Performing the Arts to Excel in Life

loading Last year's Find Your Light performance.

Soonufat Supramaniam.

The last time I chatted with Soonufat Supramaniam, or Soon, was in 2014. He was preparing for a (dark but candid) performing arts piece for George Town Festival, titled Nine Deaths One Life, which explored death and celebrated its inevitability.

Now he’s moved on to something that couldn’t be any more different: Soon is a Teach for Malaysia alumnus and is currently an English teacher at SMK Lubok Buntar, Kedah. He is in the middle of producing a play on bullying – written, devised and performed by his students in rural Kedah.“We feel that bullying has increased in Malaysia over the past five years and the education system doesn’t pay much attention to this issue in an open way,” Soon says. Singing to the Lions will be staged at George Town Festival this August.

It is not, however, the students’ first foray into the performing arts: last year, they successfully pulled off a musical, Find Your Light, also showcased at George Town Festival. “We created a musical based on Teach for India’s The Maya Musical. The point of the programme was to showcase that we can use performing arts education in so many ways – my students went from being unable to speak in English to putting on a full-length musical.”

Nur Aishah Abdullah, 14, also from SMK Lubok Buntar, has been with the programme two years in a row and finds it a wholesome experience: “It really helps build our confidence and improves our communication skills. This is useful for us – we can use what we have learned and apply it in classrooms; we learn more about values and can focus on using them actively in our daily lives.”

Students participating at the workshop.

It is a great platform to show that if students are given the chance, they can achieve something excellent. “Opportunities like this allow them to expand their horizons – they walk away so confident that they are able to talk about their visions, what they want to achieve and how they have achieved the objectives of the programme. The journey is not just about the outcome; the process is equally important,” says Soon.

This year, he is working with 30 students from five different rural schools, collaborating with teachers from other schools as well. The project is supported by George Town Festival, Think City, Teach for Malaysia Alumni Board, Sastra Education Development and the Ministry of Education.

Learning from Each Other

It is indeed an incredible undertaking, but not one without difficulties: “A lot of my students face really serious challenges in terms of their family background and socio-economic status – for example, some have to take care of their siblings during rehearsal sessions. Then, there are parents who are very supportive, and there are those who really need convincing – I think it’s the same case in the city.

Nur Aishah Abdullah.

“But joining the programme, for me and for some of the students, is a transformational journey – they are exposed to this new opportunity to perform, flex their creative muscles and create community-based projects. They have never done that in their lives, and it’s a great chance for them.

“I’m also currently the only non-Muslim teacher in the school – we don’t have a lot of non-Muslims because it’s a rural area and we want to drive the perception that a teacher from a completely different background can be willing to invest to rebuild a better Malaysia through the work that we do. We don’t differentiate people through skin colour or religion.”

For Nur Aishah, one of the challenges is facing the different perceptions and opinions that society has. “Some of the teachers and students don’t really support our programme because of the creative performing arts aspect that we bring. They are also not ready to accept new ideas in their learning. My solution for that is to just have faith in myself and the team – hard work will determine how far you can go, and when you believe in your team, people and society will believe in you.”

The programme also aims to curb social ills among teens. “In my rural area, the students are involved in Mat Rempit and racing activities, or just have a generally detached mindset. We want to push the mindset that you can vigorously participate in something that is beneficial to you,” Soon says.

Holistic Approach

Singing to the Lions is a six-month programme split in three two-month segments: the first two months are focused on team building and building up the students’ creative writing skills through writing poetry.

The next two months are spent on leadership training – the students have to come up with a project to improve their community outcome. “This year we worked on increasing awareness of bullying in schools. What is lacking in these students is not just literacy, but leadership ability and the ability to inspire others through their words and to engage in an effective manner. These are what we address during this duration,” says Soon.

The final two months are focused on the full-length theatrical production. “The students write their own script and create their own poems. The poems are constantly performed and presented by the students – they train in it. It’s a very holistic education approach that uses performing arts education to instil the values that we need.

“Last year we based our musical idea on Teach for India, but this year we really experimented with everything on our own.

We analysed bullying cases in Malaysia over the past five years, and the students had to come up with scenes and stories related to their own lives about bullying in their homes and schools.”

The trend of publicly name-shaming bullies, especially on social media, sometimes leaves lives destroyed. It’s a moral dilemma: to seek revenge on the bully – and end up being bullies ourselves – or to forgive. That is, Soon says, the tagline of the project: “Do we want to forgive the people who are bullies to us, or do we want to continue to put the blame onto other people?” he muses.

“After George Town Festival, we are hoping to bring this show to other schools in Malaysia to increase awareness on bullying. The students can then conduct workshops to students of the schools we perform at – it’s a project lifespan beyond the production itself.

(Seated, right) Nur Aishah Abdullah also performed in Find Your Light last year.

“We want to prove that even students from rural areas can do this. Seeing the students go from not being able to speak English to leading a full camp, all the while facing a lot of difficulties – we see them cry and we see them grow – that has been my biggest inspiration,” Soon says.

“From the programme, we believe that even students from rural areas deserve to get quality education,” says Nur Aishah. “It has really changed my perception on performing arts education – I’ve learned more about the creative industry and the importance of research and using our creative thinking. It also transforms the normal way of learning into a very artistic process.”

Instilling Arts Education

Soon’s own journey has been one of self-exploration and trying to investigate the relationship between performing arts and education. “One of my hopes for the future is to have performing arts education in all our schools. After Nine Deaths One Life, I felt that the education part was really, really important. I wanted to explore that with the students through my work with Teach for Malaysia.

“I’m setting up my own performing arts learning academy in Nibong Tebal – it’s called Leadspire. Starting next year, I’m going to focus fully on that. It’s going to be a space to showcase successful educational outcomes through performing arts, where people and teachers can come to my centre to train and learn from my methods.”

Nibong Tebal might be terra incognita for some, but it was an obvious choice for Soon. “In George Town, it feels like the demography is the same, or the people we encounter are very similar, and people are very outcome-driven. Through the relationships I’ve built with my students, I truly believe that rural school students deserve that spot to shine. My academy will want to sponsor 30% of students from rural areas or students who cannot afford the schooling, and 30% for gifted students. I want diversity in my programmes – I think we learn a lot from people we are not familiar with.”

Singing to the Lions will run from August 23-25 at penangpac. For tickets, visit, or call Soonufat Supramaniam at +6017 2800 614 for more information.

Julia "Bubba" Tan is deputy editor of Penang Monthly and head of the Publication and Publicity Unit at Penang Institute. She is still working on her zombie apocalypse novel.

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