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Malaysian oil leak: Petronas to dismember its arts groups

While the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra continues to deny that it has sacked nine musicians – ‘ we just refused to renew them,’ is the line – a source in  Kuala Lumpur tells Slipped Disc that the oil group Petronas is pulling out of its involvement in the arts.

Dancers in the Petronas Performing Arts Group (PPAG) have been told in confidence by a senior suit: ‘Petronas wants to concentrate on oil and gas’.  Those who stay until the contract ends in June will receive a payoff, provided they keep quiet. Any who leave sooner will receive nothing.

This may be a limited cull of arts groups, or a more widespread clearout. It may also be denied and reversed by Petronas. But the unconfirmed whisper could well shed light on what Petronas has in mind for the future of the flagship orchestra.

Let us know if you hear more.

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  1. YukiSoba says:

    This does not sound good. This is a very serious issue.

  2. another orchestra musician says:

    I’ve no idea whether the rumour, above, is based upon fact. Certain is, however, that Malaysia does have a national symphony orchestra in Kuala Lumpur, administered and funded directly by the government. Conveniently, it is called the National Symphony Orchestra. It has never been an ensemble of high artistic standing; its salaries and working conditions are vastly inferior to those at the Malaysian Philharmonic, a few blocks down the road. Because the current Prime Minister of Malaysia, to whose office Petronas answers directly and exclusively, is politically savvy enough to know that enthusiasts of DFP/MPO are in their majority no longer supporters of his political party, it is easy to imagine he may have instructed Petronas to spin off its arts groups. A relatively small fraction of the current DFP/MPO budget, and perhaps some of its personnel as well, if diverted to support existing government-run arts groups, could significantly prop up these latter, and free the remainder of the DFP/MPO budget for expenditure more likely to return political dividends. Most of Malaysia would applaud such a move.

  3. concerned and shocked says:

    The rumors about Petronas Performing Arts Group closing down are persistent.

    PPAG existed already before the MPO was founded. The performances (music/dance) focus on local Malaysian (Malay, Indian, Chinese) culture.

    If PPAG gets closed down it can’t be a good sign for the future of the MPO.

    Well, there have been countless questionable decisions by the MPO management over the last 2-3 years; but if the goal is to shut down the MPO everything makes perfect sense.

    Certainly a political decision because financially Petronas is doing very well.

  4. It is indeed heartening to note that these concert musician, who came here in 1998 when aged in their 20′s & early 30′s, have finally been given the boot. Well, not exactly the boot. A good 6 months notice period! That’s a lot more than can be said for the rest of the Malaysian workforce. Are they going to see solicitors and advocates, do you think? My. my. Perhaps these lawyers will charge fees the exact sum of what is paid as an expatriate package to these people. After all, justice needs to be served. And served well. Finally, Petronas realises it’s really been taken for a ride. Even one of the Board members admits that Petronas has been ‘led up the garden path’. Malaysians need to populate the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. As many Malaysians as possible, for that matter. And probably at a fraction of the cost it takes to keep the expats on the payroll. Ah. Let us smell the roses. Malaysians shall be the key string musicians, and more! Hurrah!

    • another orchestra musician says:

      Anyone who takes the trouble to examine the MPO’s budget weighed against the quality of its artistic product would likely find, that during its first decade, it was among the world’s greatest bargains. Compared with symphony orchestras of comparable quality and scope almost anywhere else, and as surprising as this may seem to Malaysians, the MPO was notably inexpensive.

      In a country where many workers are paid the equivalent of US$1 – $2 per hour of work, and are expected to work 60 – 70 hours per week for their meagre wages, the MPO musicians’ salaries do of course easily appear outrageous. The issue nonetheless is not one of Petronas having been led up the garden path by fair-skinned neo-colonialists. Far more pertinent to this discussion is the reality that average salaries, for Malaysians, have stagnated at troublingly low levels while the cost of living has increased dramatically, and that the country’s vast natural wealth has been commandeered by a politically well-connected elite seemingly uninterested in equitably or sustainably sharing the spoils.

      If truly it were possible to form a symphony orchestra of international stature exclusively of Malaysian nationals, one could salute the attempt to do so. But just as do highly accomplished Malaysians in other fields, Malaysian musicians living abroad, cognizant of the difficulties that would burden them in their homeland, are seldom interested in returning. Malaysia’s government-run National Symphony Orchestra is far from being 100% Malaysian; tellingly, a number of the expatriate Malaysians that did join the MPO at its inception, subsequently resigned of their own choosing to return abroad.

