In a mall below the ground, right next to LEGOLAND, a man is rapping (with a flow clearly inspired by Drake). People are selling trinkets, artwork and comic books. Empty retail spaces have been co-opted for some legal graffiti fun.

This was the setting for the Iskarnival Kreatif 2016 festival in Johor, Malaysia held over the weekend.

Across the street, in some seriously fancy housing estates, the Johor tech community descended on the CIMB Leadership Academy for a Startup Weekend full of hackathons, discussions, workshops and community building.

“What we want to see is to develop a sustainable community down here. We don’t want to create a hu-hah show where we have a lot of people coming, but after the big bang there is nothing. I think down here we want things to be more sustainable,” said Feng Lim, the Co-founder and CEO of CultureGuru, and organiser of the event.

The weekend was an opportunity for Johor to showcase its tech community and bring together those invested in a fledgling ecosystem.

Besides Lim, the event was curated by Laís de Oliveira, the Founder of 8spaces.

The turnout was small, but those who participated were invested, enthusiastic and willing to grab a beer or some bak kut teh with complete strangers.

Lim explained to e27 the idea behind the Startup Weekend, and connecting it to the Kreatif festival was to educate the average Johor resident about the tech industry, and help them get to know about the development on the Medini side of the city.

“Because we have been building the community for the last two or three years, we have very good startups around, but our community is actually very small. There are lots of people interested in doing startups, but they don’t have a way to look at it, where to learn things,” he explained.

Lim hoped the event would help people understand if they want to be part of the startup industry, there is a support network.

Can Johor take off?

The clear advantage for any potential startup ecosystem in Johor is the city’s unique geography.

Just a hop skip and a leap away from Singapore, entrepreneurs have easy and reasonable access to one of the wealthiest cities in Asia.

To the north, the Kuala Lumpur metro area has a large population (the Klang Valley has 7.2 million people) and startups can take advantage of the market without crossing national borders.

It was a hot topic amongst the participants, who either discussed — or were curious about — how the scene interacts with Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Lim explained that Johor entrepreneurs is a bit different from their peers in big cities who normally work to get grants or investors before starting a company.

“The funny thing about the [Johor Bahru] community is they actually do not like to be in the limelight. So you see a lot of good entrepreneurs but it is very rare that they appear in the news…People down here have a [lot of] skin in the game and make sure the business can drive revenue at the early stage. And when they get in the limelight, they are already at the top,” said Lim.

At this point, the scene in Johor feels more like a community than an ecosystem — it has a long way to go before the larger Asian startup industry takes note — but if an entrepreneurial person in Jahor wants to start a company, he/she would find a support network.

The event

The event included a speaking circuit, workshops and a weekend-long hackathon.

What stood out to me was — because most of the talks drew a small crowd of 30-40 people — the speakers could be direct, honest and self-critical about certain parts of their industry.

The keynote speakers were Tak Lo, Partner at, who spoke on artificial intelligence; Aaron Gill, Grab’s Regional Launcher who spoke on the future of cities; and Boy Hartmann, CEO and Founder of Y Group who dived into futurism.

As with every Startup Weekend, the workshops, speaking and networking portions orbit a hackathon.

The winner of last weekend’s event was a five-person team (plus a baby) who worked on a company called EaterLink.

The idea is to incentivise people to produce less food waste by creating a marketplace for home-made meals. Every person understands that often during a meal at home, the chef (mom, dad, hubbie or wife) cooks way too much food and it usually gets thrown away after everyone pretends they will have leftovers for two days.

EaterLink wants to allow you to sell extra portions of the meal to people in the area — and not necessarily for money, it could be a self-contained point system.

The team won learning credits from General Assembly, cloud credit from Amazon Web Services and 6-week incubation/acceleration opportunities from Imagineering Institute and Nest.

After the event, everyone went home a little bit fatter from all the good food.