A Fine Idea; Now Let’s Make it Work

By Richard Laidlaw

Deepika Shetty, the Singaporean writer, reminded people during this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival that ended last weekend that such events do not have to be big to be beautiful. She’s right. Small but perfectly formed is quite a good business plan. But they do need to be perfectly formed. They need to be relevant. And they need to be what they say they are.

Last weekend the Nobel Prize committee announced Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo as its 2010 Peace Prize laureate. He’s a writer. He’s in jail because of that. The announcement brought forth immediate comment from his global constituency – writers and others who believe in freedom – around the world. Here was a golden opportunity not only to look as if she knew what was going on, but also to spotlight the Ubud festival. Yet we heard nothing from founder director Janet de Neefe.

She may have known all about it and decided Liu Xiaobo didn’t rate as a topic of interest to the 133 writers and performers enticed to Ubud for this year’s festival, or the crowd of followers they attracted. But that’s unlikely. What’s more likely is that the intensely self-interested focus for which Ubud and its expatriate denizens are famous, and the absence of good advice, robbed De Neefe of an opportunity to look engaged.

This factor is what sets the Ubud festival apart from most others. There’s nine – nearly 10 – months of deathly silence every year, then two months of frantic activity culminating in six days that may be intensely relevant to the participants but which effectively has nil impact anywhere other than in ephemeral publicity.

And it’s all done on other people’s money. The festival generates no income that is publicly visible. It provides headline opportunities – some of them unfortunate – but nothing much beyond that, except for the participants. The constant sales pitch, such as it is, seems to be that we had a good festival, be sure to come along to the next one.

De Neefe’s initiative in setting up the Ubud Writers Festival (now writers’ and readers’) in the wake of the 2002 bombings was commendable. There’s no doubt that Bali is a magic place, and Ubud a jewel within it. There was no doubt at the time – the first festival was held in 2004 – that the island needed all the help it could get to win back an international reputation as a great place to be.

The intensely self-interested focus for which Ubud and its expatriate denizens are famous robbed De Neefe of an opportunity to look engaged.

The entrepreneurial spirit De Neefe showed then, however, needed professional guidance, if the festival was ever to become anything more than just another little gathering in an exotic place where participants could examine their navels. This is the missing link, six years on.

This year’s event attracted – at long last – a commercial sponsor with significant weight. The three-year Citibank naming rights deal promises greater international clout and could offer promotional opportunities that extend beyond social media – however well that side of things is done, and this year local operators Water&Stone did it very well indeed – and create a year-round effort.

De Neefe is an Australian – albeit one who has listed Bali as her principal address for 20 years – and it is also in Australia’s interest to build and cement enduring links with Indonesia. It was therefore easy enough, allowing for a few tears along the way, to prise substantial support out of the government in Canberra. Australians were the largest component by far of this year’s talent. They have been ever since the festival started.

The festival’s aim is to bring the literary – and increasingly the performing – world to Ubud. That’s great. But it’s a question of balance and pointed focus. Bali is in Indonesia. Indonesia is in ASEAN. ASEAN is in Asia. Ubud, however, is chiefly on the world’s scope as a place where western whickerers and wanderers end up if they desire to find themselves. It is in that sense an enclave. It is this image that needs to be countered – the argument is true for Bali as a whole, incidentally – lest we end up being (as some allege is already the case) a sort of South Ibiza.

That there are particular difficulties working with Indonesian bureaucracy – state as well as academic – and multiple political structures is a given. Those who live there know that very well. Those who have difficulty with this should be living somewhere else.

An Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is a grand idea. It is an idea that everyone should nurture. But it is an idea – a concept – that also requires input. It’s not clear that De Neefe is really interested in input that is not directly related to her own. It is disadvantageous to be one’s own adviser. Advice that is compliant – or worse, complaisant or complacent – is no advice at all.

This year’s festival was undoubtedly a success, on the self-measurement test. But to grow in scope as well as in size, it needs better help. Perhaps that Citibank connection can provide it.   

Richard Laidlaw is an assiduous reader. He lives at Ungasan.

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