The Malay Heritage Foundation

JAMAL MOHAMAD: Driving Malay Heritage Activities – Infusing History, Society, Cultural Practices & Traditions

Jamal Mohamad is a former Senior Manager (Programmes) at the National Heritage Board’s Malay Heritage Centre (MHC). During his time at MHC, he oversaw the centre’s programming calendar and develops and implemented activities targeting different audience segments, including underserved communities such as the elderly and at-risk youth. He was the main driver behind MHC’s signature programmes, including the Malay CultureFest, Lintas Nusantara, and the Public Lecture Series. In 2019, his children’s programme, Ter-ba-BOM!: A Heritage Hunt won the ICOM CECA Best Practice Award. Beyond MHC, he was part of NHB’s Intangible Cultural Heritage and Accessibility work groups, advising on aspects of Malay history, society, cultural practices and traditions.

He was also the former Artistic Director of Teater Ekamatra and had an extensive background in theatre and film productions. Jamal holds a BA in Mass Communications from RMIT and an MA in International Performance Research from the University of Warwick. He is a recipient of the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship (2008), the Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award, and the National Arts Council Overseas Bursary. Recently, we chatted with the easy-going heritage programme enthusiast Jamal on his decade of experience at MHC.

Briefing participants of Ter-ba-BOM!: A Heritage Hunt, a children based programme held every June holidays. (Credit: Jamal Mohamad)

Q: How are you, Jamal? Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. It has been a busy and eventful year. Can you share with us what you have been up to recently?

Hello! I have been on a break since November. But before that, the 3 or 4 most recent things I’ve done were:

  • I just concluded the MHC ClosingFest, which ran from 1 to 30 October. For those unaware, MHC has closed for major renovation works. The ClosingFest was our last hurrah and an excellent way to reflect on the work we’ve done in the previous decade and give thanks to the many supporters and friends of the centre.
  • Just published and launched a commemorative book on MHC’s annual dance programme, Lintas Nusantara, with co-founder Diyana Putri Alan. The book documents 11 years of the LN platform through stunning images of dances and article contributions from LN programme partners from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
  • I was working with the MHC’s curatorial team on the centre’s new narrative for the revamped galleries. On the side, I was part of the team that worked on Singapore’s first multinational nomination (along with Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand) to include the kebaya for the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
  • Outside of MHC, I helped produce and direct the NHB Patron of Heritage Awards 2021, held for the first time at MHC. I was invited to be the creative director and showrunner for MENDAKI’s 40th Anniversary Celebrations, Anugerah MENDAKI, and the Launch of Raikan Ilmu.

Q: You are a familiar MHC face, having been here for more than a decade. Why have you decided to join MHC? What attracted you to be part of the team?  

I joined MHC in January 2011. So that’s 11 years now. I am most amazed that I’ve been here that long. Don’t get me wrong, I love MHC and what I do here, but the younger me would never have imagined anything more than three years. So let’s go back to 2011 and my decision to join MHC.

Firstly, the job allowed us to learn new ways to present Malay heritage content. My background is in theatre and film/tv productions, so I wanted to see how my experience in those fields could be used in the centre. I was familiar with some of the limitations of the old management, having worked with them in some capacity during my time at Teater Ekamatra, so I knew what was tried before. So, I was keen to try new ideas, platforms, and approaches that may have yet to be tried here. We had a blank slate on which to build. This was very exciting for me.

Secondly, I learned that MHC was now under the management of the National Heritage Board. This means the “blank slate” I mentioned above came with state funding. In my past works, we mainly depended on grants and sponsorship, which can be painful. So it’s great to know that our work will be funded and there is the extra perk of a regular salary.

The third is the chance to work with the community. I have worked in Malay theatre for over a decade, and the community is hungry for more serious discourse on identity, history, culture, etc. This was a challenge I wanted to take on. How do we discuss Malay identity using culture? What narratives do we present, what do we challenge, and what do we reinforce? I asked myself some complex questions about being Malay in Singapore, and I wanted to see if the MHC platform could be used to ask some of these questions and, in so doing, benefit the community.

