M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival

Poverty through eyes of youth

Young actors behind the works in the theatre festival learnt a lot from delving into the topic

The Block Party (above), by Beyond Social Services’ The Community Theatre, is inspired by the experiences of some of its youth actors, who are mainly from low-income households. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

There are many misconceptions about poverty in Singapore: that people are poor because they are lazy or that there is no such thing as poverty in the island state.

A youth theatre festival at the Esplanade now seeks to counter these beliefs by delving into the issue of poverty with a slate of shows borne from over a year of research.

The M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival, which returns from today to Aug 4 after taking a break last year, features a double-bill of plays by students from Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) and Anderson Secondary School, and a full-length play by Beyond Social Services' The Community Theatre.

During a 11/2-year period, students from ACS (Barker Road) and Anderson conducted face-to-face interviews with people from low-income families, spoke to social workers and took part in workshops.

They also did extra reading, for instance, by leafing through Singapore writer Teo You Yenn's book, This Is What Inequality Looks Like.

For many of them, the experience was eye-opening - many students from Anderson, for example, had not even realised there were rental flats near their campus in Ang Mo Kio.

Secondary 3 student Janine Ng Kah Min confesses she started out with "a lot of misconceptions" about poverty.

"A lot of us felt that way because of the mindsets our parents passed down to us. For example that people in poverty are in that situation because they deserve it."


  • WHERE: Various venues at Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Today to Aug 4, various timings

    ADMISSION: From $15. The community dialogue is free

    INFO: Tickets available from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Go to peerpleasure.org/ tickets.html for more information

But preparing for the production gave her a different perspective.

After interviewing a family living in a rental flat in Whampoa, she says she learnt that "life gives you a lot of challenges and it's so unpredictable" with many things that are out of one's control, such as the death of a family member.

The 15-year-old is part of the cast of Wonderland, a play about a girl who comes from a lower-income family and feels like an outcast in school. "I hope when audiences see the play, they realise that it's so much more complicated and that it's hard to give a definite reason why people are poor."

Festival producer Ngiam Su-Lin, who hopes the festival has made the young actors more socially conscious, adds: "Problems can be systemic, they can be inter-generational or it could just be bad luck - from illness to accidents to having a child with special needs and having a lot of healthcare needs. All these issues could happen in one family.

"We are all complicit. It's our problem and we are all part of that system and structure. We all determine how society evolves, it's not just the Government who decides.

"We have lost the interconnections among us as a society. It's very silo-ed and fractured. I hope the festival can also shift that in showing how we are all interconnected and you cannot just lay blame on any one sector in society."

Aside from the three plays by young people, the festival also features a participatory theatre piece by theatre veterans, a directing masterclass by Nine Years Theatre's artistic director Nelson Chia, an experiential workshop on poverty led by social workers from Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre and a community dialogue with the festival groups.

"You really can't create a piece of work about poverty by pulling down the blinds and shutting yourself in the rehearsal room," says the festival's artistic director Jean Ng.

"And because this is a youth festival, there is an added urgency for me, to push young people out of their apathy, inertia and ignorance."

Meanwhile, The Community Theatre is staging The Block Party, a play inspired by the experiences of some of their actors, many of whom are from lower-income households.

During the research process, the actors took part in workshops and showed one another around their neighbourhoods.

Actor Muhammad Asnur B. Asman, 19, who lives in a rental flat in Lengkok Bahru, says in one scene, his character picks up treasure for his daughter from a public rubbish bin. This struck a chord with him because his late father used to work as a town council cleaner.

"He would go around the green rubbish bins looking for cigarettes," Asnur recalls.

He adds: "I hope our play will help to solve the miscommunication and help the audience understand what poverty is like in Singapore. A lot of people say the families don't work hard, don't put in effort. It's not just that."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2019, with the headline Poverty through eyes of youth. Subscribe