Khoo Salma Nasution: The Pride of Penang

October 15, 2018

Malaysians Kini

Khoo Salma Nasution: The Pride of Penang

by Koh Jun Lin  |
  • Khoo Salma

MALAYSIANSKINI | George Town native Khoo Salma Nasution @ Khoo Su Nin, 55, wears many hats in championing the Penang capital’s colonial era heritage.

She was the President of Penang Heritage Trust, and prior to that was involved in the group’s successful lobbying to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to list George Town as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008.

Khoo Salma has written multiple books about Penang’s history, some of which were published through the publishing house Areca Books that she co-founded with her husband Abdur-Razzaq Lubis in 2004.


One of her books, The Chulia in Penang that talks about the Indian Muslim community on the island, had gone on to win the International Conference of Asia Scholars (ICAS) book prize in 2015.

She is also a custodian of the Sun Yat Sen Museum in Penang, which was once the house of her grandfather, Ch’ng Teong Swee.

In campaigning to preserve Penang’s heritage, Khoo Salma lobbied against over development, swiftlet nest farming, gentrification and the Penang Pan-Island Link highway project.

She had even served a one-and-half-year stint as Penang city councillor, beginning in 2017 as the representative of the NGO, Penang Forum, in the Penang Island City Council.

But the road to becoming a heritage activist – or indeed what to do at all – wasn’t clear at first when Khoo Salma left Duke University with her liberal arts degree in 1985.

This is her story in her own words:

I was born in Penang – Khaw Sim Bee Road – in 1963, so I’m Penang Hokkien. I have one sister; an elder sister. The lingua franca (in Penang) was Hokkien and it’s very much you feel like this is your hometown; the streets have lots of trees; if you want to go to Seberang Prai you take a ferry; you can do shopping along Penang Road or Campbell Street, in those days there were no shopping malls. Once awhile, you take a beca (trishaw) because that’s the means of transport.

Image result for st. george's girls school, penang


I went to St George’s Girls’ School, and then I took liberal arts at Duke University – kind of mixture of philosophy, psychology and visual arts.

I always wanted to be a writer, but I have two kinds of… One is visual. I’m a very visual person, but also, I wanted to be a writer. So, there were two things that I wanted to pursue. But in the end, I’m doing more writing but still I’m involved in books, in the design of books, and mapping.

I didn’t mix that much with Malaysians (while in the US), but there was one meeting with Malaysians in Boston where everybody said, “Oh, we must go back to Malaysia and do something.” That’s what I did, but then I found that a lot of people, from that generation, didn’t come back to Malaysia.

So, in the 1980s, many of us took something called Development Studies. Malaysia is depicted as the Third World. So how do you develop the Third World? You try to think about what it is that the country needs. Of course, people who are scientists will contribute in that sense.

But when I came back I knew I wanted to do something for Malaysia, but I wasn’t sure what it was. After a few years I found that, you know, what I wanted to do was to get people to appreciate Malaysian heritage, and especially built heritage. So, my strength is in understanding heritage conservation.

I felt that something that you know… It’s like you really feel that there is a need to do something or a need for something to be recognised, but people don’t recognise it. So, when I came back I wasn’t aware of this and took for granted my surroundings. But after I had travelled a bit came back, I said that, “Actually, Penang has a very nice built environment”.

In the late 1980s, people didn’t really appreciate it. Penang is a port, but by that time we had lost our port status around 1970. I understood that Penang was an important port and that’s why the buildings that were built were quite well-endowed; I mean they were very well built. They were built for people who were very affluent.

We are talking about… Let’s say the late-19th century up to the middle of the 20th century – up to the Second World War. So, you have this kind of Victorian or Edwardian-era buildings – which during the colonial era – the wealth came from the port trade.

But nobody knows. When you ask people, they don’t quite know what this trade was about, or who were the people who came through the port. The city was built because of the trade, but people didn’t quite understand it as a historical process. They were living in it, but they couldn’t describe it because everybody could only see a small part of it.

So, that piqued my curiosity.

I was actually a freelance writer and I was devoting a lot of time to the Penang Heritage Trust, which I joined in 1989. At that time, I was 26 years old. I was the honorary secretary. I was doing a lot volunteer work for the Penang Heritage Trust and was very interested in conservation.

Image result for khoo salma nasution

Although I’m not an architect, I took all these courses on heritage conservation. At that time, not many architects were interested in heritage conservation, but I was very interested. And so I felt that I was spearheading interest in this field.

We organised talks and invited people to speak and introduce this whole idea that all these old buildings are not going to be one day replaced by new buildings. You must learn how to take care of them. That was my main role.

And then in the 1990s we tried to change the tourism paradigm by saying that tourists don’t just want to look at beaches. Actually, they would appreciate looking at the city because the city is different.

In 1998 we invited the Unesco regional advisor for culture to come and look at Penang and he said: “You should do something about it. You have not only cultural diversity, but you have – in some cases – cultures that have blended and fused and it’s something quite unique.” And so, then, we started this whole World Heritage nomination process, which ended with Unesco listing George Town as a World heritage Site in 2008. It took about 10 years to achieve this.

I was doing a lot of freelance writing. It’s kind of very frustrating to wait for opportunities, right? Actually, both my parents are teachers, so I had to learn how to do business the hard way. I’m kind of allergic to numbers… but both my husband and I are writers. My husband wrote this book Sutan Puasa: Founder of Kuala Lumpur. And then we moved on, and set up Areca Books.

