By Joe Chelliah
Malaysia has its own Philharmonic Orchestra aptly named the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO). It was founded in 1997 and maintained by PETRONAS at a cost of some 500 million since inception. This was originally thought to be a good effort to move Malaysia towards a developed country status by 2020. But the questionable part over the years is the amount of money that is spent as well as the very composition of the orchestra itself.
The conductor is paid a whopping RM130,000 a month and a two-month annual leave yearly while the Assistant Conductor gets RM50,000 a month and the other musicians get between RM16,000 and RM24,000 monthly plus the two-month annual leave. MPO’s principal benefactor PETRONAS forks out approximately RM3.5 million a month or RM42 million a year to maintain the MPO, including wages and benefits to the Malaysian management team. It has been estimated that PETRONAS has spent a staggering RM500 million on the MPO since its establishment in 1997. It is a time for some serious rethinking in this matter in the light of current economic uncertainties.
The MPO has a total of 86 musicians in total excluding the conductor. Sadly only about 4% of these have been Malaysians and it has remained so for all these years. One would have expected the number of Malaysians in MPO to have increased over the years but this has, sadly, not happened even after a 12 years. The MPO can be seen as a failure too in the sense that there has actually been no actual development of Malaysian talent by MPO as the Malaysian composition in the orchestra has remained static at 4% all these years. There is also hardly any noticeable “transfer of technology” so to speak.
The harsh reality appears to be that the MPO has no real desire to 'Malaysianise' the orchestra. MPO has toured China and Australia at enormous expense without any apparent realization that having a European conductor conducting an orchestra called Malaysian with a 4% Malaysian participation is a national disgrace apart from insulting the intelligence of the host countries.
It would have been a lot better to have started a classical music academy with suitably qualified tutors and instructors from abroad. If this had been the case we have had by now a 100% Malaysian Symphony Orchestra to be proud of. It’s still not too late for some serious rethinking.