Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are not widely known for their arts, even though there is much creativity here, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore. Traditional art forms like wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) and mak yong (dance and music performances) hang on alongside contemporary art, drama and filmmaking. The region's distinctive architecture ranges from Chinese shophouses and stately colonial buildings through to iconic hyper-modern constructions. Local authors and visual artists are also gaining attention in the wider world.
Back in the 1950s, when Malaysia and Singapore were both part of the Federation of Malaya, P Ramlee dominated the silver screen. This Penang-born actor, singer and director started his movie career in Singapore in 1948 and moved back to Malaysia in the mid 1960s. His directorial debut Penarik Becha (The Trishaw Man; 1955) is a classic of Malay cinema and he would act and direct scores more films before his death in 1973, aged just 44.
Like Ramlee, Yasmin Ahmad's movie career was also cut short. Her film Sepet (2005), about a Chinese boy and Malay girl falling in love, cuts across the country’s race and language barriers upsetting many devout Malays, as did her follow up, Gubra (2006), which dared to take a sympathetic approach to prostitutes. Causing less of stir were Mukshin (2007), a romantic tale about Malay village life, and Talentime (2009), about an inter-school performing arts contest, and what would be Yasmin’s final film before her death at 51 from a stroke the same year.
U-Wei Haji Saari was the first Malaysian director to show a film – Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist) - at the prestigious Cannes festival in 1995. His 2014 movie Hanyut (Drifting) is an adventure drama set in Malaya in the 19th century. Directed by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal and with a script in Tamil, Jagat (2016) is a 2015 crime drama set in Malaysia's poor and marginalised Indian community. It won the best film award at that year's Malaysia Film Festival.
Set in Kelantan, Dain Said’s action-drama Bunohan (2012) did well at film festivals around the world, gaining it an international release – rare for a Malaysian movie. Said's 2016 movie Interchange is a noir–style supernatural thriller set in KL.
In 1979 when Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich headed to Singapore to film Saint Jack, he had to submit a fake shooting script to the authorities so as to avoid having the production shut down. On its release the movie, about an American pimp in 1970s Singapore, was banned on the island state (the ban was lifted in 2006).
Local film makers are in a constant dance with government censors. The first locally made movie to gain international attention was Eric Khoo’s debut feature Mee Pok Man (1995) about the relationship between a fish-ball noodle vendor and a troubled prostitute. Several of Khoo’s subsequent films, including the animated Tatsumi (2011) and prison drama Apprentice (2016), have since featured in competition at Cannes.
Royston Tan’s first feature 15 (2003), about teenage gangsters, fell foul of local censors and had 27 scenes snipped. In response, he produced the hilarious short music video Cut (which can be viewed on YouTube). Less controversial was 881 (2007), a campy musical comedy about the getai (stage singing) aspirations of two friends.
Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013) explores the relationship between a Singaporean family and their Filipino maid, topical given tensions between locals and foreign workers. Among the film's awards is the Camera d’Or from Cannes.
Hollywood was back in Singapore (with full government approval) in 2017 to film Crazy Rich Asians based on Kevin Kwan's best selller. Various locations, including Raffles Hotel, Marina Bay Sands and Newton Food Centre, feature in the movie.
In December 2017 Brunei hosted its first film festival Brunei Film Blitz. Black Cat by Liyana binti Hanif, won the 48-Hour Film Blitz category, Selamat Malam by Visionary Project was on top in the Open category, and Wish You Were Here by Malek Razak received a Special Jury mention. You can view the short movies at https://progresif.com/brunei-film-blitz.
Drama & Dance
Traditional Malay dances include menora, a dance-drama of Thai origin performed by an all-male cast dressed in grotesque masks, and the similar mak yong, in which the participants are female. These performances often take place at Puja Ketek, Buddhist festivals held at temples near the Thai border in Kelantan. There’s also the rodat, a dance from Terengganu, and the joget, an upbeat dance with Portuguese origins, often performed at Malay weddings by professional dancers; in Melaka it’s better known as chakunchak.
The best chances of seeing performances are in Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Melaka and Kota Bharu.
When it comes to contemporary drama and dance, Singapore tends to have the edge. There’s a lot of interesting work by local theatre companies such as Wild Rice, Necessary Stage and Singapore Repertory Theatre. Singapore’s leading dance company, Singapore Dance Theatre, puts on performances ranging from classical ballet to contemporary dance.
In Malaysia and Singapore wayang (Chinese opera) is derived from the Cantonese variety. The performances mix dialogue, music, song and dance, and what they lack in literary nuance, they make up for with garish costumes and the crashing music that follows the action. Scenery and props are minimal; it’s the action that is important, and even for the uninitiated it’s usually easy to get the gist of the plot.