We published our friends’ books and sometimes our books because what we write is very specialised and there’s no mainstream publisher who’s willing to publish something like that. Even if they were, they would say, “Oh why is it so specialised? Why don’t you write for a more general audience?” But this is what we don’t want to do.

We know that there are niche things that appeal to certain people. It’s kind of a knowledge that we want to share; certain knowledge that other people have also shared with us, so we ought to share it with other people. And to write narratives about our history, to help shape our understanding of Malaysian history.

I think my most successful book so far is something I wrote in 1993. It’s called Streets of George Town, which, in a way, started up the whole interest in what is now the World Heritage Site. That was 25 years ago.

It was basically telling the story of the streets. At that time, we didn’t have that much, and we didn’t know that much history. I mean it was a bit patchy, right? So, one way of putting it together was to go street-by-street. It’s a mixture of urban legends and some architecture. It’s quite a bit anecdotal.

Anyway, before that I was the editor of Pulau Pinang Magazine. That was a magazine about the culture and local way of life. So, it’s just to make Penang people conscious that they have something. At the time we didn’t think, “Oh it’s a unique product or whatever”, but you know, it’s something that is to be appreciated.

So then, after Streets of George Town, I wrote a few more books. But the one that won the prize is like a serious, a bit academic, book, which took a long time.

It took me like 17 years to write the book. But I did other things during that time. I didn’t just stop for 17 years but I started 17 years earlier and then I couldn’t finish it. So, I abandoned it, did something else, and it came back to it. So that one is called The Chulia in Penang, and that one won ICAS award.


Actually, my main passion is urban history. Basically, it’s understanding the built environment and the history of how the whole thing… How the city grew. So, you have to use maps, old pictures, and all that to reconstruct and also understand what were the economic drivers of that urban growth. I have a small group of friends that we’d just get together and then we just talk about these obscure things that nobody else seems to appreciate.

But what is great about George Town is that you could still read it. You know you can read the city like a book. You can look at something and you can try to understand what happened and then, when something was done. In Kuala Lumpur it’s very difficult because it’s been so overdeveloped with highways and all that. With Penang today, you can still get the feeling of… I mean even though things have changed, but the context has remained the same. You can still feel the context.

Moving forward? Oh, I have to work on another book on Penang, actually. I was starting to do that. Like a general book, not… I think Chulia one is too specialised for most people, but a general book on Penang is needed because now I know so much more than I did 25 years ago. And then when this environmental impact assessment report (on the Pan-Island Link) was released, I had to stop and just focus on fighting the highway.

So, I’m working on a general book on Penang, which I hope to bring out… I hope I can still finish it by early next year.

MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know

Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors Yvonne Spielmann (NUS Press, Singapore, 2017)

January 14, 2018

Image result for Indonesian artist Arahmaiani Feisal at the Art Stage Singapore “Indonesia Pavilion” in 2013. (Photo: Tyler Rollins Fine Art)

Book Review:

Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors Yvonne Spielmann (NUS Press, Singapore, 2017)

Reviewed by Virginia Hooker

In November 2017, The Australian newspaper’s Review featured “the launch of Indonesia’s first large-scale contemporary art museum”, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara.

Image result for Haryanto Adikoesoemo.MACAN’s Haryanto Adikoesoemo.


Known by its acronym, the Museum MACAN, it is hailed as the first gallery of its kind and is privately funded by Indonesian philanthropist Haryanto Adikoesoemo. The director appointed to lead this venture is Australian Aaron Seeto, who comes with experience as curatorial manager of Brisbane’s highly successful 2015 Asia-Pacific Triennial.

Seeto explained that Mr Adikoesoemo “understands this is a museum for all of Indonesia: that is why education is a big part of it…. We know that in a place like Indonesia that is multi-ethnic and multi-racial, art and culture help people to better understand their own societies and their histories.” The Museum MACAN project underlines the importance of Indonesia’s contemporary art to all Indonesians—and for others seeking to better understand Indonesia.

Image result for macan museum instagram

Bung Karno Amidst The Revolutionary War (1966) by Dullah (Indonesia)–MACAN Museum

By coincidence a new book on Indonesian contemporary art, also acknowledging its importance to better understanding present day Indonesia, came out earlier in 2017. Dr Yvonne Spielmann’s Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors appeared first in German in 2015. With the support of the Nanyang Technical University Centre for Contemporary Art, Goethe-Institut Singapore, and Indonesian art collector Deddy Kusuma, it has been translated into English.[1] Dr Spielmann specialises in new media and intercultural communication and was Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. This put her close to the commercial centres of the regional art market represented by branches of international auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Singapore and Hong Kong. Her book begins with their contribution to the internationalisation of contemporary Indonesian art.

This review will describe Dr Spielmann’s presentation of ‘contemporary Indonesian art’ and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. It also takes her topic a little further by looking more closely at why Indonesian contemporary art is relevant to our understanding of Indonesian culture, society, and history.

Image result for Putu Satiwijaya’s paintings featuring the face of Soeharto (image via Indonesian National Gallery)

From the 1990s, Dr Spielmann writes, dealers, curators and collectors increasingly acquired works by Indonesian artists. By the mid-2000s, the international art market reflected this interest and in 2007 and 2009, paintings by two Indonesian artists Putu Sutawijaya and I Nyoman Masriadi sold for the record-breaking prices of US$90,000 and more than one million US dollars respectively. After a brief discussion of the two artists, Dr Spielmann takes her readers into the narrative with only a table of contents to guide them.

