Faridah and Joe

Beacon of hope for the arts

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FOR many big names in the Malaysian performing arts scene, the Malay Mail will always be remembered as a constant presence that always supported the arts from its budding years.

Just ask theatre stalwart Datuk Faridah Merican, who would wholeheartedly agree.

“From its very early days, the Malay Mail was a staunch supporter of the arts.

“It made performing a pleasure as the papers did not complain much about space for the arts. Exactly what the arts needed.

“The arts have suffered from decisions made to not pay as much attention to Malaysian performing arts. Of course, we cannot improve our skills and get awareness from the general public if the media does not play its part,” The Actors Studio co-founder and executive producer said.

The 79-year-old First Lady of Malaysian theatre said she will fondly look back on the good old days when she would keep a scrapbook of her articles, a habit which continues until today, a little slowed down nonetheless.

Her husband and theatre partner-in-crime Joe Hasham entered the scene in 1989, in an industry dominated by heavyweights such as Krishen Jit, Syed Alwi, Usman Awang, Marion D’Cruz and Faridah herself.

He recalls a vibrancy which he said is missing today.

“Those early years were tough but there was great joy throughout the performing arts industry, a joy that has now been partly replaced by some bitterness and occasional jealousies,” said Joe.

For the Australian-Lebanese actor, the Malay Mail stood out from the crowd as an ardent and genuine supporter of the arts which played a vital role in the early development of theatre companies like the Five Arts Centre, The Instant Café Theatre Company, The Actors Studio and more recently Penangac and KLPac.

“I remember the Malay Mail as a paper that was not afraid to push the boundaries, unafraid to critique openly and honestly, and was not interested in sucking up to anybody.

“It told it the way it was, dirt and all. I can only assume that this was because of the quality of the writers on staff.

“It is with a heavy heart that I must accept the fact that this gloriously historic newspaper will now only be available digitally,” the KLPac and Penangpac artistic director said.

Painting a picture of the arts scene in the 90s, singer-actor Sean Ghazi said there were no proper ticketing agencies – organisers had to manually print tickets and partner up with restaurants and bookshops to sell tickets.

Sean will never forget how everyone would hang on to the Malay Mail when it was an afternoon paper.

“It was hard getting information out there that you were putting on a show, we used the Malay Mail as a conduit to getting information out there, to get reviewed. — the Malay Mail was a friend we could count on and the reviews were always fair,” he said.

“While I’ll miss telling my friends to get copies of the paper if I’m promoting a show, I’m all for the immediacy of online journalism as production runs here are quite short.”

From theatre to dance, former dean of Aswara’s (National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage) dance faculty Professor Joseph Gonzales has always been at the forefront of preserving traditional Malay dance forms through bold interpretations.

“The emergence of what we see today has been post-independence efforts to develop and nurture the arts, as well as to make it more professional,” said Gonzales, who currently serves as Head of Academic and Contextual Studies at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

“The Malay Mail has contributed hugely to the performing arts by assisting to raise its profile. The dissemination of information about the arts has been vital for its growth.”

He recalled journalists who went beyond the expected coverage of a show’s basic details such as venue, time and price by providing earnest feedback of what they have watched and were also able to contextualise the academy’s various productions.

Here’s a fun fact: Way before Gonzales made headlines for his dance productions, he first appeared in the Malay Mail in 1979 after winning a small academic scholarship when he was in Form Six.

In 1999, Istana Budaya opened its doors as the primary venue for all forms of theatre.

Although the national theatre was under the purview of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, it needed a push to acquaint people with the newly-minted creative space.

“When Istana Budaya first started, we were faced with a major challenge of introducing it to the public and that’s where the media played a part,” its director-general Datuk Mohamed Juhari Shaarani recalled.

“The Malay Mail helped Istana Budaya a lot from the beginning. At the start, we leaned towards Malay theatre and found it difficult to get non-Malay publications to promote our shows.”

Juhari added he will forever be grateful for the generous support that the paper lent to musical productions such as Puteri Gunung Ledang and P. Ramlee The Musical.

As a young woman trying to launch a career in showbusiness, Kakiseni president Low Ngai Yuen used to comb through the paper looking for auditions and listings of shows she could afford to attend as well as reading reviews.

“I remember being featured for The Actors Studio’s Stories for Amah in Malay Mail. I had just started hosting 3R on TV3 and was super honoured and elated,” she said.

Low added she knew the article had made an impact when random strangers would come up to her to talk about the feature.