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September 25, 2017 | Edmund Evanson, The Star

WE barely give them a thought when we see them at work or out and about – except, perhaps, to complain that there are too many of them in our towns and cities on holidays. Indeed, Malaysia has developed a reputation for treating migrant workers inhumanely.

What if those workers risking life and limb on construction sites or labouring in jobs we don’t want to do begin declaiming poetry, expressing what it’s like to live their difficult, lonely lives? Would we develop some small feeling of empathy and see them as human beings at least?

That is one aim of the Migrant and Refugee Poetry Competition Malaysia 2017. The event hopes to promote mutual understanding between Malaysians and migrant workers while celebrating their literary talent as well as that of refugees in the country.

“Malaysia has become home to a substantial population of migrant workers in recent times,” says Shivaji Das, one of the competition’s main movers.

“While skilled migrant workers like the expats are able to have an excellent lifestyle in Malaysia, lowskilled migrant workers have been, at times, subject to negative biases from the local populace,” he says in a phone interview.

“Some sections of society also lack empathy for refugees who take great risks to escape from dire situations in their home countries, or, in the case of low-skilled foreign workers, undertake dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs.”

Why poetry in particular, though?

“The migrants and refugees have multiple talents involving singing, dance, theatre, poetry, and short story writing, among others. But poetry works better at giving them powerful, original voices to distinctly express their situations and conditions,” explains Das.

“Also, poetry is quite popular in some of these migrants’ countries, like Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Arab nations.”

Contestants for this competition, now in its third year, are typically made up of Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Indonesians, Myanmarese, and South Asians.

They are given a free hand in choosing the themes of their works, says Das, noting that children usually choose themes related to family, dreams and morality, while adults tend to go with the political situation back home, what it’s like being a migrant worker or refugee, and religion.

Das fondly recalls how the competition was born, when he was working in Singapore in 2014. He came to know of several immigrants who appeared to have a talent for poetry and were involved in music and literature.

“I thought that if the wider community of Singapore knew about this, perhaps they would banish from their minds any preconceptions or mistaken perceptions of immigrants being disease-ridden, filthy or dangerous,” Das recounts.

It was a natural decision to have the competition in Malaysia too, since Das reckons this country has larger migrant worker and refugee communities.

The competition here began in 2015 as part of the Cooler Lumpur Festival with just seven participants, all migrant workers. In 2016, the contest was organised independently and expanded to include Malaysia’s refugee community, catching the attention of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in KL, which began directing Afghan refugees to the event. Participation numbers grew to 40, and this year, Das says proudly, “We have more than 70 contestants”.

That first wave of submissions has been shortlisted to 15 poems in two categories, junior and adult, and their authors will participate in the final on Oct 1 (details below).

“We are thrilled to have gained the support of noted local writers Bernice Chauly, Anindita Dasgupta, Carol Leon, Looi Siew Te ip, and Sharon Bakar, who are the judges for 2017,” adds Das.

To get the word out to the migrant workers and refugees in the country, the event’s organising committee, made up of volunteers led by Eena Khalil and Das himself, heavily promoted the event through social media, formal networks such as the UNHCR, and immigrant and refugee rights NGOs such as Tenaganita and the Malaysian Social Research Institute.

Other partners include the Canadian High Commission, Chauly’s KL Writer’s Workshop, I Dem Vende (a Dutch foundation supporting literature and creative writing for people in need), and Poet X, a podcast of poetry and spoken word performances.

All these organisations have helped to spread the word through their channels; the UNHCR, for instance, gets the committee’s e-posters to schools and shelters working with refugees.

And what happens if these communities do not have access to social media and the Internet?

Das is well aware of the challenges here. “We are not a formal organisation. We can only rely on our handful of volunteers.

“Usually the adult participants have access to the Internet, otherwise we communicate with the NGOs. We get the message to kids through schools. The entries come in via social media or the schools.”

The poems can be in any language, says Das; they are translated into English and the judges will look for the “originality of the voice”, the “whole poetic idea”, and how they express what they write or say.

Yes, there is a danger of works being lost in translation or accidentally misinterpreted, Das acknowledges.

“All poems have their own rhyme and meter and such, which add to the beauty or quality of a poem.

“True, this would all be lost unless the translation is done by a very qualified translator. So there are definitely limitations, but we see it as less of a literary setback and more of a platform to give a voice to our migrants and refugees, and to allow greater appreciation of them as budding poets.”

Malaysians have responded to the event enthusiastically, judging by the packed venue and social media reaction in previous years. Das says the most enthusiastic response has come from the literary and arts communities, which have been very supportive and have actively spread news of the competition through word-of-mouth.

“But we’re still in the process of building up the awareness here, unlike in Singapore where we are pretty well known and where the national news annually covers the event.”

Several past winners there have gone on to publish collections and have also been featured in documentaries. As a tangible outcome for this year’s Malaysian event, Das says the organisers intend to publish the shortlisted entries on the event website together with short biographies of the poets.

“In addition, we are definitely thinking of publishing a physical anthology of these poems,” he adds. “The migrant workers and refugees deserve to have their works available in mainstream bookstores for the public to enjoy.

“In the long term, we believe that this event will be a small albeit significant step in addressing negative biases against refugees and lowskilled migrant workers in Malaysia, and perhaps even create a voice for better living and working conditions for them,” Das says.

He also believes the competition gives these people confidence and empowerment to get better treatment for themselves, adding that, “The competition also opens them up to the kindness and generosity of our partners through donations and the like.

“For the audience, it’s a very emotional and humbling experience. The competition makes them aware of the troubling things these migrant workers and refugees sometimes go through. Hopefully, the audience can see these people in a new light,” says Das.

So why should Malaysians attend this event?

“I can think of a few reasons why. First, Malaysia is a big recipient of refugees. The event will give Malaysians the chance to hear a different aspect of the migrants’ lives.

“Second, migration has been a pertinent issue in recent times, such as with the Rohingyas (fleeing communal violence in Myanmar). This civilised forum gives Malaysians further understanding of this migration issue.

“And third, this is also supposed to be a celebration of the diversity of arts and culture, where Malaysians, being so multiculturally diverse to begin with, can come together to appreciate and enjoy what other cultures have to offer.”

The Migrant And Refugee Poetry Competition Malaysia 2017 takes place at Aud 7.1 (Level 7), ELM Business School, HELP University (No. 15, Jalan Sri Semantan 1, Off Jalan Semantan, Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur) on Oct 1 from 11am onwards. Admission is free. More details at mymigrantpoetry.com.

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