Dr Spielmann divides her book into three substantial chapters: “Contemporary Indonesian Art in the Southeast Asian Context”; “Positions in Modern and Contemporary Art”; and “Aesthetics of Reflection and Transformation”. Each chapter is self-contained and can be read independently of the others. Selective readers can use the index to go straight to the material that interests them but a reader who engages with the book as a whole will be irritated by the repetition of information already given in the previous chapters.

The first chapter, “Contemporary Art in the Southeast Asia Context”, moves from the investment value of works by well-known contemporary Indonesian artists to a section on what “contemporary Indonesian art” means. Dr Spielmann indicates the complexity of locating contemporary Indonesian art in its own context as well as the wider regional and global contexts. She supports the views of respected Indonesian artist and art critic/historian, Jim Supangkat, who argues for a definition that recognises diversity, experimental developments, and change as important characteristics of contemporary art.

In the sub-section, “Indonesian Circumstances”, Dr Spielmann explains the origins and orientations of Indonesia’s two state-sponsored tertiary art programs in Bandung and Yogyakarta. She emphasises that although a National Museum and, since 1998, a National Gallery exist as buildings, minimal state funding reaches them. As a result, it is difficult to provide appropriate storage for collections (obviously essential in a tropical climate) and conservation of artworks, let alone outreach or education activities. State-funded galleries also cannot afford to purchase many of Indonesian works auctioned on the international market. This leads to one of the book’s best argued points: that contemporary Indonesian art has been and continues to be nurtured by private collectors and galleries who identify and promote emerging artists, curate and show their works, and publish catalogues that position their works for national and international audiences. It is this private sector that attempts to bridge “the gap between private sponsorship and public neglect.” (p.27).

Chapter One also includes an overview of women artists charting their rise and the challenges they have faced. Several of them appear again in the following two chapters. There is a substantial section, “The Southeast Asia Context”, presenting a wider survey of contemporary art in the Asia-Pacific region. Here Dr Spielmann mentions the major biennials, triennials and art fairs that show contemporary works. These include the pioneering Fukuoka (Japan) Asian Art Triennale started in 1992 and Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennial first held in 1993. Dr Spielmann notes that the wider Southeast Asian region, represented by the member states of ASEAN, has shared experiences that are reflected in its contemporary art. She writes, “Much art in the region is critical of societal, economic, and political conditions; many artists put themselves on the line even in times of rigorous censorship and dictatorship. … [I]njustice, repression, inequality, and corruption became topics of discussion, for which purpose regionally and locally engaged artists privileged performance, installation, and video—not primarily as a reaction to the current genres on the commercial art market, but rather as an expression of direct connection with the public.” (pp.27-8). Dr Spielmann provides overviews of the history, styles, leading artists, major art events and galleries that characterise the art of each of the ASEAN member states. Although she lived in Singapore at the time of writing her German version of the book, she pulls no punches about the restrictions facing artists who work there. While acknowledging Singapore’s status as a role-model for arts infrastructure, she points out that it is not a democracy, criminalises criticism of the government, and “imposes restrictions on privacy and expressions of sexuality, nudity and homosexuality and censors artistic performances in the public space.” (p.38).[2]

Image result for Indonesian artist Arahmaiani Feisal at the Art Stage Singapore “Indonesia Pavilion” in 2013. (Photo: Tyler Rollins Fine Art)

There are weaknesses in this section on the regional context. Brunei Darussalam is not included and the information on Malaysia does not mention the many Malaysian artists whose art is inspired by Islam and expressed in a range of media including digital. There is also no mention of the very impressive Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia (opened 1998). The paintings of Malaysia’s highly respected and very gifted artist, the late Latiff Mohidin, are misunderstood and dismissed as “far removed from the country’s social and political problems.” (p.37).

Chapter One concludes with the section “Tradition and Identity in Contemporary Indonesian Art” and an appreciation of the pivotal position contemporary Indonesian artists play in the Southeast Asian region. Dr Spielmann quotes from Indonesian art scholar and curator, Rifky Effendy, who describes Indonesia’s emerging artists in the catalogue for Art Stage Singapore. 24–27 Jan 2013 as follows: “[they]… are moving towards conceptual painting, objects, and installations, photography and new media—with themes that focus on issues of identity, environment, religiosity and sociocultural issues, especially how artists respond to globalisation and the complexity of daily sociocultural life.” (p.43).

This quotation from Rifky summarises well the perspective and interests of Indonesia’s next generation of artists.

