I read with great dismay that the famous Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) is at risk of closing down due to lack of funding. I was there recently to watch the staging of “Kandang”, the Malay version of George Orwell’s political satire, Animal Farm. It was my first time at KLPac, and I was very impressed by the play’s quality and the theatre’s beautiful lush surroundings. The building itself, a refurbished Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) warehouse, is a good example of how our architectural heritage can be preserved, a positive change from the usual demolishing of old buildings that happens so often in Kuala Lumpur.
One of the reasons behind KLPac’s pockets running dry is the hesitancy displayed by the corporate sector in donating towards arts and culture. Corporations in general do not see the direct return of investment (ROI) in donating to the arts, as it is indeed difficult to put a number to the benefits they can reap from such donations. Furthermore, there is a level of uncertainty in the current corporate climate that may have drawn attention away from CSR initiatives in general. In last year’s budget, PM Najib Razak announced an increase in tax deduction from RM500,000 to RM700,000 for companies who sponsor arts and cultural causes. One would think that there would now be an influx in corporate donations towards the arts, instead companies are still dragging their feet.
Upon further investigation, I discovered that obtaining this tax deduction is not as straightforward as it seems. Companies who are interested in providing sponsorship must only sponsor an arts activity or programme that is approved by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Approval of the said arts activity is not a guarantee of tax exemption, however. The company must then submit another authorization letter for tax deduction approval, together with a set of documents after the activity is over. One of the criteria for the Ministry’s approval is the activity must not contain “sensitive implications on race and religion.”
The problem with these approval procedures are twofold. Firstly, the sheer inconvenience from the various bureaucratic procedures these potential sponsors need to go through to obtain the tax deduction is enough to scare them away from putting their money into arts causes. I should also add that these deductions only apply for corporations, not to art-loving individuals who would like to make donations. Secondly, this is yet another display of a centralised government authority deciding what we can and cannot watch. “Sensitive implications on race and religion” can be just about anything, and we cannot even decide for ourselves what these sensitivities (if they even exist) are. One of the important reasons why art is produced is to criticise, provoke and make fun of the society in which it exists. Surely such criterion only serve to stifle any form of artistic creativity.
This issue also opens up an important, yet often overlooked debate of who should fund the arts? Should arts, culture and heritage be considered a public good and receive unlimited funding from the government, who gets its money from taxpayers? Or should the private sector, namely corporations and philanthropists contribute their wealth to supporting the arts? Perhaps the most well-known example of heritage being fully funded by the government is in the UK, where most national museums have been free since 2001. This move has proven to be successful, with visitor numbers increasing by 51% in 2011, the 10th year in which the scheme was introduced. In addition, approximately £1 in every £1,000 in the UK economy can be directly linked to the museum and gallery sector.
While an arts and history lover like me would salivate at the idea of free entry to some of the best galleries and museums in the world, I wonder if such a system would work in Malaysia. Despite the damaging effects the 2008 financial crisis brought upon the UK economy, there has not been much opposition to government-funded museums, and many remain convinced that it is important to keep them free. Demand for the support and preservation of arts, culture and heritage provides some justification for the millions of taxpayers money spent every year, which could instead be used for flailing institutions such as the NHS.
In the case of Malaysia, I wonder if public demand for arts, culture and heritage can justify the huge amount of taxpayers money that will inevitably be spent should the government choose to fund these causes. But relying completely on the private sector risks running into problems such as those currently faced by KLPac, where corporations are either unwilling to donate or face difficult bureaucratic hurdles whilst doing so. Finding a balance is tricky, but the first step we can take is to have a conversation on whether arts and culture are a public good worth spending taxpayers’ money on. If we decide that it is not, we must then see what can be done to make it easier for private individuals and corporations to fund the arts. Not allowing the government to dictate our sensitivities is a good place to start.
First published in The Edge, 13 November 2017.