Performances can go for an entire evening. Even though the acting is very stylised, and the music can be discordant to Western ears, they are worth seeing. Free street performances are held in the Chinatown areas of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Melaka and Penang’s George Town during important festivals like Chinese New Year (January/February), the Hungry Ghost Festival (August/September) and the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods (September/October).
Writers W Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward were inspired by the region in the early 20th century. The classic colonial expat experience is recounted by Anthony Burgess in The Malayan Trilogy written in the 1950s.
In recent decades locally born authors have been coming to the fore. Tash Aw’s debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory, set in Malaysia of the 1930s and ’40s, won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award. His latest work Five Star Billionaire (2013) is about four expat Malaysians trying to make a go of it in contemporary Shanghai. Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel The Gift of Rain, set in Penang prior to WWII, was long-listed for the Man Booker literature prize. His follow up, The Garden of Evening Mists, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, takes the reader deep into the Cameron Highlands and the 1950s era of the Emergency. Evening is the Whole Day (2008) by Preeta Samarasan looks at the experiences of an Indian immigrant family living on the outskirts of Ipoh in the early 1980s.
Brian Gomez's comedy-thriller Devil’s Place (2008) is a fun read and very evocative of its KL setting. Once We Were There (2017) by Bernice Chauly, is set in KL during the era of the reformasi protests from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. It shines a light into the city's darker corners, including the drug trade and babies stolen for adoption or worse.
In the late 1960s Paul Theroux lived in Singapore, which forms the backdrop to his novel Saint Jack (1973) and his short-story collection The Consul’s File (1977). JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip (1978) about the decline of British colonialism in the region in the run up to WWII is considered a classic Singapore novel.
Catherine Lim’s Little Ironies (1978) is a series of keenly observed short stories about Singaporeans from a prolific writer of novels, poetry and political commentary. Hwee Hwee Tan pinpoints the peculiar dilemmas and contradictions facing Singaporean youth in her novels Foreign Bodies (1999) and Mammon Inc (2001). Singapore-born Kevin Kwan's witty satire on the lives of the island state’s megarich in Crazy Rich Asians (2013) has been so successful it has spawned two sequels and a Hollywood movie.
Look out for books from local publisher Epigram Books (www.shop.epigrambooks.sg) – they sponsor a writing prize that has brought to public attention such talented writers as Sebastian Sim, whose The Riot Act was the 2017 winner. This darkly comic satire riffs on the causes of and fallout from the real-life riot in Little India in 2013.
Also short-listed for the Epigram Prize was Jeremy Tiang's outstanding State of Emergency (2017) which went on to win the Singapore Literature Prize in 2018, and Balli Kaur Jaswal for her 2015 novel Sugarbread. Also look out for Jaswal's debut Inheritance (2013) about a dysfunctional Punjabi Sikh family's trials and tribulations between 1970 and 1990. UK-based Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo's debut novel Ponti (2018) is about the relationship between a woman who once starred in cult horror movies, her daughter and her daughter's friend.
Snapping at the high heels of demure Malaysian pop songstress Siti Nurhaliza are Zee Avi, who was signed by the US label Bushfire Records for her eponymous debut CD, is Yuna, who has also cut a US record deal and is one of the talented vocalists and songwriters from the nation's new generation of musicians. Also look out for Najwa whose slickly produced EP Aurora has garnered positive reviews; the MIA-style rapper Arabyrd; and the more retro guitar jingly pop stylings of Noh Salleh.
In 2015, indie rock band Kyoto Protocol, who have been steadily building their reputation since forming in 2008, finally released a full album, Catch These Men, after a series of singles and EPs in the past.
Local artists show up at music festivals in Malaysia such as Urbanscapes and the Rainforest World Music Festival. A great resource for catching up other up-and-coming local bands and singers is The Wknd (www.the-wknd.com).
Singapore’s pop music scene creates only a small blip internationally. On the radar are rapper and hip hop artists Thelioncityboy (www.facebook.com/thelioncityboy) and Shigga Shay (www.shiggashay.com) and singer-songwriters Jasmine Sokko (www.jasminesokko.com) and Inch Chua (www.thisisinch.com).
Visitors should look out for local festivals like the annual Baybeats at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, showcasing alternative singers and bands.
Traditional & Classical
Traditional Malay music is based largely on gendang (drums), but other percussion instruments include the gong and various tribal instruments made from seashells, coconut shells and bamboo. The Indonesian-style gamelan (a traditional orchestra of drums, gongs and wooden xylophones) also crops up on ceremonial occasions. The Malay nobat uses a mixture of percussion and wind instruments to create formal court music.
