What does it take to be a tastemaker? Six of Malaysia’s most in­flu­en­tial cre­atives tell us how they make the world pay at­ten­tion. By Jamie Khoo

ELLE (Malaysia) - - CALENDAR -

Malaysia’s ris­ing tastemak­ers tell it like it is

There’s no denying the world has a bit of a crush on Asian cre­atives, in­no­va­tors and in­tel­lec­tu­als right now, and Malaysia is cer­tainly get­ting its share of the love. To cel­e­brate our im­mense home­grown tal­ent, ELLE Malaysia re­cently teamed up with Esquire mag­a­zine, MSN Malaysia, Cap­i­talFM and tele­vi­sion chan­nel Life In­spired to pro­file six agenda-set­ting Malaysians. The re­sult was Tastemak­ers, an orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion that aired on Merdeka Day. The cho­sen six, per­son­ally se­lected by judges from the four me­dia, in­clud­ing ELLE’s ed­i­tor-in-chief An­drea Wong, were Tee May Yee, co-founder of ar­ti­sanal ice-cream company The Last Polka; il­lus­tra­tor and an­i­ma­tor Boey Cheem­ing; ar­chi­tect Farah Az­izan; prod­uct de­signer Ben­son Saw; artist and con­tent de­vel­oper Marini (Nini) Ram­lan; and fash­ion de­signer Jonathan Liang.

So what does it take to stand out from the crowd? Nini, who works for the coun­try’s big­gest pro­duc­tion company and has col­lab­o­rated with top in­ter­na­tional brands such as Fendi and Nike, at­tributes her suc­cess to an in­quis­i­tive at­ti­tude.

“A tastemaker, to me, is some­one who is not gov­erned by ‘the rules of life’. She is will­ing to test out ideas out of cu­rios­ity. I pre­fer the ‘why not’ route; give [things] a go and see what hap­pens.”

Saw and Boey, how­ever, both of whom have col­lated large port­fo­lios of work abroad, share their oc­ca­sional frus­tra­tions with the lo­cal art and de­sign scene. They feel that although we have the tal­ent and re­sources, many Malaysians are still afraid of break­ing new ground, pre­fer­ring to ride on the coat­tails of in­ter­na­tional trends.

“We have the tech­nol­ogy to make things as good, [so] why don’t we come up with our own sto­ries? Do some­thing orig­i­nal,” asks Boey, who is cur­rently based in Cal­i­for­nia. “There are a lot of peo­ple who look at what is out there now and what they think would make money, and follow that. It’s a se­cure way of mak­ing some money but that’s not go­ing to break through any­thing.”

As co-founder of a multi-dis­ci­plinary de­sign firm with of­fices in London, Sin­ga­pore and KL, and a port­fo­lio boast­ing more than 700 projects across Europe, Asia and Aus­tralia, Saw knows a thing or two about cre­ative cross-bor­der think­ing. How­ever, he shares the frus­tra­tion, list­ing ob­sta­cles such as “deal­ing with clients who were not will­ing to take any risk at all but ex­pect huge re­turns” and the ten­dency among Asians to “eas­ily stereo­type a par­tic­u­lar pro­fes­sion or in­dus­try [and] not see the po­ten­tial in the de­sign­ers who have been de­sign­ing small ob­jects.”

But if pi­o­neer­ing new move­ments seems daunt­ing, the tastemak­ers teach us that noth­ing cre­ates a spark quite like tak­ing what we are al­ready good at, and mak­ing it amaz­ing. Where bet­ter to find in­spi­ra­tion than in the fa­mil­iar? For all the in­ter­na­tional ac­co­lades they’ve ob­tained, the suc­cess of our six fire-starters stems largely from the Malaysian el­e­ments of their art.

Tee of The Last Polka is pas­sion­ate about “cel­e­brat­ing the Malaysian ex­pe­ri­ence and recre­at­ing nostal­gia”. In fact, it was mostly her lo­cal flavours, such as salted gula me­laka, pan­dan kaya and teh tarik, that won over food­ies.

