Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra's Dirty Secret

Just got an e-mail last week:

Much as we like to encourage appreciation of Western Music in Malaysia why is it that Petronas sees it fit to finance the 'Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra' which is a misnomer because 95% of its 105 musicians are foreign and mainly European. Each musician is paid between RM 16,000- RM28,000 per month. They are given 2 months paid holiday and working conditions which are second to none in the world.

They have not one but 3 European conductors ! The Chief Conductor is paid RM130,000 per month and the Associate Conductor gets paid RM 50,000 per month. The total Monthly budget for this orchestra is RM3.5 million.

The Malaysian Conductor Ooi Chean See resigned because it was widely known she was being undermined and not allowed to develop in her career. During her time with the orchestra, her concert schedule decreased gradually to the point she was doing only a couple 'Children's Concerts' per year.

The orchestra has been in existence for 10 years now and the total amount spent on this orchestra has been a staggering RM 500 million.

Yes, Petronas does not have money for bridges for Malaysians but it has money to splash on foreign musicians. Petronas does not appear to have real desire to train or give opportunity to locals musicians.

They promised to set up an Academy of Music to train local musicians with the tutors drawn from the orchestra but this sadly has not materialised.

Since its inception, the Malaysian Philharmonic orchestra has not increased its Malaysian participation which still stands at a shameful 4%. They have cosmetic programs like 'outreach' to supposedly encourage the love of western classical music to local Malaysians but these are essentially self serving publicity stunts. Even the newly formed'Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra' is a publicity stunt with no serious commitment to develop Malaysian talent. It is poorly organised and its musicians meet about twice a year only! The previous founding CEO of the orchestra Mr Hamid Abu Bakar was clueless about music and left the artistic decisions to IMG, an international music agency who have successfully milked Petronas for tens of millions of dollars.

The current CEO Juniwati Hussin is a chemist by training and is a slight improvement because she does actually attend the concerts and is not averse to learning to appreciate western classical music. But the overall artisitc planning and direction in controlled by the Europeans who have a vested interest telling Petronas that there is no talent in Malaysia and the ignorant management of Petronas are happy to maintain the status quo. It would appear that they prefer foreign participation in this 'Malaysian Orchestra' then to have Malaysians. What a pathetic mindset.

I hope issues like this will be brought up in parliament.

Why can't Petronas train local musicians, provide scholarships for locals to study abroad if need be, and then employ them in the orchestra. In a matter of a few yearswe can have an orchestra consisting of Malaysians true to the name Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and good enough to rival the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.There is an abundance of talent in Malaysia. The sad fact is, Malaysian talent is usually recognized overseas.

Inikah attitude Petronas!?


  1. wah lau ! That ang moh ah , must be special lor . The ang moh is always better than asians mentality , seems to run deep in the minds of the asians who controls PETRONAS . Don't be kaypoh lah bro. MALAYSIA BOLEH lor.

  2. THERE is an old joke. There was a budding artist, we'll call him "Bob", who had recently moved into a small loft. He was motivated, he was dedicated, he was prolific. In the six months since moving in, he had filled this, his little space in the world, with his pencil drawings, with his watercolours, with his sculptures.

    He worked tirelessly, through day and night, occasionally stopping for food and water. He ate very little and slept even less.

    But his devotion to his art left him little time to worry about life's practicalities. Which is why, late one afternoon, he suddenly had to face his landlord and the daunting task of coming up with the six months' worth of rent that he still owed.

    "Just give me another week," he pleaded. "I'm on the verge of something great."

    But his landlord wasn't convinced.
    "Absolutely not. That's what you said last week. You're not getting a free ride any longer."

    "Just think of it as an investment. Some day, when I'm rich and famous, this small crawl-space will be worth a fortune. People will peer into this disgusting hole, and in whispered tones they'll say, 'Bob used to paint here'."

    "Look," the landlord said, "just pay your rent now, or they'll be able to say it tomorrow morning."

