Festival of Ideas 2023: Pulling Back the Curtain

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Anamika Ragu (23A01A)

All photographs by Raffles Photographic Society.

How do you get lychee mocktails, Rafflesians young and old, and provocation to convene under one roof? Three opportune nights, years in the making, somewhere near the heart of RI— Albert Hong Hall.

The Festival of Ideas (FOI) was a huge event that garnered incredible levels of attention, from students, alumni, members of the public, and prominent figures in various industries alike. Sentiments ranged from the festival being “So RI” (inviting all possible connotations of the label) to it being a smashing, and almost revolutionary, success. 

It then begs the question, what went into the creation of such a sensational event?

The Conception

FOI’s conception actually dates a few years back, when Mr Magendiran (Advisor, Special Projects) gathered a group of Rafflesians to brainstorm the execution of RI200 celebrations. 

“Of course, conventionally, you will look at Founder’s Day, a gala dinner, community engagement [and so on]. But one of the things we wanted to really think hard about was the notion of how we can make something interesting in this journey,” stressed Mr Mag. 

The team then began thinking about prevalent issues of the day, eventually narrowing them down to inequality, sustainability, and technology & entrepreneurship. 

Another key organiser of FOI, of whom the event was dubbed the “brainchild”, Mr James Koh, offered some insight on how they decided on the three thematic strands and range of speakers to feature each day. “We thought: what could we do to showcase the kind of thought leadership, the kind of cognitive space that Rafflesians are known to inherit?”

“Part of it therefore was thinking, okay, let’s bring together a range of different voices on very pertinent, relevant issues in Singapore. And we want it to be provocative, we want it to be stimulating.”

Indeed, at FOI’s core was the unique facilitation of interactions— between and amid speakers and participants alike. This was clearly evinced in every little detail, down to the furniture set-up.

The layout of the hall was meant to be “cosy, intimate, like crashing into someone’s living room and hearing all these exciting conversations” (Mr James Koh)

As such, the team aimed to subvert any negative expectations of the event, conceiving three nights of pure intellectual discourse not tended to any one side.

The final front on which FOI was meticulous in its intention was in its lineup of speakers. “We wanted a range of voices,” explained Mr Koh. From making it clear “it’s not going to be like an ivory tower event” by inviting alumni and non-alumni alike, to seeking balanced representation on the fronts of race, gender, and perspectives, the team had a mammoth task facing them.

Not only that, a pendulum-like balance was to be consistently struck between a “cosy living room” and an arena of rational sparring in practice, where panels and fireside chats brought to light speakers’ innovative ideas on future solutions, including that of education in Singapore.

The Cerebral 

“Listening to today’s conversation, we need to find time or to give time to our young people. We are so caught up in so many things; do people pause and sort of wonder, ‘Can I create? Can I do something better? Can I be an extension of good to someone?’”

Mr Magendiran

‘In the larger scheme of things, school doesn’t matter.’ This is a commonplace truism most students are familiar with, but find it hard to believe— likely due to the fact that school happens to coincide with our foundational cognitive experiences. Are we dooming ourselves by making a habit of leading less creative, less meaningful lives in the pursuit of one kind of success during these crucial years?

Regardless of your answer, these were matters critically raised to be accounted for on each night of the festival. Whether we’re afforded enough time to relax, serve the community, create, or learn about the key issues our generation is tasked with handling were questions that crept into audience members’ minds. 

A balance must then be struck. The autonomy for any such change lies in each stakeholder’s hands, to various extents; but it is important to understand the caveats behind each position, as evidenced by Mr Koh’s analysis.

“[Audiences should] know also that you have to be in a certain privilege to be able to say certain things. Ultimately, the festival is not for us to make up your mind,” he explained. “It’s for us to provide a spectrum of ideas and for you to therefore negotiate with them.”

These are just a few of the concerns that struck with audience members during the festival. As cited by PRI Mr Frederick Yeo, we do stand on the cusp of transformation, with systemic changes being brought to school curriculums and the introduction of Gap Day to RI to create spaces that go beyond academia for students. And so, where can this push of perspectives continue to take us?

“[The Festival] pushes a lot of boundaries of our traditional thinking … Of course, we will never be able to agree at all times, but the important thing is to hear people’s views. At the end of the day, nobody monopolises any perspective or can claim that [their perspective] is the best— that is humility in intellectual pursuit.”

Mr Frederick Yeo

The Reception

All in all, the Festival of Ideas was more than warmly received. Like clockwork, at the end of each night, audience members lingered to ask questions to speakers who made an impact, or to rave about the new perspectives they hadn’t considered prior to the event with one another. When asked which parts of FOI were their favourite, answers varied from larger segments to a singular quote audience members memorised simply because it’d struck such a chord with them.

Various moments after the Festival’s end.

Last but not least, the festival was the combined effort of the incredibly dedicated staff involved and the students volunteering each night, staying back until as late as 10pm to usher and waitstaff. 

Student volunteers at FOI.

There are no easy solutions to the issues of inequality, sustainability, and unmitigated innovation, but the festival served as a fitting reminder and a rallying cry that we must continue to push the boundaries of what is possible to get there.

Interested to know more about the Festival of Ideas conducted as part of RI200 celebrations? Look no further— read on to find out!

Festival of Ideas: Thinkers in Society

Festival of Ideas: Leaders in Sustainability

Festival of Ideas: Pioneers in Innovation

461640cookie-checkFestival of Ideas 2023: Pulling Back the Curtain


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