Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Rethinking Independence: Cooler Lumpur 2016

Cooler Lumpur 2016 was much smaller and cosier than the previous year's, and not just because the Poskod Journalism Campus, which usually happens on the Friday each festival starts, was spun off as a separate event.

The Band of Doodlers, an art collective from Singapore, drew the
independence-themed backdrop based on public input via Twitter
(#CoolerDoodlers) at Cooler Lumpur.

Not enough money-lah, basically.

Nevertheless, the show went on, and it was good. The theme for this year was "RE:Independence", where the objective this year was to "re-examine just what it means to be independent; whether we are still able to decide what to control and how much of ourselves we want to allow to be controlled – as a person, as people, and as a nation."

Naturally, the programmes revolved around the theme, and included discussions on criticism, empowerment, language, innovation and storytelling and how each can play a role in fostering independent thinking.

My tiny contribution to the festivities, which was well received by those
who had a taste. For those who didn't, well, hopefully next year.

I had by now pinned down the recipe for my shortbread, so I baked and brought some along to the festival. Not a lot, though, because the oven is tiny. The shortbread was well received. The panel curator compared it favourably to what's sold as Marks and Spencer - thank you, Uma!

Of course, I was there for the panels, especially the book-related ones. Also, one of the company's latest production, the comi- sorry, graphic novel, Eva Goes Solo, made its debut at Cooler Lumpur 2016. The author and illustrator, Evangeline Neo, was there to sign books and speak at a panel discussion with another artist, Cheeming Boey.

Panel discussion on "The 'Art' of the Biography" at Cooler Lumpur, with
graphic novelists Evangeline Neo of Evacomics (centre, making a point)
and Cheeming Boey (right), moderated by Umapagan Ampikaipakan

Moderator Uma found Boey's mind a scary place, while Neo got to show her endearing "aunty side". Of course, drawing comics for a living is tough, and the panellists shared some strategies on marketing their work. It's just as much about business as it is about the art.

One aspect was merchandising: the creation of characters that can be incorporated into merchandise: bags, smartphone covers, plushies and such. Boey's stick figures have found their way to mineral water bottles, now being sold at Shell petrol stations.

Neo admitted that her main "Eva" character, is a nicer avatar of herself. "Who'd want to wear an aunty on a T-shirt?"

Graphic novelist and illustrator Neo signing books at Cooler Lumpur.
Her new book, Eva Goes Solo, by MPH Group Publishing, debuted
at the festival. And I think she's not that "aunty" at all.

During the discussion, it was revealed that Boey started drawing his life when he moved to the States to study and, later, work. Neo started drawing hers after she left the States. Who knew they went to the same art school in San Francisco?

"Cooler Lumpur, bringing people together," Uma announced triumphantly.

Kohai (junior) Neo and senpai (senior) Boey, after their book-signing
sessions at Cooler Lumpur. Turns out Boey is a legitimate senpai.

The festival didn't just match Boey with Neo. The latter also got to meet fellow Singaporean and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of the hit novel Sarong Party Girls. More remarkable was that much of the novel was narrated in Singlish, that uniquely Singaporean patois the Singaporean government is trying - in vain, I feel - to discourage.

The subject of Singlish, Singaporean poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui's op-ed to The New York Times extolling the dialect and the Singapore government's terse response to it would surface in another panel discussion later in the day.

I'd purchased a copy of Tan's A Tiger in the Kitchen at a Big Bad Wolf Books sale, but never did I expect her arrival so soon to these shores, so I was pretty chuffed. Cooler Lumpur also brought Scottish author and educator Nicola Morgan, another personality I had only read about online, to a hazy KL for the inaugural festival in 2013, themed "#Word".

Other notables at the festival over the years included authors Miguel Syjuco, Zen Cho and Ovidia Yu, columnist Lindy West, artist Sonny Liew, filmmaker Nadira Ilana and writer John Krich. And every year, I sit, wait and wonder, who else will be coming over?

Singapore-mari! Author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Evangeline Neo at
Cooler Lumpur. Sorry, camera shutter caught Eva "sleeping".

The talk with veteran American journalist John Dinges, about how journalism should serve democracy, was delayed for about an hour because, according to the organisers, "the building thought it was on fire."

The fire suppression system, which sucked air out of the Black Box and White Box in Publika, was triggered just before the talk began, creating a huge, roaring din. Technicians couldn't solve the problem quickly enough, which led to the panel being delayed a few times.

Veteran journalist John Dinges, on the panel "RE: Journalism in
Service of Democracy"

Dinges seem to have problems hearing, so he moved around the stage during the Q&A session to where the questions were asked so he could respond. The discussion was quite fruitful. The associate professor and director of radio at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism recounted some of his adventures as a news correspondent in Latin America.

He also had some advice for journalists when speaking to reporters from The Malay Mail Online.

Uma recommended his book, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. I'll be looking out for it.

I had no photos of the discussion panel "RE: English, Singlish, Manglish" because it was late, I was beat, and the phone's battery was nearly flat. But it was a stimulating discussion that made me re-evaluate some of my positions on language and my job as an editor.