Islamic and Chinese influences are felt in the music of dondang sayang (Chinese-influenced romantic songs) and hadrah (Islamic chants, sometimes accompanied by dance and music). In Singapore, catch the well-respected Singapore Chinese Orchestra (www.sco.com.sg), which plays not only traditional and symphonic Chinese music but also Indian, Malay and Western pieces.
Latiff Mohidin, who is also a poet, is a Penang-based artist whose work spans several decades and has featured in a major retrospective at the National Visual Arts Gallery; he's considered a national treasure.
Other long-established artists include Hoessein Enas, who was commissioned by Shell Ltd in 1963 to produce a series of portraits celebrating the newly born country, and Amron Omar who has focused throughout his career on silat (a Malay martial art) as a source of inspiration for his paintings.
Among notable contemporary Malaysian artists are Jalaini Abu Hassan (‘Jai’), Wong Hoy Cheong, landscape painter Wong Perng Fey, and multimedia artist Yee I-Lann. Work by Malaysian sculptor Abdul Multhalib Musa has won awards and he created several pieces in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.
In Singapore the visual-arts scene is also vibrant, with painting, sculpture and multimedia the vehicles of choice for dynamic explorations into the tensions between Western art practices and the perceived erosion of traditional values. Highly regarded local artists include Tang Da Wu, Vincent Leow, Jason Lim and Zulkifle Mahmod. The National Gallery Singapore is aiming to be the region’s leading visual arts institution.
Malaysia and Singapore have both made their mark in the world of contemporary architecture with iconic buildings like Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore. Other interesting skyscrapers and civic buildings in the cities take inspiration from both local culture and the environment, such as the Tabung Haji and Menara Maybank buildings in KL, both designed by Hijjas Kasturi, and the Espalande – Theatres on the Bay in Singapore.
Vividly painted and handsomely proportioned, traditional wooden Malay houses are also perfectly adapted to the hot, humid conditions of the region. Built on stilts, with high, peaked roofs, they take advantage of even the slightest cooling breeze. Further ventilation is achieved by full-length windows, no internal partitions, and latticelike grilles in the walls. The layout of a traditional Malay house reflects Muslim sensibilities. There are separate areas for men and women, as well as distinct areas where guests of either sex may be entertained.
Although their numbers are dwindling, this type of house has not disappeared altogether. The best places to see examples are in the kampung (villages)of Peninsular Malaysia, particularly along the east coast in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. Here you’ll see that roofs are often tiled, showing a Thai and Cambodian influence. In Melaka, the Malay house has a distinctive tiled front stairway leading up to the front verandah – examples can be seen around Kampung Morten.
Few Malay-style houses have survived Singapore’s rapid modernisation – the main place they remain is on Pulau Ubin. Instead, the island state has some truly magnificent examples of Chinese shophouse architecture, particularly in Chinatown, Emerald Hill (off Orchard Rd) and around Katong. There are also the distinctive ‘black and white’ bungalows built during colonial times; find survivors lurking in the residential areas off Orchard Rd.
Despite its oil wealth, there’s little that’s flashy in the architecture of Brunei’s modest capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, where the city’s skyline is dominated by the striking Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. About 3km outside of the capital is the Sultan’s opulent palace Istana Nurul Iman, while at Jerudong is the eye-boggling Empire Hotel.
Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei all leave much to be desired when it comes to freedom of the press. In the Reports without Borders rankings for 2018, the countries placed 145, 151 and 153 respectively out of the 179 nations surveyed. All the countries have stringent publishing laws with the courts frequently used to silence critics and frighten journalists into self-censorship.
Following the 2018 general election, Malaysia's new government led by Pakatan Harapan has committed to allowing greater press freedom in the country. It repealed the previous government's controversial Anti-Fake News Act of 2018 which was used to stop coverage of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal. However, freedom of expression in the country remains problematic as lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri discovered in July 2018 when she wrote a blog article questioning Malaysia's monarchy, describing it as incompatible with democracy. Following complaints she was questioned by the police under the investigation of breaking sections of the Sedition Act and Communication and Multimedia Act.
Singapore's government keeps a tight leash on local media through regulation and censorship. Prominent opposition bloggers such as Roy Ngerng are subject to persistent harassment including law suits and police questioning. A new anti-terrorism law in 2018 gives police special powers during terrorist attacks, including banning journalists and members of the public from reporting on the scene.
All this said, social media increasingly plays a part in Malaysia, Singapore’s and Brunei's mediascape, with local newspapers often quoting bloggers and reporting on issues generated on the internet and social media. Many people also go online to read news they are unlikely to see in print.