“WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian … descent in Malaysia?” Veteran Malaysian art Journalist Ooi Kok Chuen presents an overview of Malaysian Indian artists in the Penang Monthly which opens by questioning the dearth of Indians in the national canon. He goes on to offer some possible answers that he notes have been ‘bandied about,’ “Economic status, parental / social disapprobation, opportunity, (lack of) role models, patronage, minority syndrome (proportionately smaller population, of only 6.2%), “estranged” Indian-ish themes, and discrimination,” Ooi rightly states no preference amongst these reasons. Nevertheless, while it is difficult to go beyond speculation in this matter, I am glad he has asked the question publically. It is an important one as it points to the undeniable fact that, while a few Malaysian Indians have made significant contributions to the practice and theorization of the visual arts, overall, our numbers are low.
This is something that gave me pause during my years of intense involvement in the Malaysian scene from 1996 to 2002. I gave my support and encouragement to individual artists with a sense of communal allegiance whenever the opportunity came my way, but my own concerns during that period were national and international, and while intra-national questions of race and communalism formed the framework of my practice, I was not community oriented. I often wonder if I could have engaged more actively with my community in those years in terms of promoting and developing the arts.
This personal reflection and recollection, triggered by Ooi’s question, leads to a more fundamental question that lies at the heart of my Malaysian identity. Am I an Indian first or a Malaysian first? An Indian Malaysian or a Malaysian Indian! Of course, an analogous question arises for the other races of our multiethnic nation. Such pondering has even been turned into political capital. Malaysia’s present Prime Minister is reported to have said, back in 2010, “I am a Malay first, I want to say that … But being Malay does not mean that you are not Malaysian.” While the country struggles with the horrors of the recent covid-19 crisis atop an ongoing and now long running political one, the foundations of the nation are being shaken. Will the old Malaysia, whose founding social contract is premised on communalism, survive this crisis in its present form? Will we regress to a more ethnocentric paradigm, or will we emerge from this national trauma with a reformed and refined national agreement? These questions might seem far from the world of Malaysian art but this is where the stream of thoughts that flowed that follows from Ooi’s innocent, perhaps not so innocent question, has brought me – WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian … descent in Malaysia?”