Khoo Salma Nasution, 48, Social historian
Fifth generation peranakan Khoo Salma Nasution’s journey as a social historian began in earnest when she was completing her art degree in Duke University. Influenced by other Malaysians who shared her passion for the arts, she began to see a city as an accumulation of past events, traditions and achievements.
Returning to her home state Penang after graduation, she looked at George Town with new eyes. Back in the 90s when Penang was known only as a beach destination and the term 'cultural tourism' was virtually unknown here, George Town was mired in a state of neglect and disrepair, but Salma saw its potential. “This was once a magnificent city, full of untold stories that could ignite its creative future.”
She walked around town taking photos to the bafflement of other skeptics who thought the young woman was being silly to venture into 'bad hat areas' to record oral histories from the residents.
Her efforts culminated in the wildly successful Streets of George Town, Penang, hailed as a bible for both laymen and academics for understanding the city's rich architectural heritage. She designed, edited and funded the publishing of the book with her own savings, like many projects she undertook, including the restoration of the shophouse at 120 Armenian Street, Sun Yat Sen's base for strategizing the 1911 Chinese Revolution. Her remarkable body of work on Malaysia's heritage includes More Than Merchants, A History of the German-speaking Community in Penang, 1800s-1940s; Penang Postcard Collection; Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia's Modern Development, Sun Yat Sen in Penang and Heritage Houses of Penang.
She thinks children should learn history from heritage sites, not just textbooks.
“Only when Malaysians – descendants of both indigenous people and migrants - can find stories that resonate for them, will their interest in documenting and preserving their rich architectural heritage be rekindled."
Her efforts have played a significant role in revitalizing much of George Town’s heritage, culminating in the city's listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. When complimented on her achievements, she simply says, “If only people knew what collective wealth we have in heritage, they would be as passionate as I am.”
Between being president of the Penang Heritage Trust, managing a publishing company Areca Books with her husband Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, running Dr Sun Yat Sen's Penang Base and endless heritage conferences, she has her hands full with three children. But she remains deeply committed to interpreting and documenting the heritage, history and values of Penang's landmarks, with particular emphasis to cultural diversity.
“Since the 1970s we have been suffering from a brain and talent drain. I wanted to give young Malaysians a reason to come back or at least remain connected to their heritage. Like Melaka, George Town has a long history as an international port city. Its multicultural heritage can provide an inspirational setting for a creative community that is locally rooted yet global in outlook. The possibilities are exciting.”
Lara Ariffin, 44, Documentary film-maker
Lara represents a growing movement of women filmmakers who are pushing the boundaries of the documentary form by examining neglected issues, lives and people through sensitive observations and relatable stories.
Among her hundreds of productions for both local and satellite television networks, the biggest feather in her cap is, arguably, the 2009 documentary "Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh" for National Geographic. It won the “Best Wildlife Documentary” at the Asian Television Awards and "Best Wildlife Film" at the 2010 Malaysia Documentary Film Festival.
While she concedes celebrity is necessary to lend visibility to a cause, her heart lies with the little guys, as she calls them. Which is why, other than the high-profile leaders and big names - who “have books that thousands can read” - she consciously gives airtime to “the real people getting their hands dirty and doing the work. Unlike their leaders, their stories will never be told in a book, but they are just as important too.”
In the name of work, she has often gone out on a limb, and we’re not just talking about Fear-Factor-grade physical feats - like trudging inside a claustrophic tunnel under compressed air conditions, or walking for days in leech-infested jungles. Believing deeply in the importance of the stories she is telling, Lara has sometimes taken on uncommissioned projects for the primary purpose of changing mindsets. Her self-funded documentary on the Temengor Forest Reserve inspired a massive publicity campaign and helped Malaysia Nature Society win the Merdeka Fund of RM500,000 for their Belum Temengor Campaign.
Raised by parents who instilled in her the spirit of learning and the passion to live life to the fullest, Lara tries to pass down these values to her two daughters by taking them travelling as well as involving them in her work. “They will watch my work and give their opinions. Recently, I was showing my daughter the clips of the World War II interviews - they’ve learnt bits of it in the school – and she’d say things like, “You gotta put that piece in Mamma.”
Ultimately, Lara aims to educate, encourage questioning and catalyse positive change through her work. “"Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh" was meant to inspire people about the magnificent orang-utans. Projects like "The Malayan Emergency" and "Highland Towers" show people that our history is something that must be appreciated and never be taken for granted.”
“I’m a strong believer of hope and people need to be encouraged. One must show not only the problems but the resolutions to solve them. Life is too short to consider as half-empty.”
Rathimalar Govindarajoo, 32, Dancer
Lead dancer in Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Theatre; Co-Artistic Director of Sutra Dance Theatre; multiple Cameronian Arts Awards nominee; principal dance partner of the celebrated Ramli Ibrahim himself - Rathimalar’s impressive resume in the performing arts needs little introduction.
What few people know is how her eventual destiny as a dancer par extraordinaire was charted. Following the death of her father, her mother sought solace at the Temple of Fine Arts. She would often bring then eight-year-old Rathimalar, who grew intrigued with the dancers. She recalls, “Recognizing my budding interest, my family encouraged me to take part despite our difficult financial circumstances”
Since then, Rathimalar has racked up a track record that instils not only motherly, but national pride. The New York Times, no less, described her as “spellbinding, with sharply percussive feet, wonderful plasticity and stillness, and a riveting facial beauty. This is a dancer who casts the spell of the Odissi form by the fullness with which she performs it.”
Rathimalar is thankful to have met kind benefactors like Ramli Ibrahim, who gave “little children” like Mavin Khoo and herself to assume leading roles in theatrical productions, then an unprecedented move.
After obtaining her PR qualifications from Olympia College PJ, Rathimalar joined the renowned South Asian British funded dance company, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company (SJDC), where she broadened her horizons by touring Europe through major productions and contextualizing performances with educational and outreach work for five and half years.
With her extensive international exposure, she hopes to contribute towards the flourishing performing arts scene in Malaysia. “With its strong tradition, I feel Malaysia is ready for a leap in terms of output and mindset. Performance arts can bring nations and traditions together. As dancers, we have a responsibility to create and maintain that thread.”
The key is education, she asserts, which is why she has diversified into teaching. Other than her stint at Sutra Dance Theatre, she also teaches Hip Hop in Sri KDU Smart School Damansara and conducts a combination of Body Conditioning and Indian Classical Dance classes for adults and children.
“What I am hoping is to start it off by building the foundation for a fresher, newer output. With patience, faith and believe we can do anything in this life!”
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