She is also con­fi­dent that our ad­ven­tur­ous spirit and di­verse her­itage will con­tinue to drive new culi­nary dis­cov­er­ies. “Our

We have the tech­nol­ogy to make things as good, [so] why don’t

we come up with our own sto­ries? Do some­thing orig­i­nal.

cul­tural roots are so rich, so var­ied, that most Malaysians are born with a cu­ri­ous palate. Our own lo­cal cui­sine is hard to de­fine with­out con­sid­er­ing the mul­ti­ple in­flu­ences of larger Asia, the Mid­dle East and Europe. With that sort of culi­nary con­text I feel like our ap­petite for new foods never stops evolv­ing.”

In art, lo­cal tex­tures, flora and fauna are a large in­flu­ence in Nini’s work, while Boey’s two il­lus­trated books, When I Was a Kid parts 1 and 2, and his daily web comic ( draw heav­ily on his Malaysian child­hood and ex­pe­ri­ences.

In ar­chi­tec­ture and in­te­rior de­sign, Farah rose to ac­claim not only for her work with Ng Seksan – him­self so well known for his art­ful in­cor­po­ra­tion of lo­cal aes­thet­ics – but for projects such as Lone Pine, Hit & Mrs, and Plan B in Ipoh, each recog­nised as icons in their neigh­bour­hoods. How­ever, it isn’t mor­tar-and-brick suc­cess that ap­peals to Farah. She at­tributes her suc­cess to the unique in­ter­per­sonal qual­i­ties found here. “There is no short­cut in this in­dus­try, you have to start at the bot­tom. [But] ev­ery­one here is will­ing to help each other – I think that’s spe­cial about Malaysia.”

But th­ese six tastemak­ers are all mak­ing a mark both re­gion­ally and glob­ally, too Liang is not only based in fash­ion cap­i­tal Paris, but holds shows there; Boey has won awards for his an­i­ma­tion work and is a re­cip­i­ent of a TED Ads Worth Spread­ing award; and Saw’s firm VW+BS has been fea­tured in pub­li­ca­tions such as ELLE Dec­o­ra­tion UK, Wall­pa­per*, Mon­o­cle and Ar­chi­tec­tural Di­gest.

It looks like the tastemak­ers may have cracked the code to get­ting Malaysians more fired up about their own cre­ative in­dus­tries, while also fig­ur­ing out what it might take to get our­selves on par with the rest of the world.

Boey calls for a change at the most fun­da­men­tal level of ed­u­ca­tion, say­ing that the fos­ter­ing of an aware­ness and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for art has to be­gin at a pri­mary school level. “Art is not placed as an im­por­tant thing to study and un­til we do that, we will al­ways fall be­hind,” he says. “It’s the same as not send­ing a kid to train for the Olympics when he’s 16; you train them from when they’re six.”

Then, it is im­por­tant we support and en­gage our own tal­ent. “We need to have com­pa­nies and busi­nesses start pro­mot­ing our lo­cal de­signs in peo­ple’s every­day lives. For in­stance, the lo­cal air­line or au­to­mo­tive sec­tors could use Malaysian de­sign­ers in­stead of en­gag­ing for­eign con­sul­tants,” says Saw, whose company part­nered with the Vir­gin At­lantic de­sign team to de­sign the up­per class bar and cabin of a new A330 in 2011.

For Nini, it’s sim­ple; she be­lieves there is al­ready a lot hap­pen­ing lo­cally; we just need to shout about it more. “What are hap­pen­ing in Malaysia right now are what I like to call ‘pocket’ events – or­gan­i­sa­tions run­ning their own events and not look­ing big enough as a whole. I’m quite con­fi­dent we’ll start flour­ish­ing soon when great minds come to­gether to make big­ger noise.”

Marini (Nini) Ram­lan, Jonathan Liang, FarahAz­izan, Tee May Yee,

Ben­son Saw, BoeyCheem­ing

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