I will always remember watching TV3 one fateful day in 1995. A programme called Teleskop was on. Hosted by Suhaimi Sulaiman, Teleskop was a talk show where players from the creative industries talked about issues affecting the entertainment world. I loved the programme and so I was ready and curled up that one late afternoon, hot cakoi in hand, waiting to be fed with the latest information about the creative world.
That particular Teleskop episode was on music industry issues. One of the guests was Sahara Yaacob, a vivacious singer known for her big hair and glitzy clothes. Sahara talked passionately about issues plaguing singers. She mentioned how it was hard making a living, entertaining at dinner functions and hotel lounges and maybe someone should do something. After her heartfelt plea, Suhaimi took a phone call from the home audience.
The caller sounded like he was in his 40s or 50s. Without hesitation, he launched straight into a question that was laced with some anger: “I want to ask Sahara Yaacob … what is your contribution towards nation-building?” I stopped munching on my hot cakoi as I stared open-mouthed at the television screen, upset.
The reason why I got upset would be clear to those who support the arts, but not that clear to those who think the arts are just a “hobby” and is not important. The way the caller phrased his question, it was like he was saying “I have to put this singer in her place. She is not important. Nyanyi sini sana, pakai macam tu. Apa faedahnya?” (She sings here and there and dresses like that. For what?) He already had a preconceived idea that singers do not contribute to national development.
That moment distressed me and made me feel any creative effort would be useless if it is deemed trivial and not as important as being the traditional engineer, doctor or scientist. You may think I was being over-dramatic. But look harder, and you can sense the obvious holier-than-thou thinking in his question. A thinking that is not just shallow, but ironically impedes national development.
I remember pacing around the living room, half-chewed cakoi in my mouth, and thinking: “How dare he insinuate that artists don’t contribute to nation-building. How dare he think that nation-building must only be defined in ways only HE can understand?! How dare he think that creative products do not contribute economically, when they have such massive export potential and is the secret power to brand our nation? You want to be a country known for innovation and creativity? Well, arts can get you there! And how dare he not realise that the arts bring SOUL to a nation? Art brings meaning to a civilisation! Art feeds our hearts and moves our being and makes us come alive as humans!”
I slumped into my chair, suddenly remembering another painful incident. I was one of the Malaysian students at Berklee College Of Music, and it was during a Malaysian students’ gathering in Boston in the early 90s. There were Malaysian students from all over — Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern University and others.
We were happily mingling and this retired civil servant, a new MIT graduate on a scholarship, was asking everyone what they were studying. He worked around the room from the Harvard students to the Boston University students, MIT and so forth and finally to the clump of Berklee students at one corner. He pointed at us. “Study apa?” (What do you study?)
“Kita orang study muzik.” (We’re studying music.)
“Muzik…??? MasyaAllah…!!!” (Music? OMG!!!) He proceeded to shake his head, unable to believe what he was hearing. It was clear he couldn’t comprehend anyone actually wasting time studying music. He looked like he pitied us. The Berklee students suddenly got very quiet and hung their heads low, as the whole room heard this gentleman utter, “MasyaAllah!”
The general public has always underestimated the contribution of arts to societal development. Industrialisation and wealth creation will indeed enable us to thrive and to progress, and for that we need the engineers, doctors and scientists. However, being human is more than just feeding our human intellect.
We also have to feed our souls. Nourishing both our intellect and souls would give our lives a deeper meaning and complete our experience as humans, the creatures on this Earth that God allowed the ability to reason, to think, and to feel and to love.
On the surface, it is easy to gauge a country’s development from its big shiny buildings and technological marvels... that is why most people focus on these as examples of human achievement and markers of progress.
But, it is ultimately the soul of the country that gives it its life and meaning. And, this is harder to pin down as the soul comes alive surrounded by feelings, emotions and inspirations, something not as tangible and clear.
The flourishing of arts and creative ideas is the best way for a country to have a distinct soul; and a soul will inspire a country to greater heights.
Beethoven’s magnificent Ninth Symphony was a reflection of growing nationalism in 19th century Germany, and the country’s resulting unification was in turn inspired in part by the ideals inherent in Beethoven’s masterpiece itself. The entire spirit of a nation captured in a majestic piece of art. Talk to any German and they are proud of Beethoven.
Jazz flourished in the legendary clubs of New York City like The Village Vanguard and The Blue Note, seminal music joints that gave birth to music innovators Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker who in turn gave the Big Apple its soul and elevated New York City to mythical proportions.
In order for our lives to have deeper meaning and for our nation to be known as a creative force, we too need to find our soul. And that is simply hard in a world where creativity is under-appreciated.
The creative ones will always have the last laugh, though. Suhaimi simply ignored the caller and cut him off. And, one friend from Berklee named his final music recital “Music…??? MasyaAllah…!!!”.
Ahmad Izham Omar works in the production of TV, film and music content and gets panicky trying to figure out his next tweet