      To belittle the MPO players, judging that they do nothing but ‘play’, for their expecting to be treated as they would in other symphony orchestras of international stature, is to compound ignorance with denial : ignorance of what professional performers actually do, and denial of Malaysia’s failure thus far to achieve the economic and societal stature Malaysians are sometimes given to believe it has. One senses, here, pronouncements of the frog that lives underneath a coconut shell.

      In a word : yes, the MPO is ill fit to its environment. Antagonism toward it is understandable. The most advantageous and meritorious thing to do, however, in the present case, would be to improve the environment. Were this done, Malaysians might indeed smell roses.

      • just a thought says:


        There is no way that the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra can continue to play on a world class level if the highly qualified international musicians are exchanged with locally educated Malaysians. You will just have another NSO or MPYO.

        Paying less salary certainly sounds good to the management but in the end you get what you pay for.

        Don’t worry: if the quality and salary of the orchestra goes down any further the last remaining top expat musicians will leave on their own.

        But considering that the MPO just announced another round of international auditions all this seems NOT to be about filling the Orchestra with Malaysians.

        It looks a lot like the personal revenge of the music director who wants to punish the players who opposed him and his renewal.

    • sad malaysian says:

      How I wish it can be so straightforward. Msians to fill all posts. Msians to fill the 9 upcoming vacancies? Where are they? Its not impossible but after 14 yrs we unfortunately have yet to produce in sufficient numbers the calibre desired of a world class musician as envisioned when the MPO was set up. If there are, they are out in some part of the world with some other organization, accepted by them not because they are citizens of that country, but because they are deemed qualified. Same reasons why talented Msians in other fields choose to stay away. Same reason why the artistic contributions of these 9 musicians can be so flippantly dismissed without so much as an explanation. You go figure that out Lady.

      For lack of a decent reason (if indeed there is one) the management has chosen to stay silent and with that all sense of decency – respect, gratitude that ‘s the least that could have been genuinely expressed for 14 years of outstanding work has been muted. That’s high handed, cowardly…. soulless.

      Think again your understanding on ‘led up the garden path’, better still ask the gentleman who said it to clarify.

      The musicians came in good faith – believing what was to their understanding by the founders that theirs was to develop the culture of classical music on these shores, impart their skills to and inspire generations of locals to pursue their musical dreams and eventually to leave once we have the numbers. I had fully embraced the vision of the founders and the passion of these musicians. Believe me, they have given their sincere best in all fields required. But it just doesnt happen in 14 years. It will take much much longer than that and while the children are at it, we still need the best to set the standard for excellence.

      I do not for an instant believe the 9 musicians’ work performance have been responsible for their termination. I do not believe anyone who has heard, known these musicians for the last 14 years believe that either so here’s the big question that we may never hear the answer to because those that have it also have the clout, power, means to exploit that to suit their end but at what cost? Yes, save some $? To gain the whole world.. but to lose the soul…. but here its for some $? Pathetic.

      Even with expat ‘roses’, qualified Msians are not coming back to join MPO, how do we expect them to come back in droves at a ‘fraction of the cost’ of expat payrolls? Factor in the fact that orchestras do not exist in mass numbers, high maintenance cost of costly instruments, air tickets for visits home, exceptional demands on the skills of a musician and the commitment to maintaining that skill and you must surely understand a musician is not just any ‘workforce’. A mum once told me she is so proud of her children – professional musicians because its just so much more difficult and challenging to raise one than most other careers.

  5. Tony Montana says:

    The demise of MPO would be more than catastrophic for the Malaysian music scene. The National Symphony Orchestra of Malaysia is a disgrace currently because the government refused to allow the orchestra to perform in public! It was a few years since their last public concert and while their standard is certain miles from MPO’s quality, the musicians are capable enough of performing decently works in typical Western repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Other ensembles in city center such as KLPAC sinfonietta are amateur run and orchestras in Penang had little progression over the years due to silly and stupid rivalry between two orchestras which does not benefit Penang arts scene at all.

    In comparison to its neighbours in South-East Asia, Bangkok alone has more than a handful professional orchestras. And it is no secret the quality of Thai musicians beats Malaysian locals to bloody pulp. Vietnam’s national symphony already performed a full cycle of Mahler’s symphonies. The scary **** (pardon my language) is that take away MPO and Malaysia is in bottom of food chain in SE Asia in terms of quality of its arts. Malaysia Boleh Konon!

  6. justmyopinion says:

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    If I may add something to this very unfortunate debate, my belief is that one side of the whole problem is systematically not taken into account when it comes to the very nature of this orchestra.

    Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur. These are like two different countries! Drive out of KL for as short as 30 minutes and you end up in a myriad of little villages, with wooden houses, farmers and a level of income that may not exceed RM600-800 per month (for the lucky ones).
    Now, we are talking about Malaysia as a country.
    What has been made to bring music to these people, to introduce them to the Art, provide instruments and lessons to those who can’t afford the very expensive music learning venture? Why isn’t the MPO touring its OWN country on a regular basis to play in smaller towns for smaller people? Instead, I can tell you from experience that most Malaysians don’t even know that the MPO exists, or just vaguely heard about it.
    You won’t instill music (well classical music because let’s not forget there are LOTs of very talented musicians in Malaysia, who didn’t train at any so called prestigious institutions but can do amazing things, and some of them have more music in them than many so called “trained” musicians…) into a nation by only giving access to high quality music tuition to a very little elite who can afford it.
    If it was a funding issue, I’d understand that such an enterprise wouldn’t not be carried out. But since we know money isn’t the problem, what is their real objective? Pride themselves having a high quality orchestra to look good overseas? Playing concerts that they wouldn’t even attend? In the meantime, entire families struggle to make ends meet and couldn’t be bothered about all these “fancy foreign musics” that they don’t understand and is reserved to rich people.

    Actually it wouldn’t be that difficult to create state of the arts music conservatoires, nation wide, hire qualified teachers (both local and overseas) to run it and raise an entire generation of kids to the art of classical music. And our of the masses, you will get (talent is everywhere, regardless of gender, race and social background!) a pool of talented musicians who will make this country’s truly develop it’s music industry.

    Nothing pisses me off more than people who say that local musicians are second class. That is so untrue, and if the people who say that actually bothered to go hear them play, they’d be very surprised.
    Yes there are those who didn’t get to afford the extremely expensive overseas training. And yes they do whatever they can, out of THE SHEER LOVE OF MUSIC, to learn whatever they can and they end up playing really well even though some are late starters, some play cheap instruments, some are mainly self taught…So you must respect that maybe they are not soloist of the year material, but what they achieved on their humble level is greater than what many so called expert musicians will ever achieve.
    There are also excellent, world class and professionally trained local musicians, competition winners, soloist material. And again, they had to fight twice as hard to get where they are so that should force respect and admiration.

    Now they wanted to create “the perfect orchestra” since day one. That’s why they hired practically only foreign musicians. I don’t think that was/is the right approach. I think even now, they’d be better off giving shots to the really talented local musicians (i’m talking about all those who are young and already playing professionally).Yes the so called “orchestra quality” will suffer at first. And then, who cares? I come from Europe. Practically nobody there knows about the MPO. But how do you expect the so called “locals” (who are allow me to reming you, in THEIR country) to learn and improve…by watching you play and have such an arrogant attitude towards them, their culture and the very essence of what they are (this does not apply to all mpo musicians God forbid)? Sure, if you want the process to take hundreds of years!
    They should give a shot to these musicians, because although they might not exceed the capabilities of some more experienced foreign players, THEY ARE HUNGRY! Dying to play great music, dying to learn, improve…They will work twice harder and reach these so called “standards” in no time. They will never treat this as just a Job, sit in rehearsals, play your part, go home with a huge paycheck and repeat the process for as long as you can…There will be much more than that to them and i’m convinced that that’s the only way to go.

    I want to make it clear that I totally disagree with the actual politics of the orchestra and that I find the firing of these excellent musicians a total disgrace. I pray for them they can find another job, because times are hard anywhere in the world now, for musicians.
    I’m just saying that if the country’s true objective was to promote music in Malaysia, it has gone wronger and wronger at each turn, and it’s now pretty hopeless…I just wish they’d put someone competent to really do something about it.
    Now all they truly care is image, and politics. Not long terms benefits.

  7. Local Malaysian musician says:

    I really sad to hear or imagine MPO (the qualified one) will disappear in this country, no matter how eager the management want Malaysians to replace the seats, but they hv to audition them n make sure they can catch or match the standard with the orchestra! N this we call NORMAL procedure, there are no orchestra fired their founding members with yrsss effort without reasons, n it’s only happen in this ridiculous country.

    I just wanna let MPO players know, yea, we, Malaysian musicians need you guys, n always stand by your side, if the orchestra really will be dismissed at not long future, it’s our lose n I hope the players will hv a good future n a good place where appreciate them, n care them! If there is not gonna happen I wish MPO players still with us, n the stupid management will stop giving nightmares to the circle, n really do something develop our culture, educate our children! May music long live in this country! N hope musicians out there pray for us!

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