Categorised | Columns, Commentary

We build this city

ON 27 Oct 2009, four journalists — from the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia — were taken to dinner in Perth, Australia, by a representative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Walking down the banks of the Swan River, the four, including this writer from The Nut Graph, could not stop remarking on how beautiful Perth was. Granted, DFAT had put the journalists up at the Sheraton Perth Hotel, and probably wanted them to see the best of Perth.

Black swans along the Swan River (Pic by Nachoman-au, source: Wiki commons)

And so it is important to let the facts speak for themselves. In the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s 2009 global liveability survey, out of 140 cities, Perth tied with Calgary, Canada, as the world’s fifth most liveable city. Kuala Lumpur (KL) was ranked far below at 79, along with the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Sure, KL rated far better than its Asean neighbours except for, as expected, Singapore, which ranked 54. But KL is an embarrassing 74 spots below Perth, a city with a comparable population size, and which reflects similar ethnic and religious diversity.

What exactly makes Perth so liveable? And can Malaysia learn something from this capital of Western Australia?

The arts in city planning

The EIU survey rated cities based on stability, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and culture and environment. One clue to Perth’s liveability perhaps lies in the city’s annual international arts festival. For four weeks every year, during the height of Perth’s summer, the city is alive with the best theatre, music, film, street arts, literary and community events.

Festival artistic director Shelagh Magadza tells The Nut Graph that the festival, which began in 1953, is the oldest in the southern hemisphere. Perth is pretty isolated from the rest of Australia, so she says the festival probably fed initial hunger for the presence of European arts and culture. But as Perth’s society became more cosmopolitan, so, too, did the arts festival.

The post-World War II wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe meant that the festival saw heavy participation from Eastern European artists in the 1970s and 1980s. And this sort of cultural diversity just kept expanding in the festival’s programmes.

Magadza has certain priorities with regards to the festival, including its level of international excellence in terms of arts practise; its representation and respect for indigenous cultures; and the commissioning of artworks that reflect the realities of Western Australia. Most intriguingly, she wants the festival to have an impact on the city’s physical environment.

“It’s really about making sure the city is more than just a business hub. It’s about making sure the city is a public space,” she tells The Nut Graph in an exclusive interview organised by DFAT.

“What with the changes in society caused by migration and the economic boom, people had expectations of a social life in the city, and the city initially couldn’t cope with this,” she says. The festival, therefore, examines how the city’s physical environment is constantly changing.

“We have to figure out how to change physically and culturally to cope with our growing diversity,” Magadza says. “As a city, we cannot just keep getting bigger in size — environmentally, this will kill us.”

This also means understanding that when people come into the city, they need options to live their lives. People who do not feel welcome within a particular space often develop hostile relationships, not just among themselves, but towards the space itself.

Who would have thought that the arts are an integral part of city planning? Yet this is precisely what can also be applied to KL. Our shopping malls are like fortresses, but are they truly public spaces? Do they offer KL dwellers a place to reflect on our everyday lives? Paying for dress shoes and designer clothes at the cashier is not “reflection”.

What about our public parks? Are they spaces which can be transformed to incorporate exhibits and performances that entertain and educate the public? What about the kilometres upon kilometres of our traffic-choked roads? Do they connect us with each other or sever us from each other?

The big question is, does KL truly have a soul, and if so, is its soul truly healthy? Because if a city’s soul is sick, the symptoms manifest themselves in how the residents feel, think and act. Some will even try to escape. If a city has no soul, it starts crumbling.

Cover design of the Perth International Arts Festival 2009 programme booklet

Feeding the soul

A city-state like Singapore seems to have caught on to this. Sure, the government there still retains an array of politically repressive legislation, but the island nation’s socioeconomic landscape is relaxing and expanding. It has its own annual arts festival, which showcases the best of not only international artworks, but also premieres Singaporean works of high quality. Could this partly be why it ranks 25 places above KL in The Economist‘s survey?

To be fair, the Malaysian government is also trying to inch KL forward in this direction. The Kuala Lumpur Festival is four years old, and tries to offer a selection of performing and visual arts, literary, and cultural events in the city. But honestly, how many people actually know about this festival?

The thing is, merely having an arts festival is not enough. Arts festivals also take up a lot of money. Magadza estimates that the Perth festival’s budget chews up anywhere between AUD14 million and AUD16 million a year. Of this amount, 25% to 30% is funded by the state, while 10% is provided by private parties.

The rest of the budget is made up for by box office takings and grants from other governments. She concedes that public funding for the festival is great but not enough. Still, a Malaysian is left to wonder what sort of money the government here pumps into not just the KL Festival, but the arts in general.

The 2010 budget has earmarked RM200 million in support of the creative industries. But just how does the state define “creative industries”? Are the arts seen to be merely another engine for financial growth? Or, like the Perth International Arts Festival organisers, will the Malaysian government see the arts as integral to making our cities, and indeed our entire country, more liveable?

Shanon Shah was selected and sponsored by the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to visit Perth as part of its International Media Visits Program. The visit was mainly to cover the Fifth Regional Interfaith Dialogue from 28 to 30 Oct 2009. But it also included other appointments, including this one to the organisers of the Perth International Arts Festival. Four other journalists were also selected, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

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One Response to “We build this city”

  1. Simon Soon says:

    The KL Arts Festival would do good if it actually considers hiring a professional artistic director instead of calling up every single institutions in KL to find out what’s their programme during the month of the festival and then publicising their event. The result this year was a hodgepodge of unrelated shows being lumped together in a tourist brochure, making even the most eclectic programmes you get from arts festivals overseas look coherent. But ya, more than biennales, I like art festivals for its breadth and range. I don’t think we even have to look that far. Singapore and Hong Kong’s arts festivals are pretty top-notch although they probably don’t have the subtlety of Australian arts festival in terms of programming. 🙂

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