Stephen Menon’s Tunku Abdul Rahman (2014).
Lim Anuar’s batik art piece Relaxing Time (2015).
Cheah Sek Meng.
Chan Kong Yew.

The mention of Merdeka always conjures one iconic image: THAT moment when Tunku Abdul Rahman raised his right hand and proclaimed Malaya’s independence to a roaring crowd at Stadium Merdeka on the morning of Aug 31, 1957. But that very moment often captured in film and painted on canvas is a culmination of a long, ardous journey; one that saw people of different colours and creeds come together to battle colonial powers, sacrifice their lives, share resources and help each other without question.

In Balai Seni Negara’s latest offering Merdeka: Unity and Diversity, the journey is portrayed in 60 different works of art as seen through the eyes of 22 Malaysian artists of different ethnic backgrounds, generations, experiences and beliefs.

Amirrudin Ariffin’s Family Ties (2015).


“Sixty years is quite a milestone so we wanted to celebrate it in a big way,” confides Datuk Chan Kong Yew, managing director of Infinity Logistics and Transport Sdn. Bhd who are collaborating with Balai Seni Negara on Merdeka: Unity and Diversity. The exhibition, which ends at the Tokoh Museum in Johor on Oct 30 is the brainchild of Chan himself, a long-time art lover.

“We wanted to show our love for our nation. As a logistics company, it would be so easy to just plant a flag on the lorry or paint the Jalur Gemilang on the body of our trailers,” he remarks, chuckling before continuing: “So we thought why not do something different?”

Art, believes Chan, is a medium that is relevant to everyone. “Art has sown the seed of creativity in me,” he says, recalling organising art exhibitions as a student and spearheading his school’s art club as a teen. “And today, I’m a logistics architect,” he shares contentedly. Art, explains Chan, helps the building of the creative mind, a trait needed in all professions and industries across the board.

As Nigerian historian, scholar and academic Dr Sule Bello once pointed out in a 2009 forum on the absence of cultural components in the African continent, the development of a nation rests heavily on art. “Social development is anchored in human creativity expressed in the capacity of human beings to produce knowledge about itself and its environment,” he enlightens, citing the way humans fabricate and continuously re-create conditions, both social and political. Art, as Bello concludes, defines all aspects of productive output as it is “... the foundation of human creativity.”

Kelantan born and bred Koo Yean Ni’s work is inspired by her coastal home state, like this 2017 work of art, Fishing Boat.


But nurturing creative minds is only one aspect of it. As artist Amirrudin Ariffin reveals, art is food for the soul. “Perhaps there’s a reason why the theme of Merdeka: Unity and Diversity centres around nostalgia,” he says as he stands, arms crossed in front of his painting, Family Ties. The painting depicts what Amirrudin describes as a typical Malay compound in the kampung — a family outside, hard at work tending to the coconuts from the trees around their house. “In the village, sharing responsibilities together as a unit comes naturally. Everyone has different roles but they come together, working towards the same goal.”

The spirit of togetherness is something Amirrudin feels is lacking in the lives of city-folk today. He recalls the recent atmosphere over Raya where everyone was glued to their phones instead of talking to each other. “I’m not denying the city has much to offer, but the culture of togetherness is something cultivated naturally in the kampung setting.”

For Amirrudin, depictions of all things nostalgic in nature can sometimes attract harsh criticism. “Some people may say this kind of art that keeps on looking at the past is from an old school of thought etc. But here’s the truth — life then was not easy. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to earn a living. The thing is, how can we know where we’re going if we don’t look back to see where we came from?”

Chan shares Amirrudin’s sentiments. The reason for choosing nostalgia as a theme, he says, is to remind us of our roots. “A nation is built from many, many hard steps. And when we celebrate Merdeka, we need to understand the kind of foundations our forefathers built,” adds Chan.

Cheah Sek Meng’s Children of the Nation (2016).


For many visitors to Merdeka: Unity and Diversity, seeing a logistics company co-organising an art show is a little confusing. As Chan admits with a chuckle, an art exhibition is something unexpected for a logistics outfit to undertake. But for a man who mingles with corporate heads on a daily basis, Chan has seen the obvious divide. “We can’t say that Malaysians don’t appreciate art. We’ve heard of Malaysians and Malaysian corporate companies who have spent millions on paintings by international artists. Why not support local artists?” he throws a rhetoric.

The underlying challenge, continues Chan, is that a lot of Malaysian art work is undervalued.

It’s a problem he feels can be resolved over time via government policies such as double tax relief for companies that support local artists. “The message we want to send out here is to buy pieces from local artists to increase the value of their craft,” Chan explains, adding Balai Seni Negara has already started the process with their Art Depot programme.

The programme, initiated early this year, trains artists to expand their horizons to beyond just their art. “It’s a fantastic programme where artists are taught how to sell their art and to fuse their craft with entrepreneurial skills,” says Chan adding that bridging that divide between artists and corporate people through exhibitions like Merdeka: Unity and Diversity is a small way Infinity can make a bigger impact in the country.

Increasing value of our art is part of the equation that forms the heart of this exhibition. As Chan looks around the space, he confides: “We’ve been living in this multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society for six decades. We need to remind the young ones through these art works that if we want many more 60 years ahead of us, this is the spirit we need to continue to keep.”

Cheah Sek Meng’s Waiting for Tanjong Pagar’s Last Train ( 2011).

Merdeka: Unity and Diversity

Where and When:

Balai Seni Negara,

Kuala Lumpur

(now - Aug 31)

SACC Mall, Shah Alam

(Sept 5 - Sept 10)

Komtar, Penang

(Sept 12 - Sept 23)

Tokoh Muzium Johor, Johor (Oct 1 - Oct 30)

* The coffee book produced in conjunction with the exhibition Unity & Diversity: An Infinite Journey of Multi-Ethnic Malaysia is priced at RM200 each. All proceeds will go to a fund for young Malaysian emerging artists.

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