Ada Apa Dengan Apathy?

The Taman Medan community arts project by Five Arts Centre recently won the IMG Most Outstanding Educational or Community Development Project Award at the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards 2003. Fahmi Fadzil, who was involved in the ‘Ada Apa?’ arts project, also by Five Arts Centre, compares the two different projects.

Mark Teh once said that the current generation of young Malaysians is among the most disempowered in our brief existence as a nation. I found it difficult to disagree with him; just think back to the heady days of the university student movement of the 60’s and 70’s in Malaysia and you know what he means – youths today appear to be in a quagmire of social apathy. “So, what can be done about this?”

Around Hari Merdeka last year, I was part of a caravan of 12 Malaysian and British facilitators stomping across the country in an ambitious 6-city multi-arts tour that was our attempt to answer the above question. The ‘Ada Apa?’ (‘What’s With?’) arts project was produced by Five Arts Centre and sponsored by the British Council. Over a period of two weeks, our enthusiastic dozen felt like rock stars (if you’ve got your own tour bus, I’m sure you’d feel the same) and worked with about 360 young participants on issues of identity and society, and other important-sounding issues. They were taught to explore their issues through the use of the arts in a safe, democratic space. The workshops in every city – Kuala Terengganu, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Melaka, and Johor Bharu – ended with private performances of the stories generated with the participants.

While I was a newbie to this, some of the ‘Ada Apa?’ facilitators had cut their teeth on another community arts project which took place earlier that year. Unlike the nationwide ‘Ada Apa?’, this one was very location specific, for it was held at the very area that had witnessed a racial riot that left six people dead in 2001.

So, every weekend for six months (October 2002 to April 2003), while many KL folks were resting or out shopping, six young facilitators went into Kampung Pinang, one of the villages in infamous Taman Medan, and workshopped with 25 teenagers. The teenagers were invited to discuss whatever they wanted to talk about. This project culminated with the public showing – in the very same sepak takraw court where most of their Saturday afternoons were spent – of four short films written, directed, acted and shot by the youngsters themselves (the facilitators helped with the editing).

To begin at the very beginning, however, the Taman Medan and ‘Ada Apa?’ projects found their genesis in the ‘Connecting Futures’ programme attended by Mark Teh. According to its website (, this British Council-sponsored programme was started in response to the September 11 tragedy, and was designed to “build mutual understanding, learning and respect between young people with different cultural backgrounds… ”

There, Mark met youths from the world over, primarily from Muslim countries. I remember him relating to me the kind of problems the Palestinian group had to go through to get to the UK (one of them was shot by an Israeli Defense Force soldier and was subsequently hospitalised; and there were the long hours of waiting to get through roadblocks; etc.).

The participants were urged to start projects that will benefit young people back home. The industrious Mark immediately proposed two ideas he had been harbouring: one was a traveling workshop programme that was to tour Malaysia, while the other was a protracted community arts project in Taman Medan.

Both programmes were designed to expose young people to a more holistic appreciation of the arts – usage of creativity in solving problems, and usage of the arts as a communication tool. For instance, the participants of Taman Medan learned the basics of filmmaking, were taught skills to use a camera to make short films and were given the freedom to tell their stories whichever way they wanted. One of the films made depicted the problem of gossip among kampung folks when a girl runs away, without ever showing the girl herself. Another told the story of teenage pregnancy, while the last two were on truancy. Some of the issues spotlighted by the films were highly taboo (pregnancy out of wedlock and the idea of ‘abang/ adik angkat’, or foster siblings, a term commonly used to bypass the ‘Western’ stigma of having a boy/girlfriend), and are otherwise never publicly discussed. This project caused the community to acknowledge the existence of these issues, and allowed them, hopefully, to seek some form of resolution.

In ‘ADA APA?’ shadow puppetry was introduced, both as an art form and also as a stimulus to coax stories and issues from the participants. Not only that, but other forms of performance were also introduced, namely scroll boxes (imagine a TV set with images that scroll down, not unlike the Indonesian wayang beber), conventional play-acting, rap, mime, and dikir barat. Many of the facilitators were refreshed to see that some of the performances juxtaposed shadows made with traditional puppets against those made using the human body itself.

