Wednesday, 17 June 2015

On The Verge Of A Conversation: The Cooler Lumpur Festival 2015

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 17 June 2015

"We are on the verge of a conversation."

These are the words of Umapagan Ampikaipakan, Programme Director for the Cooler Lumpur Festival, now in its third year at Publika, Solaris Dutamas. A phrase that will become a milestone along Malaysia's road towards a developed, thinking nation.

That is, if we get around to talking to each other.

"Malaysians are on the verge of a conversation," Umapagan told The Edge. "We're not there yet, but interestingly we have found, even last year, that every time I looked out into an audience during question and answer time, when people are talking ... I can see people almost throwing their hands up and on the verge of wanting to contribute to the conversation. I think it's our job to tip them over the edge."

I wonder if he sneaked in that "edge" bit for the paper's benefit?

"Crossing the Cultural Boundaries of Food" at Cooler Lumpur 2015, with (from
left) Ben Yong, John Krich, Gaik Cheng Khoo and moderator Zan Azlee (not in
this photo - sorry!).

The piece was submitted in a hurry, so I forgot to contribute some of my own
photos - not sure if they'd be fine, anyway.

The theme of this year's Festival, Dangerous Ideas, promised all that and delivered — as best as a string of hour-long panels and conversations could at a time when temperatures are high and all we feel like doing is lob invectives over stupid things being said and perceived threats.

According to Hardesh Singh, Executive Director of the festival, "Dangerous Ideas is focused on responsibly unearthing ideas and exploring how these ideas shape our behaviour, environment and societies. In this age of instant information, ideas spread like wild fire. We'd like to harness the contagious power of a great idea and the potential it holds to inspire transformation."

Arend Zwartjes, Cultural Attaché for the Embassy of the United States, Kuala Lumpur, feels the same. "For true innovation, there must be a market of ideas and the freedom to explore expression. Fundamentally, for any kind of progression individually and as a nation, it is necessary to cultivate ideas of all kinds, especially dangerous ideas."

Zwartjes is aware of "what Malaysia has experienced in the last few months, the last couple of years" but feels it's an important time for all Malaysians to have these "uncomfortable" discussions, and that "it's good to have those dangerous ideas out there, good for your society to have conversations, to allow the space for conversations."

"Ban This Book!" A Cooler Lumpur 2015 panel discussion on book banning and
censorship, with (from left) Ian McDonald, Sarah Churchwell, Ovidia Yu and
Sharmilla Ganesan.

A lot of ground was covered, from the language of protest, fast or slow journalism, book censorship and sacred cows to the future of photojournalism, the power of caricatures, and sex and sexuality in the 21st century. A Fringe Food Festival on the grounds — a culinary micro-Cooler Lumpur — had discussions on foodie-ism, out-of-home food enterprises and a workshop on food writing, among other things.

At the festival's opening on June 12, Umapagan also announced the DK Dutt Memorial Award for Literary Excellence (for Malaysian-English Writing), conceptualised by author Dipika Mukherjee and Sharon Bakar and named after the late Delip Kumar Dutt, who was the principal of CYMA College (Penang) and the president of the Schools Sports Council of Malaysia.

Shikha Dutt, daughter of Delip Kumar Dutt, launched the award. Submissions opened on June 14 and will close on July 31. The awards will be announced and presented at the 2015 George Town Literary Festival in Penang, scheduled for this November.

Umapagan also spoke about the difficulties in organising and running a festival and, after thanking the sponsors including the British Council Malaysia, the US Embassy in KL and BMW Malaysia, acknowledged his parents' contributions, to the amusement of the audience. "You will get paid back, I promise... you will see that money again, it hasn't disappeared."

"There are NO spaces between (or was it "around"?) em dashes!" thundered Zen
Cho (OMG I love her) as she launched Fixi Novo's latest anthology,
Cyberpunk Malaysia, at Cooler Lumpur 2015 with Amir Muhammad.

He also apologised for the absence of Delhi-based novelist Chandrahas Choudhury who was supposed to deliver the festival's keynote speech at the opening ceremony. Flight delays, we were told.

This year's festival, which ran from June 12-14, also saw the scheduling of some last-minute events, including the much-hyped one with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, titled "My Most Dangerous Idea." From what's been reported, the event delivered in spades.

For Umapagan, Mahathir's presence at the festival was symbolic. "I had a lot of questions as to, ‘Why did you invite him? This is supposed to be a platform for free ideas and you know he did a lot in his tenure to restrict those ideas.'

"But I think one thing Hardesh and I always endeavour to do is make this a platform for everyone, irrespective of your ideas," said Umapagan. "This is the one place where you can come and talk about it ... and leave as friends, Have a con-ver-sa-tion, right? That's what it's all about and that's what we're trying to do."

No sacred cows were killed during the panel "Killing Sacred Cows: Comedy in the
Age of Offence" during Cooler Lumpur 2015, with (from left) Jason Leong,
Harith Iskander, Lindy West, and Ezra Zaid moderating.

Though I would have wanted to hear what other voices *COUGHISMAPERKASAPEGIDACOUGH* had to say. Maybe next year? Or have we heard enough from them to know that it'll be more of the same and will remain so for the foreseeable future?

That, I think, was missing from the festival: a chance to see some truly dangerous ideas panned for what they are. For better or worse, ideas are part of who we are. In conversations, good ideas shine, while bad ideas teach.

If conversations die, where would we be as a civilisation, a people, a nation?

So, let's keep talking.


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