Cooler Lumpur : (part of) Day Two

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June 21, 2014 by Wayne.

NEW: Day Three blog entry here!

Dunno what y’all dumbasses been up to this weekend, but Publika has been playing host to one of the dopest Malaysian events so far – Cooler Lumpur. I didn’t attend yesterday’s flurry of journalism workshops since I was preoccupied with Namoo and Caffe Bene, but I managed to drop by for half a day today. And goddamn, gotta congratulate myself for another great decision.

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For those not in the know, Cooler Lumpur is essentially a festival of ideas. It’s like the typical music festival, albeit the gigs are replaced by panel discussions, workshops and all sorts of fun shit. I got to judge SEA Forensics AND participate in Cooler Lumpur this year, so I’m pretty darn happy with myself.

Anyway, some thoughts on what I saw there:

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Half of Publika’s boulevard has been taken over by “The Living City”, which is a sort of crowd-created Lego landscape. Not super interesting, but hey, it’s Lego. I do think, however, that it could have been handled in a slightly better manner.

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But, of course, The Living Lego isn’t the only thing occupying the Boulevard! The creator of Politiko is there to hawk his wares, and Politiko version 2 promises higher quality cards and tweaked gameplay, all for only RM 38. And it’s RM50 if you get the Sarawak+Sabah expansion pack (which supposedly changes the game completely). Give it a shot if you haven’t tried it out yet, you’d be hard pressed to find any card games going for this cheap. Pretty sure perennial favourite Saboteur goes for like RM60. I think.

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SINGING PLANTS. Stroke and fondle the leaves of various plants and they whine out in high pitched ecstasy.

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Pretty cool, huh? Gonna get one poem done tomorrow, since she was closing up when we reached her stall. Sample poem below though:

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Brings to mind The Roving Typist, of course.

They also have a free book stand (can’t remember the exact name of the place). Basically, bookshelves filled with free books. Only catch is each person is entitled to a single book, so no free-hoarding! Got myself a Sartre novel (bottom of the picture):

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They’ve plenty of other great books there too. It’s sort of a policed version of those free book initiatives in Germany and USA. Very cool.

Also, the other two books in the picture were from the Borders booth at White Box. Everything’s 10% off (the standard member discount), but the draw is that it’s an incredibly well curated collection of titles. Everything from Munro to Franzen is there. I can’t stress this enough: this is a genuinely incredible collection of books.

Well then, on to the talks. I only managed to attend 3 and a half of them, but I was still pretty satisfied. Warning: post may become quite lengthy. I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but I do have plenty of thoughts on the topics discussed. Will probably try to dedicate separate thought pieces to each topic in the future.

The talks/confabs are the main draw of Saturday and Sunday – though other workshops, fast talks, book signings and launchings etc run concurrently with some of them. Gloriously hectic festival stuff.

Main problems with the panel discussions (in general):
– 1 hour is way too short! This isn’t TEDx and it most definitely should not be. Would gladly have paid for entry to the talks if they went into much deeper discussion beyond the obvious surface layers
– In terms of subject matter coverage, I was impressed by a few of the talks and disappointed by others that dabbled in trivial frivolity
– More audience interaction would be fantastic (again, time constraints came into play here)

The Modern Malay Tongue

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This was the first panel discussion I attended today, and by far the best. Kudos to the moderator (fairly famous philosopher Ahmad Fuat Rahmat) for keeping the discussion on track and moving it along into interesting areas. And of course the panelists were all brilliant. The legendary Pak Samad Said, incredibly eloquent Uthaya Sankar and yarn-spinner Nadia Khan all espoused their thoughts articulately and (for the most part) pithily.

An interesting point of contention was the use of language (in general) primarily as a means of communication and expression. I believe Nadia Khan argued that content should take precedence over its form, and I was slightly disappointed that no one brought philosophy of language into the discussion at this point. Conceptual schemes, Wittgenstein, the influence of word processors on shape and form? But I’m nitpicking like a prick here, obviously. A more reasonable reason (lol) to be disappointed was the fact that intellectual history wasn’t discussed – not even in passing – and by this I mean the fundamental assumption that a particular piece of language is no longer seen as the expression of thought (see: Annabel Brett). Rather, the “mainstream” approach is to see language usage as constitutive of thought. Honestly felt that the discussion was going to veer in this direction – the contrast between language encapsulating ideas vs ideas being unable to stand independently of the words that express them.

