These were not the easiest stories to tell, but these were stories that needed to be told, of some of the most marginalised children among us.
When the children themselves told and presented their stories, in the theatre production 7 Voices 2.0, using drama, dance and song, the result was pretty powerful.
The 24 children, aged eight to 18, are all “homeschooled” at Yayasan Chow Kit – homeschooled because they are barred from attending government schools. Some are refugee children, some are “stateless” (or in their words, unregistered), some also abused; all are marginalised. They live among us, but are almost anonymous, shut out from society. If they figured in some statistic, they would probably end up as forgotten statistics.
Despite, or perhaps even because of, their lack of formal education, the storytelling was artful, capturing seven typical stories of these children – the “seven voices” – in an impressive production that was moving, entertaining and surprisingly funny at times.
Their performances last month in Kuala Lumpur and then in Penang, as part of the annual George Town Festival, wowed audiences enough to leave some in tears.
It was testament to the raw talent of these children, who lack many opportunities that their peers have. That begged the question about what we lose by forcing them out to the margins of society, where survival is hard and crime may be all too easy.
Hartini Zainudin, a child advocate and founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, says that after the children performed in a show last year, it was evident how much raw talent they had, so she decided to try to get them to go onto a bigger stage.
“I wanted them to go to the George Town Festival. I had that in mind,” she says, adding that she wanted people to see “what children do” when placed in a very difficult situation.
She put a snippet of their video online, tagging friends in the local performing arts industry.
Some of the best names in the industry stepped in to help. Among them were Ida Nerina Hussain and Zahim Albakri, who worked on production with Dramalab; Maveriq Studios which did the sound and songwriting; and renowned local set designer Raja Malek. More than 15 professionals artists showed up as mentors for the children.
“Everyone put in effort because they believed this was a worthy cause,” says Amina Jindani, who helped complete the script created by the children. “This really tugged their hearts.” Art, she says, can bring people to that “heart level” to become “heartists”.
She says that she found the children’s knowledge and critical thinking to be higher than the average child their age. When she discussed the script with the children, they pointed out their discomfort with the words “migrants” and “stateless”; no doubt because these words are so loaded.
She feels that the children have much to offer society. “It’s time somebody sort out their problems!”
Unravelling the stories of these children and putting them together could not have been easy. There was the girl treated badly by her family, the ugly “monster face” boy burnt in an accident, the broken-hearted beauty whose status stands in the way of marriage, the lonely boy being abused.
Farha, who works “like a slave” for her family doing household chores, tells us: “I am a Malaysian. I was born here. This is my home. But they say I am not recognised as Malaysian … I belong … nowhere.”
She fantasises a Wonderwoman, who will resolve her problems.
There were moments that made one think. Members of the audience were questioned before the show. I was approached by a young man in a straw hat, who asked for proof of identity. I didn’t have the documents they wanted, but I assumed this mere formality would be quickly resolved. Then someone gave an order for detention. And I had to leave my friend and was taken elsewhere. Although this was part of the show, it brought home the message about rights and documentation.
Another missing right that stood out was the right to education. In other countries, stateless children can at least attend school; indeed, some of the boys rescued after having been trapped in the Thai caves recently are stateless. Given that education is a stepping stone to success, that’s a critical right for a child.
Ironically, 7 Voices 2.0 contrasts sharply with the current box office blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, which depicts the dripping wealth and razzle-dazzle lifestyle of the super-rich in Singapore.
That juxtaposition – of obscene inherited wealth against those who, because of the bad luck of their birth, or the unfortunate lack of birth documentation, cannot live their lives fully – is what’s really crazy to me.