The creative industry has always been a place for people to come together, exchange ideas and uplift each other. Especially in Southeast Asia, the creative industry has been one of the most vocal sectors for social change. For instance, Fahmi Reza in Malaysia rose to fame as a prominent artist when he created a clown caricature of the then Malaysian prime minister Najib Tun Razak, in protest of the state of Malaysian politics at the time. As such, the creative industry empowers communities to utilise their art and creativity to voice their support for movements, which has now been made easier through connected creative hubs which enables communication among other artists and outreach to the general public. It is important to note that these artists are the changemakers themselves – key individuals who voice their thoughts and bring about change through action, which we’ll be exploring further to understand their impact in Southeast Asia in this article.
An important facet of the creative industry that has allowed it to grow exponentially is the sense of belonging it provides to diverse communities. No matter how polarising or controversial your views or ideas are, art has been a non judgemental nor biassed medium that allows you to build your own community, which has been strongly encouraged in the creative economies around Southeast Asia. This region with its thriving culture is driven by youths and talented individuals with a penchant for creating deeply moving artworks and pushing the boundaries of their art practice. These individuals have become the changemakers of their respective creative industries and often travel worldwide to showcase their work. For example, in Vietnam, Dinh Q Le brings the lives of wartime Vietnamese to light through his signature photo weaving technique. His art has been displayed in various exhibits and art festivals globally and lauded to honour the memory and history of his people with the use of contemporary art.
The Malaysian industry has also seen a growing group of indie artists and creatives who have broken the stereotypes of their industries to bring a new revival to the scene and bring it on to the grand world stage. Artists who come to mind are Yuna and Zee Avi as well as Santosh Logandran who produce music that is different from their peers. Yuna, whose style of RnB music which she initially produced and released on Myspace eventually garnered international attention, leading to collaborations with various artists. To date, Yuna has collaborated with Usher, Tyler the Creator, as well as Vietnamese rapper Derez. Zee Avi, on the other hand, has pushed forward into global waters with her unique style of music which incorporates her Sarawakian background into her music. In many of her concerts, she can be seen wearing her traditional Sarawakian outfit while strumming her ukulele and serenading the crowd. Zee Avi is also the first Malaysian to be featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert which is a show that has featured many acclaimed artists. Her bandmate, Santosh, blends various music genres, such as classical south indian music, hindustani music and western music to produce a sound that is distinctly his. He has composed soundtracks for films within the nation and overseas like the movie Mat Kilau, which quickly became one of the highest grossing films in Malaysia within a few weeks of its release.
The creative industry in Southeast Asia is also an incredibly profitable one with its nations’ deep culture and history in the arts. In lieu of the profitable nature of the arts, many Southeast Asian countries have cashed in on this and made a sizable sum over the past few years. For example, Indonesia’s arts industry has a projected value of 1.924 trillion IDR (approx. 106 million Pound Sterling) as of 2020 and makes up more than 7% of the nation’s annual economic output. Thailand’s creative industry has also been a champion for overall economic output, with the industry contributing approximately 832 million Pound Sterling as of the year 2019. Although the industry took a hit during the pandemic years, it is expected to make a comeback with the rejuvenation of global economies post-pandemic. Philippines’ creative industry, which has produced 761 million Pound Sterling in its creative services and roughly 2.69 million Pound Sterling in exports, has a promising value for its output although it is on the low end for the Southeast Asian region. The Philippines have managed to do this regardless of the fact that there have been lacklustre efforts by the government in supporting the creative industry.
Each government has also made some sort of effort to support the arts and creative industry through statutes and government linked agencies. For example, in support of the arts, the Philippines have established the House Bill No. 8101, rather known as the Philippine Creative Industries Act. The act was established in order to address the severe lack of effort to promote the Philippine arts industry, citing that there was no singular agency, direction or organisation to drive along their industry. Another Southeast Asian nation that has been very supportive of its creative industry is Thailand through the Creative Economy Agency, an organisation entrusted with the promotion of the creative industry in Thailand. As of 2019, the agency has identified 15 businesses within the creative industry, which accounted for nearly 10% of the Thai GDP and created job opportunities for 2% of the nation’s population. The leaders of these Southeast Asian countries have witnessed the value of art and have initiated various efforts to support the creative industry. In 2018, the Thai government set up the Creative Economy Agency to lead Thailand’s Creative Economy Agenda as part of the government’s 4.0 policy which highlighted the industry as a key area in the advancement of the country’s growth. Malaysia on the other hand established the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) which funds the local creative economy and boosts Malaysia’s rapidly growing arts scene.
Furthermore, the creative industries of Southeast Asia are backed not just by their respective governments, but also international cultural agencies such as the British Council. The British Council prides itself on its support of the arts and always aims to learn and spread the culture of its Southeast Asian counterparts. They have implemented various efforts to promote the arts by giving out grants, providing courses and creating digital platforms for creative industries to flourish. To illustrate, the British Council of Indonesia organised several events in the year of 2019 to promote and develop the Indonesian music industry, such as forums, workshops and festivals to help artists establish networks that encourage them to collaborate with artists locally and from the UK. The #samabisabisasama campaign which was organised by the British Council at We.The.Fest garnered immense attention and brought to light the severe lack of inclusion of the disabled community in the Indonesian arts industry.
Besides Indonesia, the British Council of Thailand established the Crafting Futures programme with the purpose of training artists to enterprise their work and empower them to be recognised for the value of their work. One such programme was Crafting Futures: Wanita which aimed to develop the craft of women from the deep south of Thailand and provide them with a livelihood. The British Council also provided grants to Malaysian creatives to support collaborations between Malaysian and British artists. The grant funded 7 projects in Malaysia alone and even more in neighbouring countries in the year 2021, when the world was just recovering from the devastating Covid-19 pandemic.
The British Council in Vietnam had also created cultural and creative hubs with funding worth 450 000 euros from the European union. These creative hubs are a joint effort between the British Council and Vietnam Certification Accreditation Scheme (VICAS) with the objective of supporting creative organisations and creatives by organising activities that include capacity building, creating opportunities and creating a network between the artists through various activities and events. This was a three year long effort from 2018 to 2021 which subsequently supported artists even through the Covid-19 pandemic. The British Council also provided learning opportunities as shown through the Creative Communities Learning Lab. Rey Coloma, a filmmaker from the Philippines who was in a financially distressing position, managed to learn how to monetise his art through the courses provided by the British Council and subsequently won multiple awards each for his short films.
To conclude, the Southeast Asian creative industry is a thriving industry and it is an incredibly exciting industry to watch grow, with its various talents and cultural gems produced. The various efforts by the respective governments, the British Council and community change makers may very well be the driving force for these creative industries to be as large as, if not larger than, their western counterparts, and it is truly a ride to enjoy.