Set up commission to promote arts and crafts
John Teo 

IF THERE is one fairly legitimate criticism of Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg’s somewhat obsessive emphasis on developing the state’s nascent digital economy, it may be that there seems absent a perhaps even more important concomitant plan and state-wide policy to strengthen its real economy in tandem. He has plans of lavishing scarce financial resources on beefing up statewide hugely expensive infrastructure to enable a virtual economy.

Getting isolated rural villagers in the Bario Highlands, for example, hooked up speedily and all day onto the information superhighway will, of course, in theory be highly emancipative and liberating for individual villagers in almost every sense, not least economic. Whether it is the best use of limited state resources to prioritise this is quite another matter altogether.

Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing had previously made the observation that a virtual highway may be quite economically useless unless there first exists a physical highway, without which no real goods can be easily and cheaply transported in or out of anywhere.

But services may be another matter. The question then arises here as to what services Sarawak as a whole and rural Sarawak in particular may competitively offer to the rest of the world.

One possible area to look into may be developing Sarawak’s distinctive culture, arts and crafts into an industry of some consequence. Abang Johari recently promised that his government will help to establish an arts and culture centre, noting the state’s rich heritage in that regard.

It is crucial, the chief minister said, for there to be a physical meeting place to foster harmony between the various ethnic groups while at the same time build the state economy from the aspect of arts and culture.

The chief minister also hoped the centre, will, if done right, increase the state’s income which will then be channelled back into creating a vibrant local arts and culture scene.

Abang Johari may well have added too that where music – be it in the traditional form or the more modern pop variety that the Dayak communities in the state have popularised in recent years – is concerned, commercially promoting it digitally online may be more of a cinch than other more tangible cultural and art forms. Thus, it is certainly worth exploring how virtual platforms may be created (with similarly enabling support from the government) to complement physical space for local musicians and artistes to gather, interact and perform.

While it is laudable indeed for the state government to lend its hand in providing every assistance to provide those in the artistic community in the state a leg-up and physical space to complement whatever is already currently available, it is also noteworthy to highlight that a very commendable initiative currently already exists by way of the Borneo 744 project, touted to be the nation’s first Blue Ocean Entrepreneurs Township (BOET), located within the Bintawa industrial area in Kuching.

The BOET comprises five blocks available for rent by aspiring entrepreneurs, including those in the creative sector. Tanoti House, a community of Sarawak artists commercially seeking to revive the traditional art of songket-weaving, is one such tenant of Borneo 744.

An initiative of the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC), Borneo 744 is its first physical presence outside the Klang Valley. It is meant to serve as a one-stop space to equip budding entrepreneurs with relevant skills and capabilities to build innovative solutions and promote creative thinking.

Quite some years ago, the state government had initiated the formation of the Sarawak Crafts Council in the hopes of energising and promoting the development and growth of local handicrafts. The council seems to have fallen by the wayside as little has been heard of it these days.

What is probably required is for the state government to take things a bigger step further. It should explore the possibility of setting up a much more high-powered arts and crafts commission comprising members from both the government and leading contributors to the state arts and creative sector. The commission should then be set to work on coming up with practical ideas on how best to holistically develop a truly vibrant and commercially viable and sustainable creative sector in the state.

The commission may also draw upon best practices from similar bodies within and outside the country which may inspire its tasks in the furtherance of specific sub-sectors in the creative industry such as local music and performance arts, branding to produce high-end, high-value ethnically-inspired products and the hosting of high-calibre arts exhibitions locally and abroad.

The chief minister likes talking the talk of promoting the necessary eco-systems in the state so that the digital economy in the state, as an example, may truly thrive. A Sarawak arts and crafts commission may be just what is needed to bring all the threads together to come up with precisely an eco-system in which the state’s entire creative sector can systematically develop and thrive as a well-integrated and wholesome enterprise.

It may well be a blessing in disguise that the tourism sector in Sarawak has not been as well developed as has been intended thus far. The state can, and certainly must, do better and more intelligently than producing cheap trinkets and other low-value cultural souvenir items merely for tourists to take home.

Sarawak’s rich, distinctive and increasingly popular culinary traditions lend themselves readily to being further and easily promoted both through physical and virtual platforms, with the state’s rich bio-diversity and agro-based products adding spice, literally, to its delicious array of culinary creations and concoctions.

All these bewildering variety of cultural and traditional art forms found in Sarawak must be carefully and consistently nurtured and officially supported and promoted as a distinctive Sarawak “style” that can bestow on all products derived from it a certain inescapable cachet, even a branding, that will go a long way towards making a name for Sarawak well beyond its shores.

The key, of course, is branding and that may be the most prized, if perhaps elusive, remit that awaits a commission dedicated exclusively to such a purpose.

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 275.