In support of Art & Culture in Iskandar Malaysia

Last year, when I was invited by Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) to be a member of the Award Committee for the Iskandar Malaysia Beyond Boundaries Programme (IMB2P), I responded with a volley of questions.

An applicant meeting the Award Committee to make his
pitch in the Iskandar Malaysia Beyond Boundaries Programme
Firstly, I needed to understand, “What is IMB2P?”

Then I was informed that IRDA has provided a mobility fund to support the Arts & Culture pursuits by artists, practitioners and students who are keen to explore or get involved in a collaborative project with international partner/s in Iskandar Malaysia, within Malaysia or abroad.

The IMB2P is a programme where applications were invited for this IRDA fund or grant which is divided into three categories.

The categories are [A] Exploration and Networking (Up to RM8,000 per application), [B] Collaborative Outbound Project (Up to RM10,000 per application) and [C] Collaborative Inbound Project (Up to RM20,000 per application).

The Award Committee [L to R] Norkamarulazman Nordin,
Amir Shahlan Amiruddin, Ajith Baskaran Dass and
yours truly (in the vacant seat!)
Through the avenue of IMB2P, IRDA aims to bridge the gap between current development towards international standing and local exposure and appreciation of the arts and culture.

IRDA understands the need of artists and cultural professionals who lack the funds to support their projects and activities, and aims to provide them with practical support through IMB2P.

Besides developing Iskandar Malaysia into a thriving, modern metropolis, IRDA also plans to build a sustainable network through an alumni of beneficiaries who may share their knowledge and experience, and create a like-minded talent pool here.

With this understanding in mind, I wanted to know, “What does IMB2P have to offer?”

I wanted to hear more about which category applicants may apply under for their projects. Then I learnt that:

Category [A] Exploration and Networking, are for those who wish to participate in a workshop, conference, festival, biennales, networking sessions, exhibition or practice-led research based in a foreign country.

Category [B] Collaborative Outbound Project, are for collaborative projects with international partner/s based in a foreign country, within Malaysia but not in Iskandar Malaysia.

And category [C] Collaborative Inbound Project, are for collaborative projects with international partner/s based in Iskandar Malaysia.

An applicant making his pitch to the Award Committee
I also learnt that applicants were invited from Malaysians, aged 18 years and above, who are based in Iskandar Malaysia.

They should be artists, practitioners or students who are involved in arts, culture and heritage projects and activities, and must have a clear purpose and proposal related to the specific Category in their applications.

While this may not be an exhaustive list, I learnt that IMB2P supports elements of Arts & Culture such as Visual Arts, Performing Arts, Music, Craft, Literature and Publishing, Museum and Archives, Design, Fashion and Textiles, and Film Broadcasting and Digital Content.

Over a period of approximately three months which started in 2018, applicants were invited to submit their proposals to the IMB2P Secretariat for review.

As complete sets of applications were reviewed, only shortlisted applications would be invited for interviews with the Award Committee.

Members of the Secretariat recorded notes and kept time
of each interview before the Award Committee
I was told that the Award Committee would comprise a minimum of three members from external parties who are experts in Arts & Culture to provide guidance and advice and would give their recommendations on whether the funds should be awarded to the applicants.

The Award Committee clearly had a serious responsibility and as I mulled over this, I felt deeply humbled to be considered for this role.

Not only was it a serious task because the future plans of these applicants depended on my/our recommendations, I also had to commit time and effort to avail myself for the interview sessions with the applicants at a date to be determined later.

From my own book-writing journey, I could identify with the challenges faced by the applicants, particularly in the early stages of their projects.

An applicant listening to my query before replying...
After giving this a great deal of thought, I accepted the role as Award Committee member and became part of the interview process to guide the applicants onward to achieve their artistic goals.

Fast-forward to recent correspondence from IRDA with a date set for Batch One (2018/2019) of the shortlisted applicants to meet the Award Committee.

From this correspondence, I was delighted to discover that my fellow colleagues in the Award Committee included Tan Chai Puan, Johor cultural activist who was recently recognised by the Department of National Heritage with the prestigious Warisan Orang Hidup award.

In the 4th Iskandar Malaysia Social Hero Awards (IMSHA) Tan was also honoured with the award in the Arts & Culture (Individual) category.

Another familiar name in the Award Committee was Ajith Baskaran Dass, the founder and artistic director of Suvarna Dance Academy, himself an internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer in the traditional art of Bharatanatyam.

Just like Tan in the previous year, Ajith was honoured with the award in the Arts & Culture (Individual) category for the 5th Iskandar Malaysia Social Hero Awards in 2018.

An applicant showing off a sample of her craft
I felt a great sense of pleasure to be part of this distinguished panel as these two gentlemen, Tan and Ajith, are also featured under Portraits in my book, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.