The middle chapter of the book provides a more detailed history of the pioneers of Indonesian modernism and the establishment and influence of Indonesia’s leading tertiary-level art academies in Bandung and Yogyakarta. To do this in just 20 pages means that Dr Spielmann uses broad-brush generalisations that can be misleading and are occasionally inaccurate. The language is often dense and hard to follow. Describing 1990s debates about the future of Indonesian art, for example, she writes:

A substantial potential for resistance to the “danger” of cooptation in the global postmodern discourse on contemporary art, which is exposed to the reproach of being a new universalism, can be explained, on the one hand, by the delayed beginning of the debate on Modernism and contemporary art in Asia and Indonesia. On the other hand, it aims at maintaining a difference, because the reference to an autonomous Indonesian Modernism, which must be critically appropriated, is still powerfully active and multi-layered. (p.55)

It is with relief that many readers will move from the first section of Chapter Two to its later sections where Dr Spielmann presents  beautifully illustrated overviews of Indonesia’s leading modernist artists and describes several stunning private collections. She also continues the descriptions of private galleries already mentioned in her first chapter and underlines their role in the development of contemporary art. She concludes Chapter Two with examples of the wide variety of “art spaces”, art fairs, informal venues, and artists’ collectives that emerge and provide places for “unknown” artists to create and often also distribute their works. Dr Spielmann emphasises the twin aspects of Indonesian art distribution: the privately sponsored, project-oriented independent initiatives and the “increased professionalization through commercial galleries, auction houses, and art fairs in Asia.”

In her third and final chapter, Dr Spielmann seems more comfortable presenting the works of artists she has interviewed and met personally. The chapter begins with another summary of what she terms the “de-Westernisation of aesthetics and discourse” in Indonesian art, material that has already appeared in the previous chapters. It continues with vignette presentations of thirteen artists whose works appear in international collections and exhibitions as well as in Indonesia. The well-placed colour plates allow readers to engage directly with the works and perhaps see in them elements that Dr Spielmann does not mention. Readers may not agree with all of her views, but they will feel they have been offered a diverse and generous selection of major works by Indonesia’s contemporary artists.

The cover image for Dr Spielmann’s book is a Pythonesque, eclectic, highly-detailed, pop-art version of a giant skateboard crammed with a bizarre mix of objects. Propelled by wheels and paddles, the skateboard’s cargo includes (among many other items) pieces of machinery and plumbing ducts, toys, logos, political symbols, a mosque loudspeaker, chainsaws, weapons and a selection of explosive devices. The “vehicle” may be under the control of a multipurpose robot seated at the rear. Entitled Makan Besar (The Big Meal) it is the work of graphic design and pop art duo the Indieguerillas (Mike Bawono and Santi Ariestyowanti), completed in 2014. As Dr Spielmann notes, they use a style powerfully charged with references. Makan Besar could also serve as a visual image for Dr Spielmann’s book, which like “The Big Meal” tries to balance too much on a limited base and overwhelms the message with an overabundance of detail. Let me briefly explain.

In just 178 pages (including bibliography and index), Dr Spielmann’s Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors seeks to present the history of Indonesia’s modern and contemporary art from the end of the colonial period to 2014. This is almost impossible and has, I suggest, been attempted at the expense of the subject. The “classic” account of the origins and development of contemporary art in Indonesia is Astri Wright’s Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters (OUP, 1994). Wright’s narrative concludes two decades before 2014, when Dr Spielmann’s book ends, yet Wright’s book is more than double the size. It is based on research undertaken for a Cornell University dissertation, and Wright immersed herself in Indonesia’s art world between 1987 and 1989 to examine the works of over 200 painters. Dr Spielmann was not able to spend such an extended period of intensive contact with her subjects. She relies on secondary sources and personal interviews with only some of those mentioned in her work. She also does not come to her topic as well prepared as Astri Wright, who graduated from Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program. Nevertheless, a selective comparison of their works helps identify the strengths and weaknesses of Dr Spielmann’s book.

Firstly, as already mentioned, the book lacks an introduction that connects the author with her readers, explains her purpose and what inspired her to write it. Crucially, there is no explanation about the readership she is targeting nor an outline of the structure of the book to guide readers through its sections. Secondly, Astri Wright’s English style is direct, uncluttered and succinct, communicating easily with readers. Unfortunately the opposite is the case with Dr Spielmann’s style, or at least the style in which the English version of her book appears. Perhaps the original German communicates her meaning with greater clarity, but there are too many sentences in the English version that require several readings to extract their meaning. Thirdly, Wright anchors her approach in the metaphor of “the mountain” and that trope is sustained throughout the work and examined from different perspectives and through the diverse ways artists understand and interpret it. Dr Spielmann’s subtitle, “artists, art spaces, and collectors” is an accurate description of her book’s foci. She approaches Indonesia’s contemporary art through its physical manifestations: the artefacts/art works and their creators; the galleries that exhibit them; the commercial networks that buy and sell them; the collections that preserve them; and the teaching institutions that prepare the new generations of artists; and the informal networks that support “alternative” artists. This approach identifies and emphasises the “Indonesian gap” caused by the failure of the state to provide adequate infrastructure to support emerging artists and to exhibit iconic contemporary works. As Dr Spielmann points out, the infrastructure gap is filled by private collectors, galleries, and art spaces. The most recent example of this, opening too late to be included in the book, is the Museum MACAN, funded by an Indonesian philanthropist.

