Pioneering art institute turns 50, continues down non-profit path (VIDEO)

By Ida Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 11 ― One of the oldest art schools in Malaysia ― the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) ― just celebrated its 50th anniversary, making it a mere four years younger than the country itself.

MIA chief executive officer Dr Lok Lay Hong said the unique thing about this pioneering art institution is its non-profit nature; fees collected from students are all channelled back to the development of the college.

“When we first started it was more like we were helping Chinese students who came out from private schools who had difficulty getting into mainstream education to continue with their tertiary level or even diploma in art and design,” she said, adding however that MIA has since then offered financial assistance to all.

She said MIA has given out about RM3 million worth of scholarships to 552 students through the institute's annual Nationwide Art and Design Competition; the competition has been going on the past 32 years, except for a brief one-year pause.

This year itself, MIA received artwork submissions from over 300 high school students; this was shortlisted to 80 with 10 receiving full scholarships, three offered partial scholarships and the remaining 67 receiving a 10 per cent discount on fees.

The bungalow at 28, Treacher Road where MIA was founded 50 years ago. ― Picture courtesy of MIA

Humble beginnings

According to MIA's commemorative booklet ― published in conjunction with its 50th anniversary ― it all started on June 29, 1967 with fine art and graphic art classes for 30 mature students at a small bungalow on Treacher Road, now known as Jalan Sultan Ismail.

The three founders were Chooi Mun Sou, the late Khoo Siong Chi and the late Tan Sri Wong Tok Chai, with Chung Chen Sun as MIA's first principal. It later grew to 100 students at one point at No. 11, Freeman Road now known as Jalan U Thant.

Finances proved to be a struggle in the early days for the school which was registered as a non-profit organisation, with the institute having to rely initially on donations from the community and fund-raising activities.

MIA had also in the past used No. 225, Jalan Bukit Bintang and at its peak had a student intake of over 1,700, leading to a search for a new campus. ― Picture courtesy of MIA

The tax exemption status granted in 1970 aided MIA in its goal to have its own building; board member Dr Grace Chen donated paintings to buy land in Kemensah Heights to build a campus.

Close to RM1 million was raised in a tax-exempt charity lottery drive in 1986 but it was not enough to construct a building. However, it was just sufficient for MIA to buy six four-storey shoplots at Taman Melawati.

The school went on to acquire a second building in 1996 in Taman Melawati for its music department.

A charity lottery was carried out in 1986 to raise funds to build a new campus in Kemensah Heights. ― Picture courtesy of MIA

After MIA became a non-profit company in 2000, the board of directors ensured that its tax exemption status was retained and decided the following year to remain as a non-profit educational organisation instead of pursuing a profit-oriented path of merging with a listed company.

Lok said MIA has enjoyed steady and sustainable growth over the years, further noting it has been quite stable as it does not have to worry about rent after purchasing the Taman Melawati main campus at a “very good price.”

In 1989, then minister Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik officiated the opening ceremony of MIA's main campus in Taman Melawati. ― Picture courtesy of MIA

Legacy and beyond

Since then, a total of 13,836 students have graduated from MIA. Some students were from as far as Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Japan and Taiwan.

“So they are all in the market somewhere ― teaching, lecturing... some have gone overseas, some are doing very well in art galleries,” Lok said.

MIA graduates have gone into various fields with some becoming successful artists and heading their own firms, while many of them have gone on to become music teachers or conductors in Chinese vernacular schools or international schools, she added.

“It's very important that we produce students who will be a positive factor to the workforce, and also contribute to our country. So that's why our courses are actually tailored to suit the nation's needs, as well as prepare students even if they want to have any overseas encounters, and bring them up to a level where we can have international standing. I'm not talking about national, I'm working towards international,” she said.

Lok said MIA would receive enquiries from industry players keen to hire its students even before they graduate, due to the “dedication, commitment, professional ethics” and ideas of the institute's graduates.