The members of the Award Committee was completed by Norkamarulazman Nordin, from IRDA’s Strategic Communications Department and Amir Shahlan Amiruddin, Dean of the Faculty of Cinematic Arts in the Multi-Media University.

On the morning of the interviews of Batch One applications, I met with Amir and Ajith, and learnt that Tan was not joining us that day but would be involved with interviews of Batch Two (2019/2020) applicants.

An itinerary of the day’s interviews, listed with names of the applicants and their proposed projects along with detailed timings, was provided and we were told that Secretariat members would also be present to record notes and to keep time.

Before the interviews started in a grueling day-long schedule (with refreshment breaks in between), Suhaily Abdul Hamid, Senior Vice President of IRDA’s Social Development Department, opened the event with a briefing about IMB2P.

The Secretariat clarified that only the applicants listed should make their presentation to the Committee and they were given a specified amount of time to present their pitch.

When the first bell sounded, it was a warning that the allocated time was almost up and the applicant should then quickly wrap up his presentation.

I was rather amused because the sounding of this bell just reminded me of those days when I was speaking in the school debate…

Then the hard work began.

Each member of the Committee was provided with folders on each application, complete with forms to jot down our comments and/or recommendations in specific columns, even for each individual members in group applications.

While it was hard work to absorb all the info in each presentation, it was interesting to meet with the applicants – some of whom were familiar faces in the local art scene – and to hear their passionate pitch for their proposed projects.

While some applicants were wracked with nerves, some were absolutely confident as they presented their proposals and replied to questions from the Committee.

Some applicants came with a dossier of their work, presented in folders or through a visual presentation, while some showed us physical samples of their products or art and crafts.

Among the applicants who made a strong impression was independent film maker, Rozinor of Rogue Films, who planned to organise an Independent Film Convention here as a platform for local film-makers to network with foreign film-makers.

At the close of the convention, he proposed to present the private screening of his first in the series of Jejak Megat films, which he happily explained, was based on true events that happened in Ulu Tiram.

Another applicant was watercolours artist, Lee Chin Chian, whose hometown is Pontian.

Lee distributed past copies of his special-interest magazine (published in Chinese) with impressive drawings of superheroes and mythical characters, as samples of his work.

He also presented samples of the matching mascots (figurines!) he created of the popular characters featured in the magazines.

His proposal was to produce a bumper edition that will feature the artwork of a collection of local artists and aimed to present this edition at the next Toy Fair and Animated Film Convention.

Lee strongly believed that this would be an opportunity to highlight Iskandar Malaysia and Pinewood Studios Malaysia to the players in the creative art industry.

Incidentally, Lee was also shortlisted for his application to conduct a Sketch Walk themed, Art Journey of Pekan Nanas.

This would involve 10 local artists and 10 foreign artists to sketch live scenes and paint wall murals in Pekan Nanas while experiencing the local culture and heritage.

When the affable Lee turned up again to meet the Committee in the afternoon, he passionately described his proposal and how participants of the Sketch Walk would appreciate the on-location art experience along with the popular local food in this area.

Lee Chin Chian [Standing Left] with the Committee
holding up the pages of his portrait sketches!
At the close of his presentation, Lee gathered up his things to leave but before that, he placed a small 2019 diary-notebook on our desks – one each in front of the Committee members as a token of appreciation.

I was looking in the folders and not aware of what was happening until Amir opened his notebook and uttered an exclamation!

This prompted Ajith to pick up his book and turned its pages.

Their expressions caught my attention and I too, picked up my book to turn its pages and joined them to look in amazement at what Lee had done!

Apparently, when Lee came in for his presentation in the morning, the artist in him made such a keen observation of each member of the Committee that he went back to prepare these notebooks to present to us when we met again in the afternoon.

The cover designs of these notebooks were printed replicas of his watercolours paintings and on a full page inside, Lee had sketched our portraits and presented Ajith, Amir and I with our individual images within the personalized notebooks!

The Committee shared out portrait sketches with Suhaily
From the impressive sketches of Ajith and Amir (that so clearly reflected their images!), Lee certainly had a special skill and talent.

We all agreed that it was a nice gesture on his part and we appreciated it but this had no bearing whatsoever on how we rated his application.

This pleasant interlude was a memorable high point in an otherwise, rather serious and taxing time of conducting the series of interviews, one after another, throughout the day.

After we had interviewed all the applicants in the day’s itinerary, their individual folders were completed by each member of the Committee and returned to the Secretariat.

When Suhaily joined the Committee again to say a few words in closing, we could not resist sharing with her, the lovely portrait sketches that Lee had created of each one of us.

It was indeed a fitting end to an interesting day of interviewing applicants for IMB2P in IRDA.