Also talked about was the fact that language isn’t linked to patriotism…or is it? Tricky term, that (note to self: write about patriotism soon). The consensus ultimately was that it isn’t at all essential to be fluent in Bahasa Malaysia to be considered a “good” Malaysian, but language does form a basis for a sense of belonging. A sense of identity, if you will. Language as part of self-identity is of course a huge area for discussion, and it popped up multiple times throughout the discussion, particularly during the section about the politicization of language.

Kudos again to the moderator for steering the discussion into “touchy” waters – namely, the fuss over not just Allah but multiple other Muslim-exclusive words. I was too engrossed to take down much notes at this point, and I don’t trust myself to faithfully reproduce the fantastic discourse that went on about it, so I’m afraid I’ll have to skim over this bit. Essentially, the panelists talked about the exploitation of the standing of Bahasa Malaysia by politicians despite it being protected by the Constitution.

An underlying theme that was addressed several times was the evolution of Bahasa Malaysia itself as a living language. Growth of a language, after all, happens regardless of the bubbling politics and nationalism that wrap around it. Plenty of great discussion went on around this topic – general consensus was that words may be added to the Kamus Dewan but in time may be phased out of popular usage anyway. Better to not get caught up in the small things (fretting over evolving slang) and focus on the big issues: one of which was the dire dearth of good Bahasa Malaysia content in the first place. An example brought forward by A. Samad Said was that of (pop) astronomy books. Massive, massive field, and yet the only Malay translation that seems to be available is that of A Brief History of Time. Poor old Susskind.

Corollary to that point, but unmentioned during the talk, was the core question IMO: does this problem ultimately stem from a lack of supply or a lack of demand? While the consensus seemed to be that most of the fault lies in the red-tape-back-and-forth between Dewan Bahasa and other agencies, I do wonder if saturating the market with translations would even be sustainable, let alone profitable enough to further expand. To be fair, you’d need a lot more than an hour just to cover the surface of this particular point.

I do believe Nadia Khan also touched ever so briefly on Derrida deconstruction and language mattering less when we each approach a text with our own set of assumptions and experiences etc, so kudos for that.

In summary, great talk. Best one out of those I attended. Also the fewest people in Black Box, mainly attributable to the (kinda) early time slot coupled with the World Cup. GJ England.

Riskiness in Investigative Journalism

By Al Jazeera and PJC! Fairly famous panelists on this one too: Steven Gan, R. Nadeswaran and Chan Tau Chou. The discussion revolved mostly around free press and the quest for truth in Malaysia.

Consensus: The general public may be able to discuss politics more freely than during the Mahathir era, but the government is still as reticent as ever when it comes to freedom of information. Also brought up was the phenomenon of civil servants banding together in a sort of secrecy-protectionism, not unlike the much-discussed “cops don’t squeal” in the States. Forget whistleblowing, simply obtaining information that should be readily available becomes an arduous and sometimes impossible task in Malaysia. The example given was an attempt to obtain information about toll collection that, several months later, still yields no results.

Another key point: good governance cannot come about solely through the efforts of journalists. In the end, citizens must demand accountability of their representatives, and not be mired in apathetic complacency and cat-belling. Armchair activists don’t change the world.

And finally, the overarching idea of the discussion was probably summarized by this popular quote: “change is a matter of degrees”. Or some shit like that la.

An illustration (provided by one of the panelists): is uncovering large-scale problems worth the risk? What if the work isn’t published after all the effort, or if it IS published, slips under the radar, and ultimately leads to zero change?

Well, here’s the thing. Problems tend to remain after you leave/complete the piece. However, journalists would typically have large amounts of further data and evidence that wasn’t involved in the piece, either because of legal reasons (not enough supporting evidence to verify) or because they don’t fit the desired narrative. The frustration, then, comes primarily from the fact that you can’t typically follow a problem to the very end. You get what you can, report the necessary fraction of it, and move on to other exposes. At the end of the day, the main goal is awareness.

Also, it’s impossible to predict which story will eventually bring about change / have the most impact, since typically the effects are accumulative in nature (either through repeated reports or large-scale exposes from various different sources). A point was then raised that social media and the advent of near-instantaneous news sources makes awareness and engagement with key stakeholders much easier. Unfortunately, no one brought up what I thought was a vital counterpoint here: namely, the saturation of social media diluting much of the impact of news – especially “lesser” news that may seem relatively less important to others, despite being equally in need of public attention (if not more so since these are typically the ignored issues such as human trafficking in Malaysia). We’re all very aware of the fast food-like nature of large stories, especially those that get jumped on en masse like fads (think: Kony 2012 etc).