“Partly it's also because of our lecturers who have been here for so many years, very experienced,” she said, referring to the over 50 academic staff that include many MIA alumni.

MIA has come a long way since 1970 when it had its first batch of graduates. ― Picture courtesy of MIA

Lok, who became MIA's fifth CEO and principal this year, was herself a student of MIA's music department 30 years ago and has been with the institute since.

“But actually we have a lot of core lecturers or even practising professionals in MIA for many, many years; that's why during our long service awards we have so many to give away,” she said, noting that there were over 20 staff members who had served between 15 to 30 years and believes there might be even more who have served between 10 to 15 years.

MIA also provides scholarships to encourage its staff to go for further professional development, with many of them having past industry experience or are still practising as professionals and holding exhibitions, she said.

MIA now has over 500 students enrolled in its eight departments, with awards and prizes won annually.

Lok highlighted the MIA Ladies Chorus's achievements, including their July 2010 win of the World Championship and Gold Award in the 6th World Choir Games Competition in the Female Voice category and its latest win of the Gold Diploma this year in the Female Choirs category at the 5th Vietnam International Choir Competition.

The MIA Ladies Chorus, formed in 2004, is ranked 309th in the World Top 1000 Choir category and 31st out of the top 50 globally in the Female Choirs category according to INTERKULTUR's global rankings as of August.

MIA's main campus in Taman Melawati is seen here with its old logo. ― Picture courtesy of MIA

Moving forward

Despite its many achievements over the decades, MIA is not resting on its laurels and is already looking forward to expanding soon with a new campus in the heart of the city.

The MIA KL city campus, which will be headed by deputy CEO Ooi Ai Eng, is located along Jalan Dang Wangi near the iconic Kuala Lumpur tower and is slated to open within the next two months.

Pointing out that MIA's main campus in Taman Melawati is at a suburb of Kuala Lumpur with hills and greenery that provides a conducive learning environment for students, Lok expects the city campus to be a lively place for students to host activities such as busking and mural painting.

“So it's another approach, where students also get to see the skyline, more of the city, so we have the best of both worlds. Even then you’ll notice we also choose to be near the greenery… the waterfall, Bukit Nanas, so the area is conducive,” she said, highlighting its accessibility to the Dang Wangi LRT station.

It is expected to house the Interior Design, Textile and Fashion Design departments, as well as offer Extra Mural studies where people can sign up for weekly classes or short-term courses.

MIA is expected to offer its first degree next year at its new city campus along Jalan Dang Wangi, KL. ― Picture courtesy of MIA

MIA's first-ever degree is also expected to be based at this new campus, with the Interior Architecture and Design degree to be introduced next year in collaboration with UK's Birmingham City University (BCU) and is currently pending the Malaysian Qualifications Agency’s (MQA) nod.

She notes MIA's interior design graduates are quite well-known in the industry as the institute's high demands mean that its diploma students' standards are equivalent to degree level.

“That's why we wanted the degree because even BCU recognises the strength, that's the reason why they want to link up with us. Usually they normally don't, but because our students do very well; even overseas when our mediocre students go there can become top, that's the amazing part about that. That means the level is (quite high),” she said.

“I am also looking into opening up other types of diplomas, also looking towards doing certificate courses as well. In that case we cover all, we are helping these students who may not possess the prerequisites for entry but they are very artistic; so we are giving them a way, a pathway for them to continue, to exploit their own talent,” she said.

“As long as there's passion, as long as you put in hard work, passion, patience, determination… once you have all that, success is on your way,” she added.

As for the coming years, Lok hopes MIA will be part of Malaysia's cultural economy and education blueprint, by producing quality and competitive graduates who can bring in revenue for the country by creating a recognisable identity, much like South Korea's successful cultural export K-pop.

“Of course I would like to see MIA grow with more departments springing up, you can assist more people, provide better job opportunities and job prospects to them and also be of value to the country,” she said.