Q: What were your aspirations/aims when you embarked on a journey with MHC? Do you think you have achieved them? 

We had some key areas we knew we needed to pay attention to. I would break them into five main aims:

  1. We needed to build an audience. Not just in numbers but also in the quality of the audiences we received. Of course, there were different entry points, but we wanted to build an informed and critical audience.
  2. We knew we needed help to achieve our goals. We needed the community’s support, cultural experts, arts groups, etc. This we recognised as an ecosystem. So, our second aim was to nurture a mutually supportive and collaborative heritage ecosystem.
  3. The availability of research works on Singapore Malay heritage could be improved. Much of our reference points came from the region. So we were keen to pursue new research and contribute to the community’s collective knowledge and discourse on Malay heritage, history, etc.
  4. The understanding of Malay heritage could have been more narrow and deeper. When we see Malay heritage content, it is usually limited to our festivities, Malay food, dance and dikir barat. Regarding history, the public perception and awareness of Malay history could be improved. As such, we needed to broaden and deepen our understanding of Malay history and heritage among citizens.
  5. There was a need to have signature programmes for easy recall. There was also the need to position Singapore Malays within the context of the region. So, we also attempted to develop annual programmes with regional partners aimed at knowledge sharing and collaboration. This was also key in ensuring that we have fresh content to present every year.

As such, we designed some of our programmes towards these five aims. We did pretty well. In the past decade, we grew an informed and critical audience. We do see something of an ecosystem that contributes to MHC’s success. We have conducted new research and contributed to the community’s collective knowledge. We have broadened our visitor’s understanding of Malay heritage beyond sarong tying and ketupat weaving. We have several platforms that have a following in Singapore and the region. I feel we have achieved our aim and maybe a bit more, thanks to the support of the community and partners over the years.

With former MHC curator Suhaili Osman (extreme left) and panelist at book launch of Se-Nusantara Series publication. (Credit: Jamal Mohamad)
Moderating panel discussion on Malay traditional dance as part of Lintas Nusantara 2018. (Credit: Jamal Mohamad)

Q: Some activities you have developed at MHC target underserved communities, such as the elderly and at-risk youth. Tell us more about these initiatives and your aim/end goal in carving out such programmes.

The Youth Engagement and Empowerment Programme is targeted at at-risk youths. The idea is to use culture to inspire these youth and, at the same time, equip them with skills such as public speaking, working in groups, leadership, and creativity so they might be better able to face the challenge of education or future employment. Many of these youth need to be given more attention to guide them, and they need more positive role models. Through working with inspiring and caring facilitators, they could develop in areas where they have been neglected.

Q: What are your thoughts on introducing and bringing arts closer to the marginalised/underserved communities? How can this be done to reach out to these groups?

I think it’s excellent! The arts can be the vehicle we use to make museums and cultural institutions more accessible to underserved communities. We have to acknowledge that the museum-going culture in Singapore is still developing. In underserved communities, museums are not places they feel welcomed. Of course, museums are open to all, but the perception persists. It is not easy to reach out to underserved communities. The priorities of those in lower-income households differ from the middle class. If you’re busy making ends meet, you’re not thinking of going to the museum over the weekend. One approach can be through schools or youth organizations. Get the young involved, then their peers and parents might come.

Another way is through community organisations. Each community group has members or relations who come from this demographic. Maybe through these organisations, we can reach out to their underserved members.

A third approach is through the art form itself. If we look at kuda-kepang, for example, the practitioners come from the more marginalised segment of the Malay community. If we were to tap into this art form, we would have access to their members from this demographic. This is controversial because of how kuda-kepang is generally perceived. But if we ignore, reject, or ban it altogether, we will lose the opportunity to engage their members more meaningfully.

With docents and guests at launch of MCF 2017 and Sirri Na Pesse special exhibition focusing on the Bugis community. (Credit: Jamal Mohamad)
With choreographer Ery Mefry of Nan Jombang at Malay CulfuteFest 2018. (Credit: Zaleha Abdul Kader, Berita Harian)

Q: How has your experience as a former Artistic Director of Teater Ekamatra and your strong background in theatre and film productions helped you in your role at MHC?