During the Q&A, an interesting point brought up by an audience member was the evolution of delivery channels, namely whether mainstream news on traditional channels had continued relevance. Most of the answers slightly skirted around this issue, instead focusing on the fact that Al Jazeera (and pretty much every other news center) readily embrace Youtube, Twitter etc for real-time updates. Also, interesting digression on Vice: namely, how it readily embraced a great platform for investigative journalism and has a steady, huge base of viewers for every video. On the downside, they occasionally fail to ask the key, glaring questions, and may suffer slightly from the lack of accountability that mainstream news channels face.

Overall, it was an engaging session but not as good as the one before. Still, definitely worth sitting in for.

Oh, and also absent in the discussion was any mention of the purity of journalism itself. Nothing about Murdoch-and-other media empires, political and economic considerations suppressing stories from within (remember the hotly-debated China cover up by a certain massive company?), journalists eschewing certain details in pursuit of a tidier narrative etc. So there’s that. Also-also, what about idiotic readers?


Disruptive economics

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Sorry to not mince words, but I’m not really sorry, this session was very disappointing. Sure, maybe it was enlightening to non-economists (after all, fewer than 10 people in the audience had at least a Bachelor’s in econs), but very little about it was informative and nothing was disruptive. Contention: it’s not disruptive to say that there is a huge inequality in wage distribution and literally go nowhere further than that. At least mention how the wage wedge got driven in and why the disparity continues to propagate and even widen. That’s econs 101 right there.

The closest it came to being “disruptive” was when the panelist summarily dismissed “Anglo-Saxon economics” (a direct quote, referring to mainstream econs) in favour of heterodox Austrian economics with a healthy sprinkling of everyone’s favourite leftist-economics Ha Joon Chang. The “modest” economist who routinely insults his own field with as much arrogant vigor as Taleb, and who claims the ONLY way to industrialize Japan was the one that they went through (it was worth the quarter of a century of automobile protectionism and routine bailouts). Malaysia’s 2020 pipedream doesn’t look so pipey now, eh?

I’m not summarily dismissing HJC though, he has plenty of pertinent points. Re: kicking away the ladder, he’s obviously correct (as in very VERY obviously, to any educated person with access to Wikipedia) when he says that all developed countries got to where they were through a mix of mercantilist policies and beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism. Also true that it’s hypocritical for the countries to then talk through their mouthpieces (WTO etc) and demand that poor countries now follow through with neo-liberal policies. However, note that HJC often follows similarly hypocritical patterns of argument: ‘Bad Samaritans’ in particular provoked plenty of heated debate due to HJC advocating heavy government intervention in cases where they produced results and backtracking into neo-liberal orthodoxy when they don’t.

Obviously, the real point of contention here is just how much protectionism is actually necessary. And prior protectionism has to be understood in the historical context, rather than rushing forward and applying the same set of policies in a completely different political landscape. See Hill&Myatt for some decent (not great) further heterodox arguments on trade and globalization.

Funny too how all these routine dismissals of orthodoxy (Hi Adbusters!) tend to avoid the most obvious, glaring problems. Personally, I feel that the major drawback of mainstream econs is that it divorces economics completely from political agenda (yeah yeah, kinda agreeing with HJC on this one). Political science/philosophy should quite obviously be mandatory in the syllabus. Economics doesn’t exist in a bubble, so how can you assume any theory is based in reality if you, for instance, think the war in Iraq was driven by oil and ignore the neo-con agenda and the industrial military complex?

But I digress. Kinda. I’ll write more on this in the future.

Interesting points brought up in the discussion: the effect that the US dollar has in the worldwide financial system, with its sheer economic scale and dependability causing major reverberations during times of crisis. Inflation as a progressive depreciation of currency values, and not as increasing-value of goods. Yeah, that’s about it, I think.

Also, the point on fiat vs commodity money was horrendous. Maybe don’t get a non-economics expert to talk about economics? I’m sure he’s knowledgeable in his field, but that dude’s part was disruptive for the wrong reasons.

Additionally (and finally), was disappointing that the point about “no man is an island” was brought up and then discussed in such childish terms. Yeah, no shit, someone made your clothes. You can’t “do it all” by yourself. There’s literally no point in discussing that since every adult (and child) can prove it given a couple of seconds of thought. Why not talk about the myth of meritocracy in the States – you lot even mentioned the USA specifically. Or the myth of meritocracy in general, and why no sane person would want such a system.

Ah well.

The last talk I went for was on cultural identity, but I only attended half of it, so I won’t be talking about it.

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