Among the topics: is patois that bad? Chuah Guat Eng doesn't think so. Relating an experience while teaching a class, Chuah found that once the "write in good English" criterion was lowered, the students produced wonderful stories despite their less-than-average command of English. I was reminded of the writing in Moira Young's YA novel, Blood Red Road.

Malaysia's first female novelist to write in English also declared herself anti-establishment (did I hear that right?) and said she isn't keen on forcing people to write in "good English", even if she spoke and wrote it herself. I didn't know she had this side to her and it's refreshing.

Cheryl Tan chipped in with regard to her use of Singlish in Sarong Party Girls. The novel caused a stir with the language and the protagonist, particularly in her country of birth. Why does the novel's heroine have such questionable morals, she was asked, and why couldn't she have cast someone who could be a good example?

Tan's reply was something to the effect of "such people - and realities - exist, whether you like it or not" and "I didn't set out to glamourise such behaviours with this novel - it's fiction". Also: "I'm sure that [Vladimir] Nabokov wasn't pro-paedophilia when he wrote Lolita."


Another issue was, I think, cultural appropriation, which popped up in a couple of other panels during the weekend. Tan's research involved her checking with someone who was an expert on Singlish, which meant she had to send said expert "the dirtiest e-mail" he had ever received - she brought this up twice during the weekend. Just felt I had to point that out.

I was late for Datuk Lat's one-on-one with Kam Raslan and missed half the conversation. I think they were discussing comics, being Malaysian then and now, and other stuff. Kam was such a fanboy and I can't blame him.

At Cooler Lumpur: "On Being Malaysian", with legendary cartoonist
Datuk Lat (at right) and Kam Raslan.

Datuk Lat hugely influenced many other artists, including Boey, and his cartoons gave many a glimpse into Malaysian life and culture at the time, even to locals. He reminisced about how he got to participate in a Sikh wedding and captured key moments of it, and how his informant was adamant that he didn't make the event look "funny" with his drawings. The informant needn't have worried, and Lat's account of the wedding was lauded.

When asked if he would revisit his kampung in a future comic book, Lat said probably not, but maybe a shorter series of strips in a magazine. His village isn't what it used to be; it has only five houses, and the river he mentioned in Kampung Boy is almost gone.

More discussions on storytelling were in store in the panel "RE: Stories for Boys and Girls, Both Big and Small", with novelist Shamini Flint, writer Hanna Alkaf (who also moderated) and educators and storytellers Jennifer and Nathaniel Whitman.

Storytellers Shamini Flint, Hanna Alkaf (also moderating) and Jennifer
and Nathaniel Whitman, talking about storytelling at Cooler Lumpur.
The quotable Flint, of course, stole the show.

Nat Whitman opined that one takes a risk when one tells a story, and Flint concurred, especially when it comes to telling a story through writing.

"It's dangerous to write a story because a reader can call you out if you contradict yourself a few pages down the line," she said. "But if you orally tell your story and someone points out that you said this, you can always deny it: 'No, I didn't.'" Before the audience could recover from the chuckles, she added, "This is why I'm a good lawyer."

Fielding a question from a member of the audience who wanted to collect stories from older people, Flint thought it was a good idea. She'd written a novel set in wartime Malaya, The Undone Years, based on input from relatives and others who lived through that period.

Can't remember what made this moment, but it made me
sorry my cameraphone wasn't any better

Flint was basically, go ahead and record their stories because "they're all going to die anyway, so get their stories before that." Sounds frivolous, but she has a point. Malaysian history is being eroded and, in some cases, rewritten (what Flint calls producing fiction), and getting the real story of what happened from the older generation is now more crucial than ever. How will we move forward without a firm understanding of our past?

Later, came the panel, "RE: Minds of the Future" (you can tell there's a theme going on with the titles), about criticism and how it shapes - yes - the minds of the future, with British journalist and theatre critic Kate Bassett; arts consultant, activist and writer, Phang Khee Teik; and academic Leyla Jagiella. Journalist Sharmilla Ganesan was the moderator for the panel.

From left: Kate Bassett, Phang Khee Teik and Leyla Jagiella, debating
the role of criticism in shaping the minds of the future, with
Sharmilla Ganesan moderating.

I felt that the panellists struggled initially with some of the question posed, but that was all I could remember. The topic might have been too big for me to handle, too.

The talk with the Director-General of the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia (FINAS), Dato' Kamil Othman, was a little easier to digest. This was, I felt, a continuation of a discussion with Dato' Kamil a couple of years ago.

"Malaysian films, folks, are the subject of much consternation among the public at large," Uma stated, kicking off that discussion. "In fact, we love to hate them."

The forthright Director-General of FINAS, Dato' Kamil Othman, chatting
with Uma on the state of Malaysian films and film industry.

Things have improved a bit since then but, as the discussion revealed, more still needs to be done. Dato' Kamil pulled few punches, and there was the occasional swearing. He's no fan of censorship, and had suggestions for trouble-free foreign film festivals. Still, he has hope in the future of the local film industry.

