An artist illustrates one of the stories displayed at the Hundred/Hundred gallery, which showcased the writings of a hundred young people as part of the EnglishJer language programme at the Cooler Lumpur Festival. Photos: Cooler Lumpur Festival
The usual hip and urbane crowd at Publika in Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur, was unknowingly flirting with danger last weekend, courtesy of the Cooler Lumpur Festival.
In its third year, the festival bills itself as a multidisciplinary “festival of ideas”, and is a collaboration between media company PopDigital, the British Council, and BMW Malaysia.
The three-day festival’s theme this year was “Dangerous Ideas”, and it featured a host of discussion panels, workshops, readings, and art exhibitions with local and international writers, artists, activists, and yes, even intellectuals and former politicians.
This year also saw the festival including the culinary arts via the Food Fringe Festival led by The BIG Group, which presented conversations ranging from the growth and future of the industry, to how food both signals and ties together our cultural identities.
According to the festival’s programme director, Umapagan Ampikaipakan, the theme was inspired by daily news headlines and the lack of solutions for current local issues.
“And the only way to come up with solutions is to come up with ideas and, sometimes, they are dangerous ideas,” he was quoted as saying in the festival’s press release.
Cooler Lumpur did not disappoint in the breadth of topics up for conversation: from the ethics of photojournalism and the censorship of political ideas in cartoons, to how poetry transmits dangerous ideas through symbolism and how we perceive sexuality.
With the current climate in Malaysia, whether it is the fear of reprisal from the state or simply the stagnation of public debate, credit should be given to the organisers for even attempting such “danger”.
Sadly, a good part of the discourse barely scratched the surface to be truly “dangerous”.
The doctor in the house
As a post-Ops Lalang Malaysian, I never thought I would see the day when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed is heralded as a revolutionary speaking up against the powers-that-be.
Granted, the former premier is noted for voicing his unflinching views – as well as his witty delivery of them.
Predictably then, Dr Mahathir’s session at the festival was fully booked for a 250-odd crowd, with free tickets selling out within half-an-hour of becoming available.
Titled “My Most Dangerous Idea”, the session saw Dr Mahathir’s retelling of his tenure as Prime Minister and the thought process behind some of his policies.
This included his idea to fix the exchange rate by pegging the ringgit to the US dollar during the 1997 economic crisis (“It was a dangerous idea of going against conventional wisdom”), and his views on political systems (“Democracy is a great game of musical chairs”); he also jokingly expressed his discomfort at of having to “sit on the sidelines” after stepping down from power.
Right off the bat, audience members went straight for the jugular during the question and answer portion, raising issues such as the erosion of judicial independence, institutional corruption, and even the medium of instruction in schools.
One particularly interesting exchange was when a woman, identifying herself as the daughter of a Sabahan politician, asked about the controversial “Project IC” which was carried out during Dr Mahathir’s tenure.
Comparing the issue to the situation post-Independence Malaya, Dr Mahathir replied that he did the same as Tunku Abdul Rahman in “accepting them as citizens”.
“That’s how we’ve treated people … because they have been living there for 30 years, they speak Malay. This is not one race domineering over a few minorities,” he said.
For those who follow current affairs, the session was tame; the most revealing insight was that two decades on, Dr Mahathir’s sharp political savvy is very much intact.
One stand out session for me was “The Language of Protest”, which featured an engaging and articulate panel: writer and editor Letyar Tun, who was a former political prisoner in Myanmar; Singaporean poet and graphic artist Gwee Li Sui; and producer and radio presenter Sharaad Kuttan.
While the lively discussion brought up interesting points on whether violent protest can ever be justified, Letyar’s account of how he turned to words to express dissent was moving in its simplicity. Describing his teenage self as someone who “didn’t believe in words, but wanted weapons”, he chanced upon a newspaper clipping in prison that changed his mind.
“The paper read ‘The only weapons we have are our minds’. That one sentence made me enlightened,” he said.
Letyar’s current goal is for “transitional justice” in his country, in which the atrocities committed during Myanmar’s decades-long troubles are at least formally recognised and admitted to.
“Without acknowledging the injustices of the past, we cannot go on … it won’t disappear easily. This inner trauma, you will unconsciously give the next generation and this will turn into hatred,” he said.
This power of acknowledging hurt done to entire communities of people might well be a “dangerous idea” for nations who insist on clinging to short-term memories of the past.
The danger of the ordinary
Meanwhile, “Where Is the Great Malaysian Movie?”, a live interview with FINAS (National Film Development Corporation Malaysia) director-general Datuk Kamil Othman was a refreshingly candid session on the state of contemporary Malaysian cinema.
Moderator Johanan Sen, an obviously passionate cinephile, managed to set the right tone by asking the tough questions without shutting down the conversation.
Kamil for his part was open about the missteps of FINAS in the past, from rewarding certain directors over and over, to helping “create a breed of people with delusions of grandeur” as producers.
While Kamil’s explanation of how FINAS is now actively trying to match grants to the truly deserving, and helping budding filmmakers hone their craft through clinics and workshops was heartening, there was a small yet disturbing revelation of what makes a Malaysian film, well, “Malaysian”.
“We hardly interfere with the creative process,” said Kamil on the topic of censorship. “But there is a checklist.”
According to this checklist, a filmmaker is given bonus points for including Malaysiana symbols, like a Proton car.
Apparently shots of the Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers are afforded less points these days, to encourage establishing shots in other parts of the city.
Overall, however, it was the seemingly ordinary festival participants who brought “danger” to the party, by providing truthful narratives of everyday Malaysia.
For example, the Cooler Lumpur Migrant Poetry Competition session, which had migrant workers perform poetry recitals, displayed some amazing writing talent from the hardworking people you might have passed by at construction sites and in busy restaurants.
The organisers also did a great job in not letting the competition slip into condescending mawkishness – the poets were judged purely on their literary merit.
It was heartbreaking to note that three poets could not attend in person as they were either not allowed leave on Sundays or were too afraid to venture out – despite being legal workers, they claim they are more prone to harassment from enforcement officers on weekends.
The other enjoyable set of readings came from the budding writers of the UnRepresented KL programme. The writers had spent 10 weeks, from March to May, exploring the idea of being “unrepresented” in the city through writing. With narratives of defiant sex workers refusing to be seen as charity cases to light-hearted anecdotes of being international students caught kissing on campus, the stories read presented insightful and unvarnished thoughts of the Malaysian reality.
And this might be the most dangerous idea of all.