Malaysia has, through its Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen, announced its goal to become an international art hub. This new official ambition has no doubt much to do with the country’s government looking to get a slice of the currently thriving Asian art market—and was likely further spurred by Malaysia's first contemporary art auction held by Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers last month that recorded profits of $547,665. Still a far cry from the kinds of sales being experienced by the big auction houses like Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, but a positive sign for the country nonetheless.
To further cement its commitment to this new goal, through this month, the tourism ministry will also hold the first-ever Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism Festival, which will take place in various locations throughout the country, including in Kuala Lumpur.
However, a just-published piece in TIME, ‘Malaysia’s New Journey,’ by author and journalist Michael Schuman, might cast some doubt at the optimism of the ministry for assuming that a flourishing art scene can really have such a positive effect on Malaysia’s economy. Schuman points to some darker underlying issues which indicate that even if it does become an Asian art hotspot, the country will still have a long way to go when it comes to its overall future economic stability:
‘Malaysia's economic miracle has stalled, and while the nation is, indeed, somewhat pluralistic, it is no melting pot. Indeed, it is a society where people define themselves first and foremost by race.’
He goes on to suggest that racial disunity in the country has for decades now been amplified by the country’s own government through affirmative action policies carried out in business and educational sectors that favour the ethnic Malay majority over Malaysia’s significant minority populations, like Chinese and Indians. And Schuman also doesn’t have particularly high hopes for Malaysia’s still new leader, Najib Razak, who he says is just ‘trying to please everybody,’ including the various pro and anti-affirmative action groups in his country.
As I’ve stated before, having art thrown around as a topic in the arenas of nations’ economies and politics makes me a bit uncomfortable, as it only further commercializes an important element of our society that should never be reduced to being good only for profit.