The refurbished shoplot called 22, Hale Street, is a picturesque combination of old and new in Ipoh. The premises, an upcoming heritage gallery and art space, lent a charm to the second edition of the Causeway Exchange (CEX) Slam, a poetry slam competition held between talented wordsmiths representing Singapore and Malaysia.

It’s a competition that pits five talented poets from both nations, battling it out through words and sounds, to take home the poetic bragging rights for the year. Malaysia did just that last year when they beat Singapore and took home the share of the spoils by winning both the solo and group categories.

It was supposed to be a competition and definitely we were reminded each time a string of judges shouted out the scores for every poet after their performance. Yet, what struck me about that event was how the spirit of rivalry took a backseat for the spirit of camaraderie to lead the way.

If this is due to the CEX festival’s aims, which is to foster collaborations between artists from both countries, then bravo to the organisers for making it happen. But I think there is more to it than that, although, I haven’t attended enough Spoken Word events to say for sure.

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Kevin Wong, a poet from the Singapore team, delivered a memorable piece about a battered woman.

Could we attribute the consoling ambiance to the moderator being, Jamal Raslan, a seasoned spoken word who advocates performance poetry to be intimate sessions? Or is it a general quality true of most Spoken Word contests?

Either way, what I witnessed on Saturday was a safe stage. Personally, putting the words “safe” and “stage” together feels like an oxymoron because as someone with acute stage fright, there’s really no such thing.

But it happened before my eyes that day. Someone forgot their lines and instead of a prolonged awkward silence and blankly judging states, the audience started snapping their fingers to encourage the nervous performer. Then they patiently waited until she picked up her train of thought.

This happened not once but several times.

I had attended only one spoken word event previously and I did notice the same welcoming, supportive and extremely forgiving crowd but I truly didn’t expect this of a Slam contest. Afterall, the word “slam” itself suggests force and I was expecting that kind of battle.

However, despite the overall mellow aura, the poets were no less remarkable in their delivery.

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Lisa Nurmarini from Malaysia was captivating with her heartfelt performance

I loved the fact that a few of the Malaysian poets mixed up their verse with phrases from their mother tongue. The room was filled with people with diverse ethnicity and yet, not a single person appeared to be lost for comprehension. Perhaps everyone was either Malaysian or Singaporean?

It felt uniquely South East Asian and comforting that no one raised an eyebrow to the lahs and mahs and other more complex colloquial expressions. Here we were battling words inherited from our colonial rulers but could it still be regarded as such when it hardly reflected anything English anymore? I believe, if there had been an English person in the room, some of the delivery might have been lost, especially because several of the poets spoke on themes touching on self identity versus social expectations, the kind that is distinctly South East Asian. There was also heavy references in the Malay language, in the form of a folk song and also the Rukun Negara.

Some would say the themes raised that day bordered on sensitivity, especially when the topic was religion or sexuality. Yet, the contents of each poet’s expression, no matter how far removed from the audience member’s personal experience, seemed to reach a soft landing in their ears. It’s a scene I’ve never encountered in other competitions. Usually, at the end of a public speaking or debate competition, people come out divided on different stances, but this was not the result of the Slam that day.

Rashrvin Pillai agrees with me on this. The 15-year-old attended the event as the sole representative from my alma mater, ACS Ipoh and chanced also to play one of the judges.

“This is the first time I’m seeing anything like this and I enjoyed myself immensely. I think my schoolmates would have as well,” he told me after the event.

A key figure in the audience was, Chris Mooney Singh, who helped to set up the first poetry slam in KL back in 2008. In emceeing the event, Jamal dropped that this took place in of all places, a nightclub, at Zouk KL.

Chris, who was at Saturday’s Slam accompanying the Singaporean team of poets told me he was glad to see Spoken Word events in Malaysia taking on more sophistication as it progressed.

Chris is also the programme director for Word Forward, which is the founder and trademark holder of Poetry Slam™ in Singapore. Word Forward started in 2003 and runs as a not-for-profit literary arts company to nurture writers and performers.

At the end of last Saturday’s event, Malaysia took the title of CEX Slam champions 2017, based on the accumulated points of Malaysian poets being slightly more than the Singapore team.

Best poet in the room went to Dhinesha Karthigesu, who gave a stunning performance that received a standing ovation. I say it’s totally warranted since one of his killer lines; “My God is a woman and Karma’s a bitch!” is still stuck in my head. I’m just waiting for the right opportune moment to use it myself!

I leave you with a video of one of Dhinesha’s performance that day to gauge for yourself.

The Causeway Exchange (CEX) Slam festival was organised by the good guys from Global Cultural Alliance, a Singapore-based not-for-profit creative enterprise cum cultural catalyst between arts, culture and businesses andddd the cool people of CausewayEXchange, a joint arts and culture exchange platform between Malaysia and Singapore.