Can KL Entertain?

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M. Nasir, Beyonce, Search, Erykah Badu, and Faizal Tahir. What do they all have in common? They’re all entertainers who have been banned from performing in Malaysia at one point in their careers, for things often unrelated to their music.

KL has set its sights on becoming an entertainment hub but will banning and censorship cut short its dream of being in the business? Azmyl Yunor speaks to the people behind PUSPAL, Timeout KL, Livescape, No Black Tie, MyCEB, Anexxe Gallery and Juice Magazine to find out if this will really happen.

Hear & Now is produced in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Programme and brought to you by BFM 89.9.

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Kam Raslan: BFM 89.9, and we’re back with a new series of Hear and Now in Malaysia. I’m Kam Raslan and for this week’s episode, can Kuala Lumpur become an entertainment hub? Why isn’t it an entertainment hub? How much does it cost to watch a concert in Singapore? Add the cost of travel and accommodation; it could be S$1000. Take ten friends, that’s a lot of money going to Singapore that could be going to KL. Our correspondent Azmyl Yunor meets some of the people who bring artists into KL, finds out about the commercial decisions they have to make, and he meets some of the people who decide if these artists can come in at all.

Azmyl Yunor: What do M. Nasir, Beyonce, Search, Erykah Badu, and Faizal Tahir have in common? They’re all entertainers who have been banned from performing in Malaysia at one point in their careers. For things often unrelated to their music.

KL street culture magazine, Juice magazine, did a feature in their April 2012 issue titled The Blacklist covering acts banned in Malaysia.

Ben Liew: Banning is something..I think it is the easy way out, sort of like canning is, but banning is getting in the way of the potential of what Malaysia, or atleast KL could be. It is sort of like how you want a kid to grow up, a kid to be independent but you don’t want him to be exposed at the same time.

Azmyl Yunor: Today we’ll be exploring a question : Will KL ever be an entertainment hub? And is it important to head in that direction?

So currently, what is considered entertainment in Malaysia? The Central Agency For Application for Filming and Performance by Foreign Artists or fondly known as PUSPAL defines entertainment as this, and I’m quoting verbatim:

a) Happy, joyful, pleasant, peaceful feeling a person enjoys as a result of something

b) An art, ability and capability to entertain and provide satisfaction in any possible way to delight anyone

c) An artistic and cultural performance exhibited and presented to the audience.

These definitions exemplify the now expected top-down relationship between the those who regulate entertainment in the city and the audience.

But what do the people want? Are we entertained? How do we want to be entertained?

Lim Chee Wah is the editor of TimeOut KL, a magazine that has its finger on the pulse of the arts and entertainment scene in the city.

Lim Chee Wah: I think KL has definitely gotten better compared to a few years back. The number of concerts that have come to KL, the theatre shows, art shows and few things like that. Probably two three years back, you hardly hear any big international stars coming, probably one or two but recently last year you can see almost every other month and I think that is quite a positive thing because maybe certain regulations have relaxed a little to bring in abit more stars and performers but saying that, I think what KL has is quantity and not so much variety. I think promoters know that certain kind of formula works and certain sort of performance sells so they keep bringing the same sort of act or genre. Let’s talk about locals, a lot of locals are now well traveled, more than we used to be because of budget airlines and all that. But seeing more outside of KL and we come back , we want that sort of variety from other cities around the world. But to make it more enticing, you need to be regular. You can’t put on a show once every three four months. If you do that, people won’t normally think of KL when they want to talk about entertainment. But if something is always happening, it will stick it to their mind. It is like branding. When they want to have a good time, arts and entertainment they will think of KL because there is always something happening.

Azmyl Yunor:: What is the recent reputation of the KL entertainment scene?

Lim Chee Wah : Recently, there is too much negative press about KL with the whole Erykah Badu and F1 Rocks. Regardless of whose fault  is it or regardless of under what circumstances they were cancelled or not happening, it doesn’t paint us in a good light. If things like that happen in KL, people might think twice about coming to KL because they wouldn’t know, let’s say if something is confirmed, it is not necessarily confirmed if it got cancelled last minute,

Azmyl Yunor:: Human Rights Activist and Writer Marina Mahathir expressed her disappointment when a Singaporean Ballet troupe performance was cancelled in April 2012.

