at 9.30 in the morning to wake me up.’ I was supposed to meet him the next morning.

Why were you meeting him?

It was for a film called the Nine O’Clock War. It is about media and war. It is about major media companies getting involved in a war in a third world country. It is about creating an existing war into a reality show. So the war gets turned into a reality show. This is one of the films I wanted him to do with me, he was going to play a young journalist. Heath and I were so close. I wanted to do lots of films with him and he wanted to do lots of films with me.


You have a daughter and seeing where this world is heading to, do you worry about her future?

There has never been a generation that did not worry about the next generation. I have concerns because I do not know what is happening to the Internet. When she was living in England, you had to make play dates. I noticed that she and her friends spent so much time on the Internet. The basis of their relationship is through a computer screen.
There is an inherent physiological need to be actively in physical social interaction. We need to look into each others’ eyes. It is not just an expression. It is a reality that is physiologically needed.
We could do this interview over Skype but physical eye to eye contact has a different connotation of the way people relate to each other. Animals physically fight each other when they play. Play is a process of growing up and understanding how to live in society.
Now if this play is consistently performed on Facebook, the Internet or through video games, are you becoming a society of young people that do not have the ability to form real relationships anymore? It is a concern.
Fortunately for her, she lives in India now so she has a lot of social interaction with friends. They are in and out of each others houses. It is not because India does not have technology but they play and they physically interact with each other all the time. In the West I notice they are not doing that. They are not doing that because the larger part of their interactive time is through the screen. How are you going to handle that when you grow up in terms of marriage? You have not gone through the play. You have not gone through the necessary sociological processes that are inherent in every species. It is the isolation of physical relationship in social media that I worry about.
I think social media is a terrific ... an incredible tool. But as a democratic tool, social media is a great tool (as you can see in what happened in Egypt). The fascinating thing about Egypt was that there was no leader of a revolution. When was the last time you had a revolution with no leader?


You seem to have a fascination for death. You have expressed that “death defines everything we do”. Can you explain more?

We do because we die. That is what drives us. Our ambition is defined because we want to do something in a short period of time. If we were immortal, we would be like plants. We would only move two inches. If I could live for a thousand years, I would not make five films in 20 years. I would not do it because I have all the time in the world.

Why do you say this? Is it because you had a near-death experience?

No. It comes from trying to understand yourself … analysing why you do things and acting and reacting in a certain way.