Image result for macan museum instagram

Dr Spielmann’s focus on the material and the physical manifestations of contemporary art neglects the deep spirituality that inspires many of Indonesia’s contemporary artists, and is evident throughout Wright’s study. This perhaps explains at least one serious omission in Dr Spielmann’s book—art that is inspired by Islam.[3] This is a surprising omission because the leading Islam-inspired artists, Ahmad Sadali (1924–1987) and A.D. Pirous (1933–), were both Professors in the Fine Arts Department, Institute of Technology Bandung, an art academy mentioned several times in Spielmann’s book. Sadali is regarded as the father of abstract art in Indonesia and his works with those of Pirous are internationally known and fetch high prices at auctions. Edwin Rahardjo of Edwin’s Gallery (referred to several times in Dr Spielmann’s book) has an extensive collection of Sadali’s works. In 1997, Edwin organised a retrospective of Sadali’s paintings, for which Jim Supangkat wrote an excellent catalogue essay in English, entitled Hidden Works and Thoughts of Ahmad Sadali. Edwin has said that he learned to “see” art after spending hours looking at Sadali’s paintings.[4] In 2014, the National Gallery of Indonesia held a major retrospective celebrating Sadali as an Indonesian “Maestro” and showing his influence on the works of contemporary younger artists. A.D. Pirous’s works and philosophy have been deeply and sensitively analysed by Kenneth M. George, Picturing Islam: Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Without reference to these major internationally respected artists, no survey of contemporary Indonesian art is complete.


It is also surprising that Dadang Christanto (1957–), again an internationally recognised Indonesian artist, is given only two cursory mentions in the book. His works, especially his installations, bear witness to the effects of violence and oppression in all forms and in all places, earning him the title “the artist of conscience.”[5] He is represented in major galleries through Southeast Asia and Australia, and his works are regularly selected for the Brisbane’s Asia-Pacific Triennials.

Any book seeking to engage with contemporary Indonesian art should be welcomed as a contribution to acknowledging the talent and creativity of Indonesia’s artists and the position they hold in Indonesian society. Most of them feel a responsibility to draw attention to corruption, hypocrisy, oppression, violations of human rights, and destruction of the environment. Dr Spielmann makes this point by quoting the words of Eko Nugroho, master artist and activist. In 2013 he said, “If you live in Indonesia, you will understand that it is impossible to exclude politics from everyday living. Nearly 90% of the art here is a response to or influenced by the socio-political conditions of our surroundings.” (p.153.)

Indonesia’s artists are its intellectuals of the visual. Acutely observant of the political as well as the social aspects of their society, they hone in on abuses of power and the suffering that results. These artists re-invent and play with “tradition” knowing their viewers will understand the innuendos and allusions, using earthy humour and lyrical grace with all shades in between, to exquisitely express their subjects. When censorship, intimidation or even violence is used against them, they are not silenced and continue to create their art. This is why Indonesia’s contemporary art matters.

The book has its weaknesses and it could have been better. Returning to the image of the “Big Meal”, we suggest that some of the items piled on the over-laden skateboard could be jettisoned (especially the duplicates—and here a good editor could lend a hand). The cargo could then be re-packed in better order (with less detail and jargon) and basic art information such as the dimensions and media of each work supplied. And the driver should not begin the journey without telling passengers where they are going and what route they will be taking. Now that the Museum MACAN is open, Indonesians and overseas visitors can see permanent displays of Indonesia’s vibrant contemporary art with their own eyes and also visit Edwin’s Gallery nearby, the oldest private gallery in Jakarta.


Virginia Matheson Hooker is Professor Emeritus and Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. She retired as Professor of Indonesian and Malay in January 2007. Her research has focused on Islam in Southeast Asia, literature and social change in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Indonesian political culture. Her most recent book, co-edited with Dr Greg Fealy, is an award-winning sourcebook on contemporary Islam in Southeast Asia.

[1] Mitch Cohen is the translator and the 2017 English translation is an expanded and updated version of the German. Without comparing his work with the original it is not possible to say whether the sometimes stilted and opaque style reflects the original German or whether it is the result of infelicitous translation. It may be a combination of both.
[2] Dr Spielmann also notes that art is viewed through an economic lens in Singapore and the success of local artists is gauged by their ability to find employment in creative industries or education (p.39).
[3] The works of artists inspired by Islam are included in Wright 1994.
[4] Edwin Rahardjo, Edwin’s Gallery, 2 November, 2017 in conversation with Virginia Hooker.
[5] Caroline Turner has published extensively on Dadang Christanto, see for example her ‘Wounds in our hearts’ in Kathryn Robinson (ed.) Asian and Pacific Cosmopolitans: Self and Subject in Motion, London, 2007.


The Monuments of Power

September 11,

The Monuments of Power

by Ian Buruma*

Why should public spaces in the US be purged of images of Confederate leaders, while statues of Admiral Nelson and Cecil Rhodes still stand in Britain? The way we tell stories of our past, and keep memories alive in cultural artifacts, is a large part of how we view ourselves collectively.

NEW YORK – The ghastly spectacle last month of neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches and barking slogans about the supremacy of the white race, was sparked by the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army, which fought to retain slavery in the secessionist South during the American Civil War. The statue of General Lee on his horse has been there since 1924, a time when the lynching of black citizens was not a rarity.

Related image

 Cecil Rhodes on Horseback

Inspired by the events taking place in Charlottesville, advocates have emerged in Britain seeking to pull Admiral Nelson off his famous column on Trafalgar Square in London, because the British naval hero supported the slave trade. And two years ago, protesters at the University of Oxford demanded the removal of a sculpture of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, where the old imperialist had once been a student, because his views on race and empire are now considered to be obnoxious.

Image result for statue of Admiral Lord NelsonThe  Lord Admiral Nelson Monument stands in London’s Trafalgar Square and is one of the most iconic in London–An Artifact of British Naval History.