Marina Mahathir: It’s not as if they are doing free shows in the middle of Dataran Merderka. Nobody is forced to watch them those who want to actually have to pay quite a bit of money. None of these things are cheap. We want to know about the world, we need to know about the world, we need to know what goes on in the world, not just in politics and economics but also in the arts.

Azmyl Yunor: It’s become such a ‘normal’ thing for Malaysians to catch a performance in a neighbouring country.

Marina Mahathir: Singapore is the nearest place, sometimes, Bangkok and it’s not open to everyone but why should we have these choices made for us, and who are these people anyway? They don’t know anything. Let’s put it clear.

Azmyl Yunor:: Do we need someone to decide for us who should or should not entertain us?

Marina Mahathir: I don’t think anyone in the right mind would bring really provocative shows because at the end of the day, you want to make some money too. And if you only get a few people, it wouldn’t be worth it. Simply banning it on the of dressing, listen, Madonna, I’m sure they will try to ban because A) she is a woman and B) of the clothes she wears, but Madonna has  done shows with Palestinian flag in her bag. She is a big supporter for the Palestinian cause. Don’t we take that into account? She has a message to give about human rights. You have to look at it much more holistically; it is so unjust to judge someone by a tattoo, or what they wear.

Azmyl Yunor:  The Annexe Gallery has been supporting various arts and entertainment events ranging from fashion shows, art exhibitions, music gigs, and academic forums. Launched in 2007 as “a centre for contemporary arts”, it’s Arts Programme Director, Pang Khee Teik, sees the venue offering a more holistic approach to developing artists in KL.

Pang Khee Teik: I often say the arts have many roles to entertain, to pass our time, to escape. There are many roles of the arts. One of the important roles of arts that I feel is completely under-represented in Malaysia is the role of social change. This is not to say that people aren’t doing this type of arts in Malaysia. People from private art centers , even our stand up comedians are very vocal about this. There are people trying to champion certain issues. However, you see the amount of access they have to mainstream media and the platform for them is limited.
Ben Liew : I think a lot of time, things like that has something to do with how the city and policy interprets art and entertainment if we have to compare ourselves to Singapore. They have a big variety there, different kind of art for different kind of market. They see art and entertainment as slightly more involving and slightly more experimental. The concept of art and entertainment is more open to discussion over there, whereas here there is a set rule as to what entertainment is, and what art is and especially, what culture is. At the policy level, they determine what type of art can be brought in. But, we miss the point that culture is evolving. What culture is ten years back is not the same as it is right now because people evolve, things evolve and as a city of entertainment, we have to move one step ahead of the taste of the local people.

Azmyl Yunor: The agency responsible to facilitate such decisions is, PUSPAL.

An agency made up of about 18 departments, it is under their purview to approve entertainment applications given to them by promoters and the like.

We met with Puan Fauziah, the Under Secretary of the Planning and Strategic Cultural Division, Ministry of Information Culture and Communication, who briefed us on PUSPAL’s role.

Fauziah : PUSPAL is established in 2001. There is a cabinet decision to form an agency as a one stop center to assist and facilitate application for as well as films and foreign artists performance which was headed by Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. In 2002, we formed a committee compromising of all agencies and department related to the processing of the application.

Azmyl Yunor: In 2005, PUSPAL guidelines, a document prepared in consultation with industry practitioners, was introduced.

Fauziah: When they go through the guidelines, I think they will understand what is the ‘dos’ and the ‘donts’, they have to understand our Malaysian culture. As long as they follow the guidelines, there is no problem in approving the application.

As you know, PUSPA consists of various agencies like local authorities, jakim, income tax, immigration etc, so all of us are together. I think promoters should also build this culture of nation building, because we want to be balance profit making and nation development.

Azmyl Yunor: And what about tolerance?