In the Taman Medan project, the facilitators had started off on the wrong foot by entering the community via a political party. When the community did not respond because of political affiliations or other reasons, participants were recruited through the ketua kampung. This proved unfortunate too for he wished to secure the participation of Malay children only. While attempts were later made by the facilitators to recruit children from the Chinese and Indian communities, the ethnically exclusivist approach of the ketua kampung had set in motion that dreadful spell of homogeneity. Only 25 out of the 40 participants remained by the end of the program. While reasons for dropping out were varied, none of the Chinese or Indian participants remained. Although this was not fatal to the programme itself, it highlighted the need for other strategies of outreach.

What was highly beneficial in the ‘ADA APA?’ project was the construction of a network of cooperation between Five Arts Centre and various grass-roots level organisations, which included the Rotary Clubs of several cities, a Family Planning Association, and even a school. These organisations were largely responsible for registering the participants for the programme, and in most cities this tactic proved successful. What would be interesting is to see how these relationships grow from here on, since Five Arts Centre is somewhat notorious for keeping in touch with people they have worked with before. A notable case, as Kathy Rowland had rightly observed in her own article on the Taman Medan project (‘Sowing Seeds’), is Imri Nasution (also involved in ‘ADA APA?’), who joined Five Art Centre’s TeaterMuda (Phase 3) arts programme at the tender age of 15, or 16, or… well, he was very tender then. Anyway, Imri met Mark at the 2002 Chow Kit Fest, the stars aligned, and he’s now back in the familial folds of Five Arts after a decade in the ‘wilderness.’

About the facilitators, both projects were fortunate to experience a level of cross-pollination of practitioners; half of those involved in the Taman Medan project were channelled into the ‘ADA APA?’ project. Due to this, the returning facilitators started to develop a ‘natural’ methodology (one’s own way of working, as opposed to using another group’s methods) that is guided by experience and balanced by rigorous self-reflection. In Seremban we came across many stories of divorces and unhappy families; ironically the session was held in a Family Planning Association’s office. While some facilitators were shocked to see so much angst in this town, we quickly understood that when dealing with stories from the heart, the facilitator must learn to be somewhat of a counselor, too, and give space and time for the participant to ‘let it all out.’

So far, the group has only done two projects. Given time and more practice, the treasure trove of games and exercises will grow, organically, into something completely local. Like rubber trees.

Credit must be given to Janet Pillai, a member of Five Arts Centre and long-time youth and children’s theatre exponent. She exposed the group of practitioners to quintessential elements of pedagogy as well as the Thailand-based MAYA’s Experiential Activities Planner (EAP) which advocates the use of the arts in one’s learning experience.

Ms Pillai is also responsible for the Penang-based ‘Anak-anak Kota’ multi-arts youth and heritage programme. From conversations with Marion D’Cruz of Five Arts Centre, I came to understand that the ‘Anak-anak Kota’ project took Penang children on a heritage ‘expedition.’ The children were exposed to the distinctly local sights, sounds, smells, and were taught how these trades were carried out. For example, one of the traders they met was the ice tingkap seller (I forget where the shop is, but it’s basically an ice cream joint that operates through a window on the side of a building). From him, the children were taught how the ice cream was made, where the guy came from (not from any regular hole-in-the-wall place, pun intended), and the history of the trade itself. The children also performed street theatre in front of the guy as part of the programme, or at least I was made to believe they did. Anyway, the information they collected was later compiled into richly informative little brochures, which are now being distributed by the local tourism industry as the authoritative brochures on Penang.

After all is said and done, the kids had lots of fun because it was not like being in school. For ‘ADA APA?’ I remember reading responses like, “Wah, facilitators so cute!” and “This was so fun! When are you coming again?” And there was this one girl in Melaka who really touched my heart when she told me that those two days really made her think more about what she really wants to do after she leaves school, and that she wants to be more active in helping the community. I just hope she doesn’t decide to become a politician, an arts practitioner, or an occasional writer for online magazines. Just kidding. Regardless, more work that involves young people both in participation and in practice needs to be done. It goes without saying that all this suggests there’s something very wonky about the existing Malaysian education system.

Nobody puts it better than that swashbuckler Hisham Rais when he wrote, “Sejarah telah menunjukkan bahawa anak-anak muda yang berani mendobrak zamannya. Hanya anak-anak muda yang mencipta sejarah. Dunia hari ini akhirnya adalah kepunyaan anak muda. Lakukan lah apa sahaja. Dan lakukan sekarang.”

First Published: 18.03.2004 on Kakiseni

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