    So riddle me this. Just how do we put a value on the arts? How do we judge its worth? Is there some quantifiable component by which we can gauge success or failure? Do such notions even matter?

    Consider the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and the recent revelations as to its cost.

    Given the number of heated arguments that I have wittingly been embroiled in over the last couple of weeks, I think it's safe to say that I stand among a mere handful in my belief that the RM3.5 million spent every month is justified.

    To call it a waste is symbolic of the chronic and deep-rooted disdain that we have, in some ways encouraged, towards the expression and application of anything involving creative skill or imagination.

    To call it a waste because it is money spent "to entertain foreigners, especially from Europe", reveals an even greater ignorance, not just by its jingoism, but about the very importance of the arts itself.

    I say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I hope you'll indulge me in a brief two-minute parenthetical.

    (I have heard the New York Philharmonic perform in the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center Plaza, I have heard the London Philharmonic play in the Royal Festival Hall, and I have heard the Malaysian Philharmonic in our very own Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. You sit back, you close your eyes, and I swear to God you can barely distinguish between the three. Although I must say that I prefer the immaculate acoustics in our own little bit of musical heaven that sits beneath 452 metres of tapering twin towers. It's the place where sounds go to die.)

    The fact remains that you get what you pay for.

    Paying world-class prices will almost always get you world-class standards. Paying peanuts will get you monkeys. Something that has consistently held true in every aspect of our society.

    The hall itself is maintained to perfection and with ticket prices for some concerts as low as RM8.50, it is quite possibly the most accessible venue in the world.

    I have no idea as to its profitability, but that is of very little consequence. Its purpose is to educate. Its purpose is to feed our souls. It is a social service. And you cannot put a price on that.

    There is no conflict between art and commerce. The debate is irrelevant. Commerce relies on clear notions of success and failure. In the arts, there is no failure; everything has value, a juncture by which is born the next piece, and the next, until finally, something extraordinary.

    The naysayers and their endless jeremiads usually begin with some reverse snobbery about why Malaysians even need something so ostentatious, so lavish, so "Western"?

    Why does Malaysia need a world-class philharmonic orchestra? It is, after all, something that only caters to a select few, to the beau monde.

    They make the argument that the arts appeal to only the rich and the middle classes.

    They make it sound like there is, in fact something innate, some inherent quality which enables a person to enjoy Beethoven's 9th Symphony or Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

    But it is education that leads to appreciation. It is something that is taught and by consequence, learned. It isn't by any means something that is intrinsic.

    They then bring up the same old complaint, that by paying foreigners large sums of money, we are in fact ignoring our local talent.

    Needles and haystacks come to mind. The pool is incredibly shallow. Sure, we send our children for their piano lessons and their art classes. We force them to learn the violin.

    But we do nothing to encourage their appreciation. Heaven forbid they decide to take it up professionally. It was only ever meant to pad the resume.

    The way we educate our children is appalling. We have successfully produced generations of competent doctors, lawyers and accountants, of young people who can do little more than add up a string of numbers, or write a coherent sentence.

    We are such cultural peasants that we have misunderstood the very reason we learn music and all the arts. As it is only from such creativity and imagination can we begin to discover the solutions to our political and social afflictions.

    The only way to develop a local talent pool is by exposure. Because all artists, be they painters, musicians, or writers, are those who are moved to emulate that which moves them.

    We can all afford to be poets. We can afford to spend a lot more and we should. We must lose the mindset that somehow spending money on the arts is a waste, that it is in fact taking money away from something else, from something more important.

    Money and resources are by no means a finite commodity. They are infinite and there should be some balance in how we channel them.

    There is an old joke.

    An American tourist in Tel Aviv was about to enter the impressive Mann Auditorium to take in a concert by the Israeli Philharmonic.

    Enthralled by the unique architecture of the building, he turned to his escort and asked if the building was named for Thomas Mann, the world-famous author.

    "No," his friend said, "it's named for Fredric Mann, from Philadelphia."

    "Really? I've never heard of him. What did he write?"

    "A cheque."


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