Fauziah: It is not blacklisting to me. During pre-application, we will advise the organizer what are the pros and cons of bringing these artists. We bring Elton John, Adam Lambert, but we tell the promoters not to highlight their personal issues but to highlight their career and their music. So, its okay.

Azmyl Yunor: Now we have an inkling of how happening KL but does being happening make you money? BFM 89.9 You’re listening to Hear & Now in Malaysia.

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Azmyl Yunor:  BFM 89.9. You’re listening to Hear & Now in Malaysia. We’re exploring KL’s potential as an entertainment hub and is it really bringing in the big bucks?

Tony Nagamaiah, the general manager of the International Events Unit, or the IEU, at the Malaysian Convention and Exhibition Bureau, also known as MYCEB , looks specifically at developing KL as an entertainment hub.

Tony Nagamaiah: We are an entry point project under the national key economic area of tourism. We will set up with the objective of leading,securing and promotin Malaysia as destination for international events. We look into international sporting events, arts, lifestyle and culture. International events have been earmarked as a big thing all over the world. It generates a huge amount of revenue to the host country and with this in mind, it creates ensure job opportunities for the country and it brings in talent.

Azmyl Yunor: The country hopes to create 8000 jobs by 2020 from bringing in these big events.

Tony Nagamaiah: The most recent one is the Future Music Festival of Asia , it was the largest ever music festival in South East Asia. It was the only exclusive music event out of Australia into Asia. It brought  35 international acts like The Chemical Brothers, Flo Rida, The Wombats and etc as well as regional bands. The event brought in approximately 25000 people, out of that 7000 are international, bringing in an income of RM30 million. We have Shrek, The Musical, coming in June. This would bring in approximately 25 000 people over 8 days and we’re looking at about 3 to 4 000 international spectators coming in with expected income of 26 million to the country.

Azmyl Yunor: For IEU, major home based events and festival are business opportunities in need of promotion and branding.

Tony Nagamaiah: For example, your Penang Jazz Festival, your Rainforest Music Festival, your Penang World Festival,  your KK Jazz Festival etc. All these are local brands which have been in Malaysia for the last couple of years. What we do is, we help them bring into the next form, where it is known internationally. It has the attraction and the pool of the international crowd, we help them by branding this and promoting this to trade shows. Best case study is the Rainforest Music Festival. It brings in 40 percent of international tourists and it has been here for the last 15 years.

Azmyl Yunor: Livescapes is a well known promotion and events company having organized festivals like Rockaway, Xcape and the recent Future Music Festivals.

Iqbal Amir heads Administration and Operation, and Rahul Kukreja  is in charge of the Live Music Division. Iqbal begins by looking at the economic imperative which ultimately guides promoters’ decision.

Iqbal Amir: In Singapore, if I’m earning 7000SGD a month, I can’t afford to invest in a new house or to buy a new car. So I have all that money and I spend it on entertainment.  They can afford to pay the artist’s asking fee and it works very well for them. Jakarta or Indonesia in general, because of the volume, generally, they will keep the capacity that is needed to fill up the arena or the stadium and Manila, Manila is a bit tricky because they just end up paying a lot of money for the artist but you know, volume is one thing and a big English speaking market is number two, a lot of them are very americanised in a way and are very in touch in what is going on in North America and that scene and Malaysia, we are left to book the artist at the same fee as all the other countries and we have got this setback so we end up choosing the acts very carefully

Azmyl Yunor: Funding these events present a major challenge.

Iqbal Amir: Being in Malaysia, we are heavily sponsors-dependent. We need these sponsors to make our shows work. On top of that, it is convincing these sponsors that a certain act or show will benefit their brand which is a very very big challenge here and that’s where the government comes in. Ministry of Tourism, MYCEB, they come in because they understand the amount of money the country can make with tourists. In Singapore, they get an act, it goes on sale and it will sell. Here, we need to get an act and we will have to find a sponsor because sometimes, even if a show sells out, it is not going to cover and we always have to work out panels on half capacity to cover our costs and that’s where our sponsor comes in and we try to see if we can get abit more of say, tax leeway from government and stuff like this. Unfortunately, this is what we have to do now.

