What does independence mean to you? Are we as free as we think we are; as individuals and as a nation?

These questions were among those the Cooler Lumpur Festival 2016 sought to unpack last weekend at Publika, Solaris Dutamas in Kuala Lumpur.

Dubbed South-East Asia’s first “festival of ideas”, Cooler Lumpur is a multidisciplinary effort initiated by media outfit PopDigital, with the collaboration of British Council Malaysia and the BMW Group Malaysia.

The annual festival, now in its fourth year, is organised thematically, with talks, workshops and arts events examining a particular area of focus through different lenses.

This year’s two-day festival revolved around the theme “RE: Independence”, with a diverse group of speakers – from tech disruptors, to gender activists, to doodling artists – tasked with sparking a dialogue about ideas of self-determination and free will.

Having been to previous iterations of the festival, this writer found this edition to be a bit too loosely curated for audiences to really delve into the meat of the overall theme.

Themes aside, there were some particularly interesting sessions sprinkled throughout the weekend, which sparked thought during and after the events.

Indulging in nostalgia with Lat

Cartoonist Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, popularly known as Lat, is arguably one of the few local icons whose appeal crosses the usual divides in a country fraught with identity politics.

In his dialogue session with Kam Raslan titled “On Being Malaysian”, the affable artist shared his journey of becoming a full-time cartoonist, as well as hazy memories of a bygone era; from cycling down kampung roads in Perak to jamming with fellow long-haired young men in Kuala Lumpur.

“In 1971, no one wanted him (any more),” he said of his memorable meeting with another Malaysian icon, P. Ramlee.

“But I wanted to see my favourite seniman…. But if you want to know more, you’ll have to wait for my next book because I’m including the story in it,” he slyly added.

Poet Illya Sumanto examining workshop participants handiwork in a workshop called Reclaiming the Goddess, Witch and Wise Woman at the Cooler Lumpur Festival 2016.

Poet Illya Sumanto examining workshop participants handiwork in a workshop called Reclaiming the Goddess, Witch and Wise Woman at the Cooler Lumpur Festival 2016.

In the face of multiple questions on how he manages to pin down the nuances of Malaysian life, if not the heart of what it means to be Malaysian, Lat was humble, almost unaware of the extent of his talent.

“If you want to draw for the people, you have to be with the people … I want my drawings to tell the actual life here,” he said.

Sketching the meaning of independence

Adding some interactivity to the festival was the Re: Imagining Independence live doodling session throughout the first day of the festival.

Members of the public were asked to tweet their interpretations of independence, which were in turn translated into art by the young artists of the Band of Doodlers.

Band of Doodlers is a Singaporean collaborative art community founded by artist Mas Shafreen, with some 650 members with a love for marker pens and creative self-expression.

Considering some of the imaginative answers garnered – one involving a unicorn and rainbow farts – the resulting piece was a lively one indeed.

(From left) Shamini Flint, Hanna Alkaf, and Jen Whitman in a panel titled RE: Stories for Boys and Girls, Both Big and Small at the Cooler Lumpur Festival 2016.

(From left) Shamini Flint, Hanna Alkaf, and Jen Whitman in a panel titled RE: Stories for Boys and Girls, Both Big and Small at the Cooler Lumpur Festival 2016.

Journalism’s struggle

Veteran journalist John Dinges was another speaker with interesting – and dangerous – stories to share from the past.

A former foreign correspondent for publications such as The Washington Post, Dinges found himself reporting from Latin America at the height of its troubles in the early 1970s. He was among the first few reporters to document the mass killings carried out by the military juntas in Argentina and Chile.

Speaking at his session “Journalism in Service of Democracy”, Dinges said that the journalist’s battle against oppression and censorship was “business as usual”.

“In any country, there will always be attempts to control the press – be it government or big corporations – we serve people factual information. That’s what we do.”

Disrupting business as usual

A new addition to the festival was the Cooler Lumpur Disruptions, a series of dialogues featuring speakers who have “disrupted” their respective industries, so to speak, by challenging the status quo with tweaks and innovations.

Broadly focused around the tech and innovation sector, the series covered a range of innovations, from what it takes to make it in the digital music market to revolutionising mobility for the disabled.