There always was something magical about this kind of iconoclasm, which rests on the belief that smashing an image will somehow solve the problems associated with it. When English Protestants challenged the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, mobs laid waste to stone-carved saints and other holy representations with pick-hammers and axes. Eighteenth-century revolutionaries did the same to churches in France. The most radical example occurred in China only a little more than 50 years ago, when Red Guards destroyed Buddhist temples and burned Confucian books – or indeed anything old and traditional – to herald the Cultural Revolution.

It is easy to deplore this type of destruction. Great buildings and works of art are lost. One is tempted to assume that only people who believe in the magical power of images would wish to erase them. The sensible way to deal with monuments of the past would be to see them simply as artifacts of history.

And yet it is not so simple. Who would argue that after 1945 streets and squares in German cities should continue to be named after Adolf Hitler? It was surely not just a childish mistake to remove sculptures of the Führer – or of Soviet leaders in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. One could argue that images of these leaders and their henchmen lacked the artistic value of great churches of medieval England, or Tang Dynasty Buddhist sculptures in China. But then statues of General Lee are hardly worth preserving for artistic reasons either.

The question is where we should draw the line. Should a historical figure be judged by the amount of blood on his hands? Or should we establish a proper time frame?

It might be argued that monuments celebrating villains who lived within living memory and would still cause grief to surviving victims must be removed, and that anything older should be left alone. But that doesn’t quite work, either. The argument for preserving a sculpture of Hitler in a public place, assuming that such a thing still exists, does not get stronger as time goes on.

Many people in the US South argue that Confederate monuments should be protected as mere reminders of the past, as part of a common “heritage.” The problem is that history is not always neutral. It can still be toxic. The way we tell stories of our past, and keep memories alive in cultural artifacts, is a large part of how we view ourselves collectively. This demands a certain degree of consensus, which often does not exist, especially when there has been a civil war.

The case of postwar Germany is quite straightforward. Both East and West Germany set out to build their collective futures in direct contrast to the Nazi past. Only a resentful fringe still wishes to cling to fond memories of the Third Reich.

Nonetheless, to this day, German authorities ban the display of Nazi imagery, fearing that it might still tempt people to repeat the darkest episodes of their country’s history. This fear is understandable, and not wholly irrational. Such temptations could even become stronger as Nazism fades from living memory.

Britain has a less traumatic recent history. The views of Cecil Rhodes, or Admiral Nelson, though fairly conventional in their time, are certainly no longer fashionable today. It is highly unlikely that many British people gazing up at Nelson on his column or passing Oriel College, Oxford, will be inspired to advocate slavery or build an empire in Africa.

Image result for statue of Robert E Lee

The American South, however, is still a problem. The losers in the Civil War were never quite reconciled to their defeat. For many southerners, though by no means all, the Confederate cause and its monuments are still felt to be part of their collective identity. Although hardly anyone in his right mind would advocate the revival of slavery, nostalgia for the Old South is still tinged with racism. That is why statues of General Lee in front of court buildings and other public places are noxious, and why many people, including southern liberals, wish to see them removed.

There is no perfect solution to this problem, precisely because it is not just about images carved from stone. Resentment in the South is political. The wounds of the Civil War remain unhealed. Much of the rural south is poorer and less educated than other parts of the US. People feel ignored and looked down upon by urban coastal elites. That is why so many of them voted for Donald Trump. Knocking down a few statues will not solve this problem. It might even make matters worse

Get those UMNO goons out of our lives

January 31, 2017

Get those UMNO goons out of our lives

Image may contain: 3 people, text

The best message I got for 2017. Keep those UMNO goons out of our lives. They are playing the politics of race, religion and hatred. We Malaysians must not allow them to manipulate us for their personal gain, Malaysia be damned.–Din Merican

Najib’s Mystery Millions Caught in US Seizure?

August 23, 2016

Najib’s Mystery Millions Caught in US Seizure?

by John Berthelsen

Najib’s Mystery Millions Caught in US Seizure?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak may have lost a huge chunk of the fabled US$681 million that was allegedly steered to him from the scandal-plagued 1Malaysia Development Bhd fund, according to sources in Kuala Lumpur.  The money appears to have been used to acquire a major part of the estimated US$1 billion in assets seized by the US government in July, the sources said.

From the first, mystery has surrounded the US$681 million, which was deposited in Najib’s personal bank account in Ambank in Kuala Lumpur in early 2013, just before the general election, from the Singapore branch of Swiss Falcon Private Bank, owned by the Abu Dhabi fund Aabar, and another Swiss institution, Tanore Finance Group.

For months after the transactions were made public, Najib – who acknowledged the receipt but said the money was a “donation” – and a series of surrogates said it had come from a shifting variety of sources although the Prime Minister’s allies generally settled on a mysterious Saudi Arabian Sheikh.

In October 2013, US$620 million of the money was just as mysteriously transferred back out to Tanore Finance Group, after which it disappeared.  The other US$60 million was said to have been used to fund the Barisan Nasional’s campaign in the 2013 election, among other things.


From left: Jho Low, Riza Aziz and Khadem Al Qubaisi (credit: Getty Images)

That transfer to Tanore is said to have been re-transferred into accounts held by Jho Taek Low, the young financial whiz who convinced Najib to take over a Terengganu state investment fund and turn it into 1MDB. Shortly after, Jho Low, as he calls himself, went on an amazing buying binge of apartments, houses, airplanes, jewelry, paintings and other expensive playthings.  Also, armed with a letter of guarantee from 1MDB, he attempted vainly to buy three of London’s most prestigious hotels.

