Malaysian businessman Joe Sidek has been the driving force behind Penang’s annual George Town Festival since 2010. Here he talks to Southeast Asia Globe about the importance of bringing the arts to the community and stepping up to the festival challenge
Interview by Daniel Besant
How did you become involved in the George Town Festival?
The state of Penang wanted to celebrate George Town’s 2008 Unesco World Heritage listing with an annual celebration. They received various proposals that didn’t quite fit what they had in mind. I had a background in events and putting on shows, so I stepped up and was given six weeks to organise the inaugural festival. Since then, I haven’t looked back.
Who is your target audience?
Really, it is a festival for the people of Penang, which is why we’ve made the tickets so affordable. Tickets start at just MYR20 ($6.27) for international performances. We want to make it easy for the local community, especially the younger generation, to be exposed to the arts and to see it as something interesting and not intimidating. Of course, it’s also become one of Penang’s major tourist attractions, so we hope to attract audiences from all over the region and beyond.
In your opinion, what was the highlight of this year’s festival?
We had the chance to put on an extra community night of our opening show, “Circus Circus”, due to a sponsor coming in to buy a large section of the tickets for the community. It meant we could offer free tickets to some of the charities and causes close to our hearts, including local orphanages, as well as the local community. That was a very special night, as it truly felt like it was for the people of the Penang.
How do you think the promise of support from Malaysia’s minister of tourism will help the festival?
It’s a great endorsement, but more important than the tourism effects is the political statement it makes. Penang is an opposition state, and while the Penang state government has been one of our biggest supporters, we have been severely disadvantaged when it comes to trying to form federal partnerships. This support from the tourism minister shows that the arts can be a powerful tool to overcome divides and borders.
What’s your vision for next year’s George Town Festival?
It’s always tempting to start thinking of the next year as soon as the first event of this year is through, but I have to contain myself. There are lots of projects that have cropped up through the year, and I’d really like to develop the festival’s identity as a connected festival with links to other regional fairs such as Spotlight Hong Kong.
This year, you were conspicuous in your traditional attire. Why did you choose to wear these clothes?
I wanted to show that I am proud of my heritage, proud to be Malay, but also proud to be the director of an international festival. Every year, we host a programme called “Sacred Music”, which is an evening of Christian church music. Elsewhere in Malaysia, a Muslim country, this would probably raise a few eyebrows, so I am proud to be working towards establishing a truly inclusive festival here in George Town. In the end, it’s not about being Malay, Chinese, Indian or international. This festival is about becoming unified while celebrating our unique identities.
How do you find the energy to attend all of the scheduled events?
The festival month is when I feel most alive. Really, it’s the energy of all the performers, my staff and the excitement of the visitors that acts as my adrenaline. That’s not to say that I don’t dream about the end of the month arriving though.
How do you manage your time mixing your business responsibilities with those of running the festival?
It’s an important balancing act I’ve had to learn. I had to take on my family business when my father passed away, and it was a steep learning curve. I had no idea about the ins and outs of the business. But the ability to cope with unexpected developments is all part of running a festival too. You can never predict the challenges that are going to crop up at the last minute. It’s all about dreaming big, but taking responsibility for turning these dreams into reality.
What tips or advice would you give a visitor who is planning to attend the George Town Festival?
With so much to discover, make sure you’ve got our festival map and a list of food-stops you want to make. Penang is famous for its cuisine, and you’ll definitely need the energy.
“Out on the town” – Ever since becoming a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, Penang’s George Town has been celebrating with an annual festival. Southeast Asia Globe headed out for the opening weekend to discover a rich and varied array of art, culture and life and left wanting more