As I said earlier, I wanted to bring my experience in theatre and film/tv production into the museum space. This allowed me to be more playful and adventurous in the design of my programmes. Through theatre, I discovered the importance and power of storytelling, so I wanted to inject this element into the programmes MHC offers. From the regular street performances in Neighbourhood Sketches to the Galleries Alive! Programme held in the museum, you will find aspects of storytelling. Every festival has a story; we tell them differently through different platforms and art forms.

My backstage experience also allows me greater flexibility in handling and overcoming technical limitations.

Q: In your opinion, how can the Malay arts and heritage sector be further developed? 

For me, the most important is to develop the talents we already have. During my time with MHC, we introduced the Arts Incubation Programme, where we worked with up-and-coming arts groups. We aimed to nurture and develop their professional and artistic capabilities through collaborations with more seasoned practitioners and mentorship. We saw how groups like Nadi Singapura and AlunNada benefited from this platform. We should continue this effort to develop our talents instead of important big names from overseas to make our offerings more marketable.

Another area that needs more attention is a discourse within the arts and heritage sector. More research, more forums, more seminars, and more academic endeavours must be encouraged so we do not just develop the artistic aspects but also the cerebral aspects of our talents and audiences.

Q: What are your hopes for the future of Singapore’s arts and heritage scene?

I hope that the sector continues to grow, of course. Not just in terms of its audiences but also words of the quality and impact of the content offered. We need more people to care about heritage and take ownership in preserving and promoting our heritage here and overseas. I also hope that the Malay community will develop a culture of giving to the arts and heritage in terms of financial support. We do not have a culture of patrons for the arts and heritage sector. Malays do come to watch and support, but we can do more if the more well-to-do Malays support the arts financially. This can only happen if the community sees the value of arts and heritage activities and how they contribute to the Malay community and beyond.

Moderating post-show discussion with director, writer and cast of Cari Makan by Hatch Theatrics, an alumni of MHC’s Arts Incubation Programme.
Receiving Best Practice Award at ICOM CECA for Heritage Hunt in Tbilisi, Georgia, 2018. (Credit: Jamal Mohamad)

Q: What do you hope to see from MHC in the future? 

It is easy to say I want to see bigger, better things. The truth is that there are many challenges that MHC will face in the future with changing taste and consumption habits. But what is very urgent is the documentation effort that we have started. This should continue as we are fast losing practitioners and cultural practices year by year. Once documented, we should provide access to these materials. How can that be realised? We will have to wait and see.

Q: What role do you think the youth has in promoting and preserving arts and heritage? 

It is their duty to do so once the senior generation is gone. The youth will determine and define what Malay arts and heritage are for future generations. As a youth, I learned so much from veteran practitioners in my dealings with them. These lessons allowed me to create all the programmes I have presented over the years. So I hope the youth will learn from their seniors and continue to share their lessons with their juniors and so on. If the young do not continue to promote and preserve Malay arts and heritage, I’m afraid we will see many aspects of our rich culture losing relevance and eventually disappearing.

With colleagues at Hari Raya Open House 2019. (Credit: Jamal Mohamad)
Sharing his experience working in the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) during the second Sembang Ilmu Plus(+) held in January 2023. (Credit: Jamal Mohamad)

Q: To someone aspiring to enter this arts and heritage sector, what would you advise them? 

Keep an open mind, know your materials, and know your audiences. We sometimes need to remember that our audiences actively participate in heritage-making. Audiences might know what they want, but it is up to the presenter to offer what they might need instead. This is crucial in content creation. Always know your audiences, their tastes, habits, pet peeves, and so on.

As for knowing your materials, it is of utmost importance for content creators to do their research so that whatever they offer the public is accurate. Also, with knowledge comes the ability to navigate sensitive topics and present informative and engaging narratives.

Q: Describe yourself in three words.

Ha! I don’t think anyone can reduce themselves to just three words. We are all many things.

  1. Curious 
  2. Nerdy 
  3. Stubborn

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