KUALA LUMPUR, May 17 – Working abroad takes a lot of grit and guts as one is leaving behind loved ones and familiar surroundings. All the more so if we are not working abroad as professionals but as unskilled labour on temporary work passes.
Such is the challenge facing the migrant workers who come to Malaysia, going through many hurdles to get a job to send money home or to seek a better life. There will always be fear, uncertainties and stigma towards foreigners.
So it is heartening that, as part of Cooler Lumpur Festival’s line-up this year, a Migrant Worker Poetry Competition is being held to provide a platform for unskilled foreign workers to open up creatively about the trials and tribulations in their lives.
The organiser of the competition, Khairun Nisah Kamaruzaman, plans to reach out to migrant workers in Malaysia through multiple channels via affiliate organisations. She adds, “I am personally distributing flyers to the target segments and also approaching employers to distribute to their employers.”
Khairun Nisah is also working closely with NGO partners. “For example, I am working with Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, the Regional Coordinator at Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility (CARAM Asia). This helps us to reach deeper into the community to explain to them the potential positive outcome this competition will have to their life here.”
As the migrant workers are allowed to write in their mother tongue, besides English and Malay, translation becomes a critical issue. Khairun Nisah says, “We have approached a number of literary figures here in Malaysia as well as globally who are well versed in various languages. Poetry is about emotion and experience which sometimes can only be explained using the mother tongue. In essence, we hope through this competition it will create a window for the migrant workers and Malaysians to interact and understand each other.”
The head judge for the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition is Bernice Chauly, a Malaysian writer, poet and educator. She is the author of five books, including the memoir Growing Up With Ghosts which won in the Readers’ Choice Awards 2012 in the Non-Fiction Category and Onkalo, her third collection of poems.
Besides Bernice, other judges include Dr Carol Elizabeth, associate professor in the Department of English at University Malaya; Anindita Dasgupta, associate dean at Taylor’s University’s American Degree Programme (Bengali Language); and Loh Siew Teip, an English lecturer at University Malaya.
According to Chauly, the judges will be looking for theme, figures of speech, use of sound, metrics and language in the poems submitted. She says, “The delivery of the poem is also important. The poem does not necessarily have to be ‘performed’ but it should be delivered with some measure of confidence and articulation.”
Ultimately the winning poem, for Chauly, should be honest. “It should move us, like any piece of art. It should resonate in the ordinary, making it extraordinary.”
The Cooler Lumpur Festival’s take on the migrant worker poetry competition is based on a similar event in Singapore (www.singaporeworkerpoetry.com) last year. Khairun Nisah explains, “The Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in Singapore was an attempt to celebrate the passion for literature among migrant workers in Singapore while also providing exposure about this unique aspect of migrant workers’ lives to a wider audience in Singapore.”
According to Shivaji Das, the organiser of the Singaporean Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, the event was spurred by Banglar Kantha, a local Bengali newspaper. Shivaji says, “Banglar Kantha had been facilitating weekly poetry slams among Bengali migrant workers for a few years and we worked with them to drive participation. These workers also spread the word among other migrant workers through social media and word of mouth.”
Some may wonder why migrant workers would invest the precious free time they have to write poetry, especially given their oftentimes challenging working and living conditions. Shivaji explains, “Singapore, Philippines, Bangladesh and China are some of the few countries where poetry is still more popular than prose. In Singapore, we have been having full house for all the migrant poetry events conducted since the poetry contest. The prizes don’t matter at all. The migrant workers are eager to exploit this platform to showcase their talent; just like it is for any budding poet or writer.”
Singaporean poets Alfian Sa’at and Zhou Decheng translated the winning poems to Malay and Chinese as a small gift to the poets. Perhaps the same can be replicated here by Malaysian poets. Chauly says, “This is the first time we’re doing this, so we need to first gauge the kind of response we're going to get from the various communities. If this becomes a yearly event, then we will have to look at more concerted ways in working directly with the community.”
Khairun Nisah adds, “We have already received entries from Indonesian and Bangladeshi workers for the Malaysian competition and hopefully we will get from other nationalities as well. Since this is the first time we are doing in Malaysia, we don’t expect a high number of entries. But this will be a start: literature from migrant workers is emerging as distinct voices in China and Singapore, and this can happen here too.”
Perhaps after listening to the poetry of these migrant workers, we as Malaysians will no longer see them as mere cogs in our nation’s economic engine. Perhaps we will understand the universality of human emotions. If nothing else, the Migrant Poetry Competition will be a gentle nudge for everyone to be more compassionate and appreciative of the part our foreign friends play in our community.
Cooler Lumpur Festival: Migrant Worker Poetry Competition
Finals: June 14
1st Place – RM300
2nd Place – RM200
3rd Place – RM100
Winners will also receive book vouchers and notebooks courtesy of Borders