Cover Story
Food for Thought
Evanna Ramly 
Clockwise from top left: Teoh joins the team this year as partnership lead; Hardesh believes that if the right ideas are applied, the future can be positive; Ho seeks to draw more people from diverse backgrounds to the festival; and Umapagan says the festival caters to the city’s intellectual needs
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Curated by digital media network PopDigital, the multidisciplinary Cooler Lumpur Festival that first began in 2013 was a fortunate turn of events.

“We didn’t originally set out to run a festival, but we were invited by the British Council to pitch to host the Edinburgh World Writer’s Conference and we beat other countries in this region to play host,” recalls Hardesh Singh, founder of PopDigital and executive creative director of the Cooler Lumpur Festival. “That is how the festival came about, and we just kept building it year on year.”

Now in its fifth year, Cooler Lumpur remains one of the very few creative festivals that do not receive any state support – which is by choice. “As such, the festival is run with a very disciplined cost management,” Hardesh reveals. “This also forces us to be innovative in how we get partners on board, and the mix we have is reflective of the values we create. The challenge is in building content partners and working with brands that understand how a festival can be a great content platform rather than just the usual sponsorship placements.”

“We enjoy our independence and would hate if we lost control over our content,” interjects Umapagan Ampikaipakan, literary director of the Cooler Lumpur Festival. “With that in mind, we’ve always found sponsors who share our mission and vision, and have worked closely with them to come up with ways to best give them value for the money they choose to invest in us.”

Hence the literary campaigns, social media competitions, and a wide range of content partnerships that benefit both brands. “These days, it isn’t enough to merely put someone’s name on a poster and ask them for money,” Umapagan smiles. “You need to get creative.”

Ho Ching Yee, executive producer of the Cooler Lumpur Festival, first joined the team as an assistant. “We have lots of fun, and lots of stress!” she shares. “It’s not an easy task putting a team of diverse people together – from the ones running every single thing, to the participants and festival partners – on a very carefully managed budget.”

The biggest challenge for her has yet to be truly resolved. “How do we attract people like me, coming from an extremely corporate background, to come to the festival, or even be interested in it in the first place? This is why our festival caters to all age groups, from kids to retirees, with a diverse range of activities.”

She adds: “If you want to just sit and watch something, we have film screenings. If you want to roll up your sleeves and do something, we have workshops and interactive installations. As I get a better handle on producing the festival, I’m hoping to get a little bit more involved in programming, so I can create something that appeals to a new demographic.”

While the festival began as a literary fest, it has since evolved into one of ideas. “The main takeaway from that first year was that everything – all of the conversations we had, be it about books, music, movies, politics or poetry – was rooted in the ideas contained within,” notes Umapagan. “So it really was a no-brainer for us to expand our purview into what is now Southeast Asia’s first and only festival of ideas. With that, our audience has also grown, especially now that we cater to every possible interest.”

Hardesh concurs. “Ultimately everything comes from an idea first, whether it’s a story, a poem, new technologies, or art. Being an ideas festival allows us to have very meaningful conversations across a wide range of topics that matter to all of us.”

He believes a festival of ideas is more important now than ever for Malaysia because ideas can truly change the world. “As a relatively young country, we need ideas to inspire our way forward. The future can be positive if we apply the right ideas, in government, in business, and at home.”

Umapagan opines: “We are a nation built on an idea that all of these disparate and desperate immigrants could come together, put their own selfish interests aside, find common ground, and coexist. Yes, it is a work in progress. No, we’re not perfect. But it is that idea that constantly needs examining, developing and studying.”

“In many ways, everything we do at Cooler Lumpur channels that notion. What makes for a better society? What makes for a perfect nation? These are the ideas that pervade our discourse at the festival that are absolutely crucial to Malaysia’s future.”

Ho shares this view. “Globally, it’s time for a change – and change comes from ideas. We’re living in an amazing age where technology is advancing at such a speed that I think collectively we are not mentally and emotionally prepared for. We need to start breaking out of our routines and mind-sets, stop fixating on old problems that may no longer be relevant, and start thinking far, far away from the box. This festival is precisely the space for us to talk about anything and everything, and hopefully find new ways of thinking and doing things.”

According to Umapagan, the team always aims for something international. “The idea was to bring in smart people from all over the world and get them to mingle right here in Kuala Lumpur. In all of our aspirations to become a global city, we definitely need to do more to cater to our intellectual wants and needs. That has always been the driving motivation behind running this festival, to fill that gap.”

The theme for 2017, says Hardesh, was found on a notebook. “Appropriately labelled ‘Notes from the Future’ – that set off an idea,” he winks.

This year’s event will see the coming together of bigger experiential elements – food, media, mobility, green technology, and art. “We look at where we can go with the different ideas being developed,” notes Hardesh. “Interestingly, we have a couple of futurists (people who study and make predictions based on current trends) joining us from the US and Germany. There will also be a science fiction writer from Japan, and a game narrative designer from the UK. The festival also plays host to a specially curated art exhibition, The White Mask, which will be displayed alongside a tilt-brush artist from Japan.”

Ho’s personal favourites include the children’s programme, Cooler Junior, and the food fringe festival. “We have Junk Food, an urban makeshift garden growing from compost consisting of food waste from F&B outlets at Publika, as well as a one-night-only dinner session prepared by migrant communities in Malaysia.”

When asked if there were plans to consolidate the festival with acts outside the urban area and the English medium, Hardesh replies that they are working with partners to provide an experience to refugees. “In the past, we have had special programmes within the festival for public university students. Even though our audience is primarily white collar, we have always taken care to ensure that we reach out to a wider audience. Ideas need to be free.”

“We’re always looking to collaborate with other folks out there with good ideas. However, we’re still an incredibly young festival and one that’s still in the process of developing its own identity,” says Umapagan. “As for the medium, while we’ve always had a selection of programmes in Malay, we have yet to expand into Mandarin or Tamil.”

This year, Malaysian actress Lina Teoh joins the team as partnership lead of the Cooler Lumpur Festival. “So far it’s been a great collaborative effort as it’s a small team and everyone works very closely together,” she says. “I like that the process has a certain organic quality to it. Every year seems to be fresh and a reflection of what is actually happening at the time.”

Teoh, who is also executive director of the Malaysian Documentary Association, especially loves what the festival stands for, as there are very few public platforms in Malaysia where people from all walks of life can come together to discuss common topics and share ideas. “It brings together people from such varied backgrounds who may never get the chance to meet otherwise, and serves as a place to connect.”

“We’re constantly being told how divided we are and how we should continue to put people in boxes. At Cooler Lumpur, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is, we are all there for a common goal of wanting to be a part of learning something new and hopefully work towards creating a better society and future for all Malaysians. It is a true reflection of what Malaysia could be if allowed to,” she says


Cooler Lumpur Festival 2017 is happening from Aug 17-20 at Publika. Visit www.coolerlumpur.com/future/ for more information

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 245.