Azmyl Yunor:  In doing what they do, Livescape deals extensively with PUSPAL.

Iqbal Amir: They are very nice people. You can work with them. They can be on your side. Its just that they need to meet their requirements as well. Certain things are tied, we acknowledge that they can be a bit more loose. It should not be like “Can we do this?” “No.” “Can we do this?” “Yes. Okay, go ahead” It is very hard. It’s a partnership, that’s what it should be.

Azmyl Yunor: As a musician, I had my first paid gig at No Black Tie, KL’s premier jazz club. To Evelyn Hii the owner of No Black Tie, which is an institution amongst musicians, making KL an entertainment hub means setting and meeting high expectations.

Evelyn Hii: For the scene to grow and become really attractive, to be able to support our audience at large, it is to be able to grow a good listening space in terms sound quality for the musician, first of all.

Azmyl Yunor:  Is there enough listening spaces here in KL?

Evelyn Hii: I think so, for the moment. You have already places like Alexis which have live music on the weekend, not forgetting KLPac, Kuala Lumpur performing art centre. You have our young and upcoming musicians playing opening acts for major international stars.

Azmyl Yunor: You’ve housed a lot of international acts interacting with locals.

Evelyn Hii: I think, the response has been incredible and they’re not only amazed. I think, with the visiting international artists, they not only expect, they expect to be working with great Malaysian musicians because there are no black ties in Kuala Lumpur. To have a jazz club of this level in Kuala Lumpur, that means we already have great musicians, otherwise it would be impossible to keep this place alive for so long.

Azmyl Yunor: Back to Ben Liew from Juice Magazine. After years of covering entertainment in KL, What does he think is needed to propel us to greater heights?

Ben Liew: Perhaps, what we can do is to collaborate more instead of looking at it like a competition. So, the artist comes down and is like “Alright, I want to tour South East Asia. I want to tour Thailand, Indonesia Singapore, I’m going to go everywhere except Malaysia.” And you tell the guy, “Hey, you got tones of fans in Malaysia that probably you didn’t know about, and it’s cheaper than Singapore and you probably be able to pull people up here if you did that and so like, yeah have a show here!”. From time to time you do see bands that play in festivals in Singapore coming up from Singapore going to Kuala Lumpur to play smaller gigs here and stuff like that and all in, I think that’s changing, we need more organizers and more support and definitely we need to lighten the rules for artists to come in and perform.

For entertainment scene, to be fair, I don’t think the responsibility of developing KL’s entertainment scene lies on the shoulders of the promoters, of course they are key players, but we also look at the policy makers who are the department makers and the decision makers who are responsible for approving shows. And of course the audience should be receptive and the media in KL should be more supportive of things that are coming. Give things a chance and not just outrightly say “No” just because the thing has not been done here before.

Azmyl Yunor: Well, there you have it. You heard it from ground zero.

As an artist, it doesn’t really matter to me if we make it as a regional entertainment hub or not, since I’ll continue doing what I do whether Madonna or Lady Gaga comes through town or not.

Having said that, knowing that these major foreign artists can come here means that we know we are allowed to be part of the world.

Malaysia is caught in a cultural limbo, between what we’re supposed to be and what we really are.

Kam Raslan: You have been listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia where Azmyl Yunor has been looking at what it might take for KL to become an entertainment hub to rival our regional competitors, like Penang.Perhaps things are moving forward because the notorious comedian Russel Peters’ played a sold out show in KL recently. Russel Peters’ material showed that he clearly had absolutely no interest in Malaysian nation building and letting him perform in the country was either a sign of liberalisation or a momentary lapse in vigilance.  If you have any comments or suggestions then please get in touch with us on our twitter feed @HearandNowMsia or join us on our facebook page.Hear and Now in Malaysia is made in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Program. I’m Kam Raslan, this is BFM 89.9, and you’ve been listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia.

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