IDEAS: The Rempah festival story

Edward Ong is on a quest to discover and create Malaysia’s best ideas. He is an award-winning Writer and Creative Director and can be found at

When Peter Gan told me about his idea for a festival celebrating nationhood, I thought he had finally lost his marbles.

We met on 10 Aug, the festival was planned for Malaysia Day 16 Sept, slightly over a month away.

“Do you have any sponsors?” I asked. “No, we won’t need sponsors.” Wasn’t quite the answer I was expecting but maybe the man has a plan. “Who’s your target audience?”

“This is something so new and so experimental: We’ll find out on that day.” “Well, do you have any big names as a draw?”

“We’ll find one.”

At this point, any sane person would have stood up, shook hands and hurried out of the room.

Dumbfounded, I stared at Peter, not knowing what to say or do. He looked like he was going to ask me a question.

“So,” he leaned forward, “Are you in?”


“I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I just know why we have to do it,” said Peter, co-founder of One Nation Fits All.

“Rempah is going to bring Malaysians together, and more than that- we’re going to attract, mentor and develop small businesses.”

To be fair, the idea had been swirling in Peter’s head, in one form or the other, for the better part of the decade.

By the time we met in Aug, he had already secured a location (Tamarind Square, Cyberjaya) and a few partners (Balai Seni Negara, BookXcess, Coffex, and Sunway Group).

Tujuan Gemilang provided the location without charge. The remaining companies agreed to set up booths- and provide entertainment- for free.

Even as we spoke, the idea, however malleable, seemed to be taking shape.

Everything was going to be completely voluntary, including services provided by the two-person (freelance) team sitting outside his office.


“With BookXcess as partner, we could potentially bring in 3,000 visitors,” said Peter. “We just need to find something for them to do.”

On the table, beneath his hand, Peter had a list of people he wanted to call, and companies/ brands he’d like to partner with.

In planning the event, Peter and team knew that

1) They didn’t have experience organizing an event of this scale,

2) If they were going to ask performers (Artists, dancers, musicians, singers and so on) to volunteer their services, they would at least have to feed them, and

3) Set up and clean up aside, there would be many teething and unforeseen problems along the way.


I mumbled something about having too much work and excused myself.

We caught up two weeks after Rempah ended.

This time, Peter was less excitable and more sombre. Not that the festival was a failure. By all accounts, it was a huge success with rave reviews from exhibitors and participants.

“How did you pull it off?” I asked. “I made many calls,” said Peter. “Hello and How are you was quickly followed by an apology: Please forgive me- I don’t have any event management experience but I’d like to invite you to take part in a truly Malaysian festival.”

With that opening line, the team attracted a puppeteer, storyteller, stand-up comedian, tattoo artists, music band, dancers, musicians from Malaysia, Nepal and Japan, and more.

There was a creative writing workshop, sword performance, social art experiment, art exhibitions, lots of food, and more.

“When you remove the smoke and mirrors, and don’t try to be something you’re not- there will be people who will join you on your journey,” said Peter.

“In the end, it wasn’t about the event. But what Rempah represented: A Malaysian story, a delectable blend, togetherness.

After all, when you make a Malaysian dish, you don’t use just one rempah.”


Rempah started at 9.16am with a rousing NegaraKu performance by the UPM U3A senior choir and ended at 9.16pm.

There were 4 MCs: One each for Bahasa, Chinese, English and Tamil listeners.

“I think lives were touched,” said Peter. “We had people from all ages and races sitting together, mingling, laughing, sharing precious moments.

“We see this at the mamak and in public transport yes- but not often at events organized outside the city centre.”

“To make sure our performers are fed, I went to each restaurant and food truck- asking if they could feed our performers- without charge. Many readily agreed.”

For the next half hour or so, Peter shared learnings, anecdotes and the rakyat’s feedback of his maiden festival.

There was even a lesson on faith- the team didn’t have sound and stage until 4 days before the event!

But you’ll have to buy him a Teh Tarik for the full story. That is, if he’s not too busy planning for Rempah 2019.

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