Painting of our colourful world

Steven Sim’s speech at the launch of Tsai Chen Yin solo exhibition at Galeri Seni Mutiara (Painting of our colourful world)


I don’t know about art. I’m here today solely by the grace and generosity of my former teacher Mr Koay Soo Kau, himself a prominent name in the Penang and Malaysia art scene.

I don’t know about art but I know a thing or two about politics.

They say art is a reflection of life. But we say the same thing about politics as well.

Recall in the sad winter of 2013, when the world was greeted with the sorrowful news of the passing of Nelson Mandela.

World leaders were gathered in Johannesburg to attend Mandela’s memorial service. Leaders from the big countries, China, Europe, USA took turn to deliver pompous speeches in praise of the great Mandela, human rights, freedom and democracy. When it came to President Barack Obama to deliver the eulogy, seen on live telecast TV was a South African man, Thamsanqa Jantjie, standing beside the President making sign-language interpretation of Obama’s speech. After a while, those who knew sign language suddenly realised in horror that Jantjie the interpreter was not doing sign language at all. What he did was merely empty meaningless gesture.

Everyone was aghast, of course. How could he make a circus out of the solemn ceremony.

But someone observed that Mr. Jantjie was really the most honest person in the whole show. Only he dared to interpret the pompous speeches of the world leaders as they really were: empty, meaningless circus.

Politics is a reflection of life. The question is, are we crazy enough to tell the truth? What about art? Are we crazy enough?

I said “crazy” because Mr. Jantjie was later reported to have mental health issue.

I don’t know about art, but I know a thing or two about running.

As a politician I try to spend 30 mins or so a day to run. To keep myself fit for the very physically and mentally taxing work of politics.

I always say running is a very lonely sport. Whether you are running by yourself, or with tens of thousands others in the Penang Bridge Marathon, you are alone. No one can really “run with you”, you are by yourself. It can be very very boring.

It is a painful sport. The process is not easy. You ache all over the body not just the legs and feet. In fact it’s strange that at times I feel more pain on my shoulders than on my legs after a run. Yes it can be enjoyable but it can also be very unpleasant.

It is a very self-conscious sport, you make decisions all the time. Whether to keep running or to stop. And once u stop, you stop. No one can say, let me help you to run. No app no software can do the running for you. You make conscious decision at each moment, and sometimes, decisions despite the circumstances. What do I mean by this; let me quote the great novelist Murakami: “the hurt part is an unavoidable reality but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner.” In other words, in running, you call the shot.

I don’t know if that running analogy makes sense to the artist but I imagine it is the same experience, more or less.

The artist spending long, excruciating hours, alone usually, sometimes boringly, but always deeply focused on his work.

For what you may ask we run and we paint? For money? For popularity? For a good name?

Again allow me to quote Murakami, on running: “people sometimes sneer at those who run everyday, claiming they’ll do anything to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer but they want to live life to the fullest.”

I think that’s why most of us are here today. To celebrate an artist and his life lived to the fullest: Mr Tsai Chen Yin.

But I’ve seen an expression of this in the impressionist work of Mr Koay Soo Kau when I went to his house as a student more than a decade ago. The movements of fruits and clothes and ties expressed both the melancholy and vibrancy of life, what else.

And when I see samples of Mr Tsai’s work, it is all the same: an expression of life in all its colours and shapes. In fact Tsai told me that these on exhibition today are painted at different stages of his life, in different places all over Malaysia, from a variety of lived experiences. Here we see, even a glimmer, of a life lived.

Above all, I am proud that Penang plays host to artists and their arts. Perhaps that is what a good government should do: nurture an environment so fertile for life which allows people from all fields, of all trades to come and do their things. Yes let them do their things. Not politics, not big heroic stuff, but really just do their things. The goal of politics in fact is to create an environment where people can freely do their things: in other words live life to its fullest.

And you see glimpses of it if not yet perfect, in Penang today. Major festivals, like the George Town Festival and the George Town Literary Fest are powerful testimony of our potential.

But look carefully further into the nooks and corners of places like Carnarvon Street, Acheh Street, and this here: Armenian Street. Look around into the far corners of Teluk Bahang, or the hilly valleys of Balik Pulau, travel across the straits to Bukit Mertajam and Butterworth; I think we’ll discover the everyday of art and the art of everyday. The art of the ordinary people.  People living life to the fullest, nurtured by an environment of freedom, democracy and prosperity which we are enjoying as Penangites.

But don’t for once think this is given. I saw a nice picture recently on Facebook, where else: a photo of a young person in front of his computer and a caption which says: we are living in an era more prone to deleting history than making history. Referring of course to some teens deleting traces of their internet rendezvous. Similarly we live in an age where destruction is rampant, not construction. Where politics seek to damage rather than build up. Where governments seek to control rather than empower.

Which is why I think it is so apt that Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng described our attachment to this place with a simple yet powerful expression: I love Penang. We have come of age to love this nurturing place, where artists and traders, children and seniors, men and women of all ages and a potpourri of races and religions come together to live life to the fullest. And because we love life, we love Penang, the place our lives are lived and their potential fulfilled.

Allow me to end with this reflection:

Penang is at once our canvas but also the canvas where we are both subjects and objects. Think about it. We draw and create on it but we also live in it. The closest experience I have to describe this is probably the time when I sneaked into one of those cheap matinee ticket concerts at the philharmonic when I was a university student. I imagined myself in the position of the performers, making my own music while being responded by the concerto in return, this dramatic loop continuing as if forever: living life to the fullest.


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