These Rogues are still around

Many in Kuala Lumpur believe the acquisitions were made on behalf of Najib’s acquisitive wife, Rosmah Mansor, who has generated considerable irritation for her public flaunting of US$100,000 handbags and enormously expensive jewels. She is the mother of Riza Aziz, Najib’s stepson and the producer of The Wolf of Wall Street, which is believed to have been funded by 1MDB money, and which turned a huge profit.

The government is expected to call for general elections in the first quarter of 2017, a full year before the current parliamentary session is due to close. According political analysts in Kuala Lumpur, the government, and particularly the United Malays National Organization, is attempting to thwart the opposition while it is deeply disorganized and squabbling. The opposition, however, has now been joined by the new Parti Prebumi Bersatu Malaysia, headed by ousted UMNO Vice President Muhyiddin Yassin as the secretary general, and being driven by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

“The road is the first or second quarter of next year,” a source told Asia Sentinel. “They are raising funds already.”  Musa Hitam, a senior UMNO statesman, has also predicted an early election.

Monet’s ‘Great Saint George’—a $35 million scene of Venice.(above)

La Maison de Vincent a Arles, by Vincent Van Gogh

When it was suggested that Najib had plenty of money to fund the next election that was left over from the US$620 million that had disappeared out of the country in 2013, the source said: “That money’s all gone. It all went into buying the paintings and the apartments and the houses that Jho Low paid for. Now it’s going, going, gone…”

On July 20, US Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced that the US Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Unit had filed civil complaints seeking the forfeiture and recovery of more than US$1 billion in 1MDB assets, the largest such action ever brought under the kleptocracy asset recovery unit.

“Stolen money that is subsequently used to purchase interests in music companies, artwork or high-end real estate is subject to forfeiture under U.S. law,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker, who was present at Lynch’s press conference.

These assets have been detailed in extensive stories in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, much of it supplied by the blog The Sarawak Report, giving the addresses of high-end real estate and hotel properties in New York and Los Angeles, a $35 million jet aircraft, works of art by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, an interest in the music publishing rights of EMI Music and the production of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Named in the Justice Department’s complaint were Jho Low, as he is known, as well as Riza Aziz and “Malaysian Official 1,” who was not identified further. But the complaint noted that shortly after a 2013 bond sale for 1MDB were diverted to the Tanore account, “US$681,000,000 was sent from the Tanore Account to a bank account belonging to MALAYSIAN OFFICIAL 1.” 

Malaysian Official 1 was named 32 times in the 136-page civil complaint.It was an unprecedented action against the head of a government that is considered a vital ally in Southeast Asia and one who as late as last January was playing golf with President Barack Obama in Hawaii.

Najib and his surrogates have for more than a month jumped through hoops to seek to deny that he was Malaysian Official 1, with one going so far as to say that Malaysian Official 1 could be the current Agong, or Malaysian king, the Sultan of Kedah. They have accused the US Justice Department of neglecting to hear the Malaysian government’s side of the story. Khairy Jamaluddin, the Youth Minister, told supporters in early August that the US officials “announced (their findings) is as though it was a conviction, as though (those named) are already guilty and to be punished. The words used showed as though Malaysia and the government are guilty.”

In the meantime, however, the US Justice Department is sequestering the assets specified in the complaint, which many observers believe were not Jho Low’s at all, but the Najib family’s as the beneficial owners.  While UMNO officials plan for a 14th Parliamentary election, opponents and political analysts are waiting for the next shoe to drop, and that would be the filing of a criminal complaint against Malaysian Official 1 and his accomplices.

If indeed the US$1 billion in assets that have been seized is the property of the Najib family, it doesn’t leave them destitute. Long before he became Prime Minister, critics accused Najib, as defense minister, of a long string of defense acquisitions that had been overpriced by client companies alleged to be directing kickbacks into the Najib coffers. In February, for instance, French prosecutors launched a formal investigation into allegations that Bernard Baiocco, the former President of Thales International, the French defense contractor, of steering bribes to Najib through his close friend, the former defense analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, suspected of being the middle man. So far the case has not moved forward publicly.

Malaysia: The Extent to which Fawning Officials Go to Please The Boss

February 5, 2018

Malaysia: The Extent to which Fawning Officials Go to Please The Boss

by Anisah Shukry

An outpouring of solidarity for dissident artist Fahmi Reza in the form of posters shared online, after a warning from Malaysian police over his caricatures of the prime minister. – Fahmi Reza Twitter pic, February 5, 2016.

Images of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak dolled up in chalk-white makeup, with a bright red gash for a smile and neon green (or occasionally lush orange) hair, greet visitors to the Facebook community page called Grupa.

It is an acronym for “Grafik Rebel Untuk Protes & Aktivisme”, or “Rebel Graphics for Protests and Activism”, which brought together several graphic designers and digital artists to design posters for last year’s Bersih protest in Kuala Lumpur.

Now, they have set their sights on a new project: flooding the social media with pictures of a clown-faced Najib – sometimes grinning, sometimes sad, and sometimes with a rose dangling from between his lips – along with the hashtag #KitaSemuaPenghasut (we are all seditious).