Originally about women who write literature and "why women should rule the world", the topic of last panel for Cooler Lumpur, with Shamini Flint and Cheryl Tan, was changed to discuss Flint's pet peeve, "why Asian literature is so $#!+" - a more welcome and engaging topic.

The last panel discussion for Cooler Lumpur, with Cheryl Tan and Shamini
Flint. Again, Flint stole the show, but I couldn't think of a better way
to wrap things up.

Though this was an issue that's closer to my heart, I barely remember what was discussed.

Flint brought up something that she'd said before, about women marrying rich (white) men who would allow them to write - implying that writing is a luxury few can afford, and that some people's voices aren't heard because they don't have the means to write. I'm not sure if Lionel Shriver's "dangerous idea" and the backlash surfaced during this discussion.

Which led to the question of why people write about their birthplaces after spending time abroad. Again, this topic was broached before. Flint and Tan agreed that the yearning for home intensifies when one is abroad, to the point where one is compelled to write about it.

However, it seems we've all had enough of gardens shrouded in evening mists and our grandmothers' mango trees and such. And, maybe, enough of wartime novels by white people who exoticise the locales to sell more books (a couple of such books that I'd read still send me into fits of rage).

Oh, yes. Flint recalled a bunch of assorted characters who she had drinks with and remembered being entertained by their stories but then, when she read what some of them wrote, the language was, well, different. "What happened to the (interesting) people I had drinks with?" she wondered.

Again, the argument that unique voices don't have to be in crisp, impeccable English all the time (Flint was really talking about authenticity, i.e., writing like how you speak).

Then Uma pointed out how different Flint sounded in her wartime novel,
as opposed to, say, her children's books. Note Flint's expression.

"No, she's not happy with that book," Uma said, regarding said wartime novel.

Overall, the ladies did very well on this panel, which pretty much demonstrates why women should rule the world.

And that's a wrap! This year's Cooler Lumpur was smaller than the
previous year's, but cosier. And I stayed till the end.

Thus, ended another iteration of Southeast Asia's only festival of ideas - be proud, Malaysia! Cooler Lumpur is the only thing of its kind in the region.

Everybody adjourned after that for beer and pizza. I don't drink, however, but maybe we could have used, like, eight more pies? I'm sure many didn't have dinner before the last panel, and we fell upon the pizzas like a plague of locusts.

Many thanks to the crew, partners and sponsors who made Cooler Lumpur possible, and I hope to be part of this again next year.

Though I wonder: would crowdfunding help with the finance, logistics and such? That would give more people ownership of the festival, and we could get better pizza (Mikey's is just around the corner).

Since it began, Cooler Lumpur has been feeding my appetite for ideas and stories from all over, so I have a vested interest in its continuity and development. Some may argue that such exercises in thought are a middle-class pastime, and I tend to agree. However, I cannot deny the hunger in my mind for the good stuff, which is hard to come by.

We are all dependent in some fashion on others for our daily needs. Wouldn't it be liberating if we all could service our own cars and air conditioners, cook our own food or diagnose and cure our illnesses? Expert help can be expensive and at times unreliable.

The reason I resorted to learning how to cook pasta and bake my own shortbread was because the damn things are getting more expensive, and it's cathartic to whip butter and sugar at the end of a long day and eating the results is so satisfying.

Yet, I still crave things that only other people can provide: conversations, ideas, varying points of view and criticisms, for instance. No one can be truly independent as long as one lives.

If you want to know true independence, die. But by then you wouldn't even care - can it get more independent than that?

In a society, we rely upon some for our needs and wants, and we are relied upon by others for what we can offer. However, when one party is over-reliant on another for something, that party might end up being addicted to that assistance - and be exploited by those who feed that addiction.

Of late, it seems we've been relying too much on certain parties for direction in life and nationhood, and it seems many of us are waking up to the fact that maybe we're going the wrong way. Trust us, we've been told numerous times, we know what we're doing, we know what's best for everyone. But if even scientists can be bribed (allegedly) to say that fat is worse for the heart than sugar, who else can we trust?

Not politicians. Not religious leaders. And certainly not businessmen who also claim to be either, or both.

And from some of the behaviours of others we've been reading in the news, too many people have lost their moral bearings, their sense of right and wrong. It began, I believe, when we stopped using that internal compass and begun to rely on the wisdom of certain parties. And like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use, that compass has begun to break down.

That's why I appreciate initiatives such as Cooler Lumpur, a pasar malam for really good ideas and a mental gym where we can get those long-rusted gears moving again, and strengthen our minds so that they can repel bad ideas, break free of the undue influence of the manipulative and self-serving, and grow to generate useful ideas for others to learn from.

Perhaps that is the first step towards (live people's) independence.

23/09/2016   Podcasts of the 2016 Cooler Lumpur panel discussions are being uploaded to this channel, so I can re-live those moments, catch the punchlines and fact-check some details (g*d, my memory is shit now). Not sure why Google Play Store opens every time I open the links on the smartphone. Check out Cooler Lumpur's Facebook page for more updates.


  1. Great write up. I couldn't make it this year, but thanks to your piece I have a good overview of what I missed. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi, Marc,

      Thanks, and no problem. Hope to see you next year.


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