Kuala Lumpur and the Malaysian Philharmonic

This morning I had a fascinating meeting with Steve Smith, General Manager of the Malaysian Philharmonic. He introduced himself as the ‘last white man’ in the organisation. He very generously gave me two hours of his time and the full, no holds barred and no punches pulled, story of life at the MPO. His honesty and outsider’s perspective of the trials and tribulations of the establishment and management challenges of putting an international standard orchestra into the extraordinary environment of KL.

His major concern was for the ongoing viability and sustainability of the orchestra. Since its establishment three years previously under the auspices of Petronas, the huge corporation that has an absolute monopoly on the entire petroleum industry in Malaysia, many of the foreign staff initially employed have completed their contracts and their place has been taken by local, Malay staff. There is a strong desire – even directive – that Malays should fill all the musical and administrative roles in the orchestra, and to do this soon.

Steve’s mission has been partly to show them that won’t happen overnight, without allowing time for the skills and culture to develop; that a century-long tradition can’t simply be purchased, no matter what financial resources are available. The Malay staff, in general, have little or no idea what they are working on. He said they rarely attend concerts (he described ‘dragging them along by the scruff of the neck’) and attempting to teach the staff how to do their jobs. He gave several examples relating to education and marketing (the glossy, impressive-looking education brochure was apparently published without any of the strategies and programs therein actually being based on any real-world planning).

Another example presented itself at a concert the following evening, when I glanced at the printed program to find out the name of the violin soloist. Steve, sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered ‘you won’t find it in there’. He later explained that, despite program and artist changes having been given to the marketing division well in advance of the printing of the program, none of the changes made it into the printed program. Whilst he naturally finds this frustrating, he was also fascinating on the cultural sensitivities and conditions which make any display of emotion or anger quite counter-productive, and he has to do all of this educating as gently and sensitively as he can.

Steve claimed honestly that he had no idea what the total budget for the MPO was. Whilst he knew about the musicians’ salaries and artist costs, which are his key areas of responsibility, he has no idea what the total overheads are. He said he isn’t given a budget to work to, he simply forwards invoices to Petronas’ finance division and they were paid.

The MPO is not an independent organisation in the way that Australian arts organisations are, and nor does it rely on any sort of government or public funding. It is a division of, and entirely funded by, Petronas. A newspaper article during my visit claimed that Petronas’ profit (profit, not turnover) for the previous financial year was an amount equivalent to US$36 billion. Running a 100-piece orchestra and a concert hall is something it does on its small change.

Steve was also fascinating on the sensitivities of working in a western creative art form as part of a semi-government organisation (Petronas, whilst a corporation, has close links to Malaysia’s ruling political elites) in an Islamic state. Programming is limited through sensitivities on Christianity; for example, a planned performance of Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time was abandoned after it was referred to the Chairman of Petronas, who deemed it too inappropriate to be performed.

The MPO’s audience is mostly ethnic Chinese, with a few expats and Malays. Steve feels that part of the reason for the MPO’s success in attracting audiences, particularly to contemporary programs, is the openness of the audiences. He said he believed that they had not learned that they ‘are not supposed to like’ contemporary music, as audiences in the west have.

Another factor in its success is the very positive strong branding that the MPO’s establishment in the most recognisable building in South East Asia, the no expense spared approach to world-wide recruitment and facilities and its reputation for excellence have afforded. The facilities of the Derwan Filharmonik Petronas – the hall itself – are amazing; a fully digital 48 channel Neve console and associated recording and broadcast facilities made the hall one of the best equipped in the world. Visiting recording engineers and producers are apparently constantly amazed.

However sustaining the enormous program into the future will require more than curiosity value on the part of the audience, a fact that Steve understands and is attempting to demonstrate to the Malays. Steve gave me a ticket for the concert and drew my attention to the dress code printed on the ticket. As I was backpacking in Malaysia, I was travelling light and had brought with me one pair of tidy chinos and a short-sleeve collar with shirt. Steve told me I would not gain admittance to the hall dressed in this. Fortunately we are about the same size and he kindly offered me the use of one of his suit jackets, but suggested I purchase a shirt and tie.

We chatted about this interesting policy, which is the opposite extreme to the almost institutionalised casualness of the Singapore Symphony’s concerts, where even the ushers don’t wear jackets and ties. Steve told me that the code had been implemented at the behest of the Petronas Chairman who claimed he didn’t want to be ‘offended’ by inappropriately attired audience members. Steve can see that it is a silly and limiting policy – it means, for example, that the MPO misses out on any ‘passing trade’ and tourist audiences. However he has been unable to influence any change or concessions other than a ‘dressup box’ maintained by the front of house staff to provide guests who don’t quite measure up with ill-fitting cast-offs to get them in the door.

During the afternoon I caught up with See Tiek Lim, George Wong’s childhood friend and a native of KL. See Tiek went to university in Perth, having been unable to get a place in a local institution due to the ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of ethnic Malay students. See Tiek is also presently unemployed, having chucked in a career in advertising because he couldn’t stomach working for tobacco corporations. He is working as a volunteer administrator at a centre for the intellectually disabled, which received no public funding and relies entirely on volunteers and donations.

See Tiek is also a musician and occasional attender of MPO concerts. Whilst he admits the orchestra is musically impressive he feels that setting it up was good money poorly spent in the name of national pride and vanity. We had a fascinating discussion about the national policy of positive discrimination in favour of ethnic Malays, under which he and other ethnic Chinese have suffered.

We visited a large shopping mall (actually two conjoined malls) in the up-market Jalan Bukit Bintan area where we had lunch and he proceeded to sort out my other material and travel needs. I purchased a shirt and we planned my onward travel to Thailand. He convinced me to take the train rather than try to fly, which would prove very expensive (I’d already visited a travel agent and could verify this), so we went to a counter and I bought a second class sleeper ticket on Sunday evening’s overnight train from KL to Hat Yai in southern Thailand.

My needs being satisfied, See Tiek drove me around KL for a good two hours, showing me the sights of the city (such as they are), the war memorial, the lake gardens and various well-to-do suburbs along with the not so well-to-do. We continues our discussions throughout, until he dropped me off at an LRT station to the north of the city and I made my way back to the hotel. After dinner I checked my email and wandered the markets again before retiring.

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