In Malaysia, where an award-winning cartoonist was censured for drawing satirical comics on the Prime Minister and his wife, Grupa’s antics are more than just a colourful dig at Najib.

They told The Malaysian Insider they were risking arrest to stand up for fellow graphic artist Fahmi Reza, who posted the first clown caricature of Najib on his own Twitter on January 31, and promptly attracted police attention.

In Fahmi’s debut clown poster of Najib, he drew a fang-like smile on the Prime Minister’s face and sinister-looking eyebrows, with the caption: “In 2015, the Sedition Act was used 91 times. Tapi dalam negara yang penuh dengan korupsi, kita semua penghasut (but in a country that is full of corruption, we are all seditious).”

It was in response to the Attorney-General’s decision to close investigations into the RM2.6 billion found in Najib’s personal bank accounts.

Not impressed, the newly-set up Twitter account for the Police’s Cyber Investigation Response Centre (@OfficialPcirc) warned him that he was being watched.

“My first reaction was shock,” Fahmi told The Malaysian Insider as he recalled receiving the tweet.

“I didn’t know the existence of that police cyber unit, PCIRC, until they tweeted me that warning.”

But that feeling quickly turned to outrage when he read its tweet, especially the words “Gunakan dgn berhemah&berlandaskan undang2” (use properly and in accordance with the law).

Big Brother is watching

Defiant, Fahmi immediately wrote a post on Facebook in Malay, which translates to, “In a country that uses laws to protect the corrupt and oppress those brave enough to speak out, it is time we abandon all niceties when fighting the corrupt rulers”.

He also posted another satirical artwork on Twitter, using the police’s words against them in the caption, along with the hashtag #BigBrotherIsWatchingYou, an ode to George Orwell’s 1984.

The activist, who recalled his arrest 12 years ago for drawing a poster on police brutality, didn’t expect the Internet’s graphic artist community to rise up with him in solidarity this time around.

The #KitaSemuaPenghasut movement was a “new wave graphic rebellion against the Old Order”, he said, and the response has been overwhelming.

“It was beyond my expectations. It proved to me that I was not alone. There were others who share my outrage.In the past, graphic designers have largely kept themselves out of the limelight when it came to politics and activism. Grupa is a breath of fresh air,” said Fahmi.

On Grupa’s Facebook, fresh caricatures of Najib are posted every hour, and social media users are lapping it up.”Make a shirt of it, I’d buy it,” urged Facebook user Apisz Fumi in the comments section.

“That is one frightening image,” observed Richard Lee, to a digitally edited picture of Najib baring rotten, bleeding teeth and a cheerfully bright red clown nose.

Grupa said the movement came about when they decided to produce clown-faced posters of Najib to show solidarity with a fellow graphic artist and disgust at the ruling class for “constantly abusing the law”.

“We started releasing several posters on our Facebook page and before we knew it, we even had the public submitting their own versions of Clown Najib to us. To date, we have released 46 posters depicting Najib as a clown,” the group said, adding that they received dozens of paintings from “the citizenry” a day through email.

But the group, as well as Fahmi, risk running afoul of the law, more specifically Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.

A conviction could land the artists a fine of up to RM50,000, a year’s jail, or both.And as if to drive this point home, @OfficialPcirc’s only tweet since issuing the warning to Fahmi comprised an image breaking down that same law.

But the prospect of having the police cyber unit clamp down on them doesn’t seem to perturb Grupa, even though they risk courting more trouble than Fahmi, given the flood of caricatures on their page.

They said they were frightened of just one thing: being trampled over should they not voice out.

“So far, no authorities have contacted us, but that may change. We are looking forward to it,” they added.

Global attention

The BBC report on Fahmi Reza and the solidarity shown to him by fellow graphic artists. – BBC pic, February 5, 2016.

For the time being, the group plans to continue sharing clown images of the Prime Minister as long as it believes citizens are being repressed and denied their right to free speech and freedom of expression.

Besides receiving Facebook likes and shares, they gained international publicity with a BBC report on them titled “PM left red nosed by censorship protest”.

Grupa said they were left “humbled and surprised” by the attention.

“We didn’t expect it to go big…Actually we did lah, I mean, you mess with freedom of expression this is what you get lah, blowback,” they quipped.

Despite this, the group is strict about maintaining anonymity. “We are an anonymous collective group of graphic designers and digital artists who work as a team devoid of a formal hierarchy. There is no one in charge as we feel that our artwork should do the talking for us.You can say that our posters are in charge.”

Fahmi said he was ecstatic by the Malaysian graphic design community’s strong spirit of resistance.”It shows that they can ban a poster, but they can’t ban the idea behind the poster. Because ideas are bulletproof.”

And he is confident Malaysia’s #KitaSemuaPenghasut movement will herald a change in society.

“The outpouring of solidarity posters from graphic artists with their own versions of a clown-faced Najib despite the police warning against it was a clear act of defiance and represents a shift in the way ordinary people react to police intimidation.

“When people are emboldened to defy and stand up against injustice, it chips away at the power structure that keeps people docile.”

Clearly emboldened by the movement, Fahmi shared the BBC report on his Twitter yesterday, with the caption, “#KitaSemuaPenghasut has spread. The rebellion has begun.”

He told The Malaysian Insider: “That BBC took interest in the story shows how preposterous it is to consider a satirical graphic featuring the Prime Minister to be a threat.”